Every human is precious with a special quality, and there are quite many of them at specialist schools. It is just a matter of being able to see that potential within every person, and be appreciative of
When I was requested to complete one of my practical teaching experiences at a specialist school,1 I was worried. At the time, I was enrolled at a university to become a teacher, expecting to teach only at mainstream schools. The fear of unintentionally hurting the feelings of handicapped people in general was a big concern for me.
I prepared myself for the difficult task ahead. I was certain that this experience was going to be quite different to what I had previously encountered in regular schools, but what I experienced from the first day was beyond my imagination. I was surrounded with little children who could not see, hear, talk or walk. Normally, lunch time would mean kids running around and jumping with joy. It wasn’t like that here. Instead, there were a lot of students on wheelchairs, some walking slowly from one part of the room to another, some just sitting quietly, and some crawling on the floor. As I was watching them, I noticed a little boy approach. He crawled next to me and then patted the floor. I interpreted this as him asking me to sit next to him, so I kneeled down and said “Hello.” He reached over and gave the toy he was playing with to me and then crawled away slowly. For a brief moment I held the toy in my hands looking around confused. I did not know what to do.
Mike2 was one of the four students in my class. He was visionally impaired. He could not walk either hence had to use a wheelchair. What was so lovely about Mike was his responsiveness; he would respond to everything, even to a question directed at someone else or to a conversation other people were having. Mike was one of the triplets; according to my mentor “he was the unlucky (!) one.”
Sam was another student also with limited vision. Some days he would surprise us by recognizing the person who walked in through the door; however, most of the time, he could not see objects that stood right in front of him, often tripping over them. Walking was also a difficult task for him; his teachers were teaching him how to use a cane. He was a popular boy at school. He would talk to everyone and most importantly, he would never forget them. His parents were considering enrolling him into a different specialist school due to his exceptional memory and fast learning skills.
Shane was the third student who could not speak. He was also using a wheelchair. Teachers were working vigorously to teach him how to use a machine that would assist him with his speech and also how to operate an automatic wheelchair.
Lana was the last student of the class who had difficulties with walking. In order to walk she needed support or had to use a walking stool. She displayed signs of timidity next to strangers, yet her friendliness towards the three boys in her class was remarkable. She would constantly talk to them and attempted to walk towards them. She was very responsive to some of our questions, but not to everything. If you insisted on a response, she would place her head on the table and start to ignore you.
Eating was an issue for both Sam and Shane; they had to be given some kind of a special formula instead of regular food. The formula was made up of a milky substance and it satisfied their hunger. It provided them with all the necessary minerals and vitamins that they could not receive from regular diet. Although teacher-aids would come at certain times to give the students food, it was not to satisfy their hunger; rather, it was to give them the opportunity to experience different tastes.
Everything in this school was new to me, so I was extremely cautious with everything I had to learn. Teachers and staff seemed to be very nice and talkative to the children. Initially I could hardly even talk to the students. If they had a question, I would reply with a smile. With each passing day, I grew confident. Before long, I was like their regular teachers who constantly talked and laughed with them. I began to assist my mentor by moving students around with wheelchairs.
The friendship and the relationship students had with one another were genuine, pure and innocent. They were just like other children; thinking about toys, playing games, and more importantly, cherished the love they received from family and friends. They had wants, needs, fears, likes and dislikes just like you and me. The importance of being able to “see the person, not the disability” meant a lot to me.
At this school each student had a machine called the “Big Mac.” The teacher (my mentor) would record information about students’ day at school and parents were also expected to record issues relevant to home. Every day, these Big Macs would travel to and from home with the children. The teacher and parents would listen to them. Shane had to use a more advanced machine called “FL4SH” to help him with his speech. He had to press a button with his head to indicate what he wanted to say. Every day Shane’s mother recorded news and jokes on this machine. During my entire time there, she recorded a message almost every day. My mentor would describe Shane’s mother as the best parent she had ever seen. It was at this school, I realized the sacrifices both parents were required to give and how much they should all be applauded for it.
Normally, it took students a long time to learn my name. I believe it is due to the difficulty of its pronunciation. However, at this school, the time it took for the students to learn my name was quite shorter than any other schools I went for placements. Mike was the first to pronounce my name... He would repeat my name so many times that it would be impossible for those nearby not to memorize it. I tried desperately to reply to all of his calls, but it was an impossible task.
Sam was a Sesame Street fan like any other child; his favorite toys were a vacuum and a car that had the pictures of Elmo and the Cookie Monster on them. He carried these toys wherever he went. He would hug, kiss and talk to them. One day, he began to say things like, “Rukiye the vacuum is sad” or “the car is crying!” I asked him, “Why Sam?” He replied, “Because, they can’t talk.” I smiled and suggested, “Why don’t you teach them how to talk, Sam?” I encouraged him to continue talking and to tell them “don’t be sad, don’t cry, be happy.” He never forgot this conversation. He began to repeat the words “don’t cry, be happy” to his toys, whenever he was next to me. I just loved the way he taught the vacuum how to talk. He would say “don’t cry vacuum, you can talk now” then he would press the “on”’ button, to which the vacuum would respond by saying words like “Hello.”
Sam’s birthday was another memory I would never forget. It was his ninth birthday. The following day, my mentor asked Sam to talk about his birthday to his classmates. He told everyone that he and his brother were sharing the same party due to having birthdates that were not too far apart. He continued talking about blowing candles and everyone clapping. He concluded by saying “Then I went into my room.” When my mentor asked follow-up questions like, “did you stay in your room after that?” and “didn’t you enjoy the party Sam?” rather than answering the question, Sam continued to describe the cake, candles and the singing of the “happy birthday” song. I was saddened by the story of Sam’s birthday party. I tried to contemplate how it must feel to not be allowed to attend your own birthday celebration. My mentor assumed that it was to prevent Sam from screaming loudly as he always did when he became over excited.
One day, I witnessed Sam’s unique emotional state with my own eyes. He was crying, constantly stomping from one place to another as he violently smashed and threw toys around. Even his favorite toys were amongst the victims. His sickness triggered this lovely boy to go through such a drastic emotional transformation.
On another occasion as we were waiting for the other students to arrive, Lana asked me to bring her a book. She imitated her teacher and pretended to read the book to Sam and me. She repeated the words “you can walk, he said; I can walk, she said” on every page. I wondered why she concentrated on these particular words. Was it because of the difficulty she experienced while walking? Perhaps, in her own way, she was expressing her desire to walk.
Observing these lovely children helped me realize how little we are thankful for what we have. We have so much, yet often we fail to display our gratitude. We often compare ourselves to those who are more fortunate, rather than thinking about those who have much less. If we are disappointed about not having the latest shoes, shouldn’t we remember Shane, Mike or Lana, who could not walk? If we complain about not having the best eye color, shouldn’t Sam or Mike be remembered, who could not see? If we cannot be bothered to talk with our family at dinner, shouldn’t we remember Shane? Because no matter how much he wanted to say a simple sentence like “I love you,” he was not able to.
It was my last day at this specialist school; a place I initially had doubts about attending. I bought each student a toy, and showed them how it lit up when shaken. That day, moments before I left the class, my four students chanted, “Rukiye…Rukiye… Rukiye!” They had made up a song with my name. As I pushed Mike’s wheelchair towards his bus, he was still shaking the toy madly as he shouted with joy, “Rukiye, Rukiye look, I’m lighting it, I’m lighting it!” I wondered if he really saw the lights. I was extremely sad to leave them, but I had completed the requirements of my placement. I can never forget these lovely students. Their smiling faces, especially Mike’s shy giggles and Lana’s loud laughter are still echoing in my ears.
About a month had passed when I went back to the school for a short visit. I was curious as to whether the students would still remember me. It was heart-breaking not seeing Lana and Shane there because they were away that day. Sam and Mike were having their snacks; the usual, cheese balls for Sam and sandwiches for Mike. Mike did not say my name which he repeated so many times before. Instead, he smiled and giggled as I spoke to him. This was enough to cheer me up; it seemed as though he recognized my voice. My mentor asked, “Sam who is this?” To which he responded “Rukiye” with a huge smile. I spoke with Sam for a while and then said a last “goodbye” to both, as their teacher-aid took them outside for recess. During our short conversation, Sam did not forget to update me on the mood of his car: “Rukiye, car is crying... don’t cry car, be happy!” Eventually, the students may forget me. But one thing is for certain, I will never forget them...
- In the Australian school system, institutions that provide education to disabled students are known as “Specialist Schools.”
- Names of students have deliberately been changed for privacy reasons.