Former AJC colleague Jan Gehorsam is now a teacher on the Georgia coast; she has been a language arts teacher at Brunswick High School and various colleges for more than 20 years. She sent me this essay about an e-mail she received this week from a fellow teacher at Brunswick High about a luncheon for students with extraordinary special needs.
I thought it was an appropriate piece to share this Thanksgiving weekend:
By Jan Gehorsam
A media specialist treated us this week at Brunswick High with an e-mailed photo of several special ed kids chowing down at their Thanksgiving feast. Although they are usually taught in a self-contained classroom, we often see them making their shaky, nearly tipsy, passage from the main school building to the gym. One of the students is sometimes held by a waistband grabbed by a teacher from behind. (Maybe he is very unstable, or likely to lash out at someone; I have never known why he wears that… ) These are the severely disabled kids: Some grunt, some are silent, at least in public, and some respond when I say hello, but if they do, their “hellos” are too loud or soft, and often somehow mispronounced. One says hello as if he’s swallowed a lot of air and is forcing it out again with a gasping, “Hello!” It is a little unnerving to hear. But he likes to exchange greetings as he passes by, and I like to think he recognizes me, although I’m never certain …
In the picture, that same skinny student is seated with five companions at the center of the banquet. Each student is tucking into heaping plates of turkey, stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and cranberry. Ms. Ussery, the county’s special ed teacher of the year, stands by the table with the other teachers, who are probably alert for choking. The note accompanying the photo says, “Thanks to these teachers who made this Thanksgiving very special,” and I think about all the cooking and shopping intended for these kids alone.
To make the festive “tablecloths,” someone has taped serviceable orange paper across card tables, and above are construction paper turkeys, possibly the work of these same students. The tablecloths will soon get balled up and tossed into the trash because food gets spilled, and the students need to be cleaned up, along with all the pans and platters. All that cooking and cleaning will be repeated in the next several days for these teachers’ own families. But the teachers take on the extra work in the classroom so these children will know, as they gobble up dessert, that they are worth the trouble. As they get their faces wiped, these kids get that all-important message, even if they can’t hear it or say thank you.
Our school serves nearly all the disabled teenagers in the county, sometimes until their early 20s. Of all our students, they probably get the most hands-on care, but many of our customers present challenges that we must also meet. Some are troubled learners, some have to help paying the bills, others move back and forth between two or three homes, a few left their moms and dads in other states; a few seem to have it made. We love them all, no matter what. Whatever their shapes, sizes, colors, religions, cultures, or problems, we teach them all. And that’s a great reason why I’ve stayed at Brunswick High.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog