Guest essay: Thanksgiving snapshot captures why I teach

brownart0629 (Medium)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

7 comments Add your comment

Love teachers

November 26th, 2011
8:29 pm

That is lovely. Thanks for sharing it, Maureen. Many, Many thanks to these teachers!

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

November 27th, 2011
12:38 am

Why good teachers teach!

Good teachers will identify with this.

Others will continue to bitch about too-little money, too much work, having a parking slot too far from the front door of the school, a “bad hair” day, problems with a f***-boy/-girl, getting up early, staying out too late, parents who don’t care about their kids but who work two and three jobs to feed, shelter and clothe them et al.


November 27th, 2011
4:42 am

What a wonderful tribute to all the teachers at that school.

Tad Jackson

November 27th, 2011
7:57 am


Fifty kids are sitting quietly in their chairs at the place they’ll come back to after they go get their food. Standing around the great room behind them are the teachers and a few parents who came in to help get everything set up and the food served and the whole thing cleaned up later.

The principal of the middle school asked each kid to tell everyone what they were thankful for and then the next kid would do it until everyone was finished. Even the parents and the teachers would say something. Then we could eat.

Standing next to me was Marie’s dad and her mother was on my right. When the time to speak got to Marie, she said in a good loud voice that she was thankful for everything in her life.
Before Marie, most kids said they were thankful for their video games.

Next to me, I heard Marie’s father make a soft, moaning noise in his chest. It’s the sound you make to yourself that comes naturally—when you’re overcome with deep sweet emotion for your child.

Good Mother

November 27th, 2011
8:02 am

Very lovely indeed. Inspiring. Would love to hear more.


November 27th, 2011
11:06 am

Lovely story–but “customers”? Students and customers are not the same at all.

Teacher Reader

November 27th, 2011
3:44 pm

@ LuLu Parents and students are thought of as customers in DeKalb and as a teacher I often heard about customer service. Which really meant to make parents happy and do whatever it takes to keep them out of the office.