Saturday, November 9, 2013

How I Think Love Could Fix the American Public School System

There are a few things I feel that all people should experience in life.
Everyone should be told at least once that they look beautiful when they first wake up in the morning.
Wings from Buffalo, NY.
To laugh so hard that you have a moment of clarity where you think, Yes, this is what I live for.
Seasonal-scented candles. Apple Pumpkin. Frosted Mistletoe. Cherry Blossom. Ocean Breeze.

And I believe that everyone should have to at least observe for a few hours at a school for disabled children.

I attend a Jesuit college and if you had asked me during high school if I was going to go to a religious school - much less a Catholic one - the answer would have been a resounding are you stupid? As it was, I fell in love with the campus and the writing program and stepped into the collegiate life with the resolve that I would turn a blind eye toward campus ministry. But to my surprise, the Jesuits do not try to force religion down your throat. Going to mass isn't required - in fact, I've only gone a handful of times in three years. The only thing these kind-souled people ask is that you try to give back to the community at some point in your life. Maybe even during your academic career. So we have this thing called service learning where we, the students, go out into the community: to schools, to shelters, to hospitals, sometimes we just rake leaves or shovel snow for senior citizens. It isn't required to graduate but sometimes you stumble upon a class that makes it mandatory.

I fell into one of those classes without knowing it: an English course during my first semester of sophomore year. Eight hours, I think, is the time we had to fulfill. For this particular class, we would be working with a local school for physically and mentally disabled children. Let's say I panicked a little bit. Shocker, isn't it? Me, the person who used to freak out if I had to order the pizza. Me, the girl who half the time doesn't have the nerve to ask a store employee for help.
There's a reason I ruled out being a teacher years ago.
But I liked the professor and the course and I had friends to go with so I sucked it up and went.

Those eight hours changed my life.

It sounds dramatic, I know. But it was like only seeing in black and white for the first twenty years of my life and then all of a sudden someone gave me these really cool glasses that allowed me to see color. The children I worked with the most were young, around eight years old, and they were absolutely precious. I came home every week with new treasures: a sweet boy sent me home with a drawing made especially for me, a quiet girl would sit beside me and color for a half hour and then present me with the pages with a shy smile. I grew up babysitting the neighborhood children; I know kids, I like kids. But there was something about the kids at this school that was just so pure and innocent. I began to see what the teachers and the aides and the other staff at the school were seeing: beautiful children with so much to offer this world. I left that school ten times the person I was when I walked in.

Fast forward to junior year where I'm sitting in a Biomedical Ethics class surrounded by over-the-top-smart Pre-Med and Psychology majors. I'm only taking it as a requirement but these kids, this is what they live for. The syllabus says that we can either write four papers that are a million pages long or we can do twelve hours of service learning. A testimony to how much service learning had changed me last year is that I, queen of paper writing, chose the service learning. And to my delight, I could do it at the same exact school where I volunteered last year.
This time I work with a group of slightly older children who are pretty high-functioning. They can communicate and verbalize and generally don't need someone hanging over their shoulder every minute. The neat thing about volunteering at the same place a second time and through a different class, is that I'm starting to pick up on things I missed last year. And there's something I want to say.
These teachers love these children. They bring them hand-me-down clothes and shoes if the kids can't afford them. They are soft and encouraging when the children need a little extra attention but they are the ultimate authority figure if a child gets out of line. They teach them how to ask the right questions and brush their teeth and make eye contact and how to tie their shoes. They teach them all these things and more, many times over and over and over again until the child grasps the concept. The teachers smile and laugh and are continuously delighted when one of the kids tells a joke or gets a question right.
The affection is what astonishes me.
So let's ask a question: when did public schools for non-disabled children become so cold? Where were my teachers who cared if did well on a project or if I made eye contact during a question? You might say, But Marie, you aren't disabled in any way. Why do you need extra attention?
You're right. I didn't need someone to teach me how to brush my teeth or tie my shoes. But I sure could have used someone that I felt comfortable talking to instead of letting me think I was a waste of their time. Nerd alert: I liked school. I liked to learn. But I can count on one hand the number of teachers I've had that have treated me with dignity and respect and some sort of type of appreciation and every single one of them has gotten a long thank you note for changing my life.
When did extra attention became synonymous with any type of attention? Teachers at the schools where I grew up couldn't touch me, couldn't pat me on the back for a job well done. I witnessed a teacher kick a classmate's desk repeatedly until he woke up and then apologized that she would have shaken him awake but she didn't want to get into trouble.
Really? Did we have to go that far, America?
It's time to get back to what really matters when it comes to education: the children. The desire to turn out members of this country with the knowledge we gave them everything we had. Let's make it not about the money, the contracts, the unions. Let's make it about empathy instead, about doing the right thing. Maybe we can learn something from the special education teachers, who clearly aren't doing it for themselves or for the money or for the government.
It's amazing and overwhelming each time I step into that school. I'm not asking teachers around the country to become saints and start coddling students, but I am asking them to step up their game just a little bit. Let the students know that they matter, let them lean on you when life becomes staggering in the way it often does for young people. I think a lot you will be surprised at the result. I was when I witnessed it.

My youth blinds me maybe, but I'll wear these blinkers forever if it means never losing sight of what I've learned this past year.

1 comment:

  1. Your mom is one of those teachers...the kind that teaches with love and kindness...a teacher who cares...and sees the good in all of her students. Just wanted you to know!