Friday, September 7, 2012

I’ve Got a Story!

In presenting our Spread the Word to End the “r” Word presentation to 5th through 8th graders, I share a lot of factual information most students haven’t heard before from anyone.  As students experience a paradigm shift from ignorance (lacking factual knowledge) to a place of greater awareness, their compassion deepens as well.  As a result, the students freely and honestly share their stories during the Q& A time following the presentation.  And what heart-warming, yet heart-wrenching stories they are!

During Q & A, the flood gates of their mind open!   More stories are shared than questions asked as students bust with the need to share what they know and people they know and have met with disabilities.  Dots connecting, these students feel compelled to impart their newfound understanding:  that someone they know has this or that, or someone they once saw did this or did that.  This sudden “need to share and tell stories” demonstrates two important outcomes of this presentation.  First, they share as if to reconcile that somewhere along the way they met someone with a disability, didn’t think much of them, and are now replacing their initial reaction with their newfound understanding.  Second, I consider their shares as “bursts” of greater awareness: they understanding what they have seen in others, but didn't realize about them.  This new awareness activates their compassion that now runs a little deeper than before, as they see beyond the physicality and mannerisms of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  

One 7th grader came up after a presentation to tell me her brother has autism, asking if I knew him.  She continued to tell me how moved she was by my presentation, adding I made her almost cry twice!  Concerned, I asked why.  She explained her younger brother was taken from their family, and she doesn't ever get to see him.  I didn’t ask about the details around the situation, but her sadness around missing her brother was evident.  She felt disconnected from her sibling, and as a result, a loss.

Another 5th grade student shared in class that his mother did drugs when she was pregnant with him.  That was it; that’s all he wanted to say.  I thanked him for his share and told him how glad I was that he had his physical ability to do all that he can do despite that fact.  I sensed he was feeling gratitude, or maybe just lucky but didn’t know how else to express it.

Another 7th grader asked me if his brother lived on our campus.  I explained I couldn’t really answer his question because I was so new at this point, I really didn’t know!  I have learned the person asking the question usually already knows the answer, so I sometimes ask in response, “I don't know.  Does he?”   In this case, the young man smiled knowingly and said “yes”.  Then I asked him if he visits his brother, to which he replied “no.” He further explained the individual is his half-brother and that he's not seen him in a long time.  He told me his name and asked me to say “hi” for him.  My heart ached as this student walked away, wondering why any parent, biological, step- or otherwise, would deprive a child of knowing his sibling.

One student shared in her prize winning essay the story of how she and a group of friends were sitting together at lunch when a couple of older kids walked by calling their siblings the “r” word.  She describes in her essay the look on her friend’s face when she heard it, explaining this friend has a sibling with a disability.  This high school essay winner spoke from the heart when she wrote her essay.

Not unlike the way our society underestimates the potential, abilities, and capabilities of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we adults tend to underestimate children’s emotional and intellectual capability to understand life and all that it is.  Sometimes, we lean towards sheltering them from the realities of the world in an effort to shield or protect them.   Kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for; and if we helped them understand people living lives with cerebral palsy, cognitive challenges and autism are not abnormal or “wrong,” but rather simply present unique challenges, perhaps less insensitivity might exist.  I explain to students that we each are different, unique in our own way:  some may be more athletic while others are better at math, while others are creative and like to draw or write.  Yet, despite this uniqueness, we are really ALL the same:  we want to belong; we want to be a part of something; we want to be loved, accepted, and treated well.  Kids get that but I believe we adults tend to forget.

If we can take the time ourselves to understand things we don’t understand about other people through inquiry, experience and research, rather than making quick judgments and decisions at face value, based on public opinion or historically inaccurate information, perhaps we’d know greater compassion, respect and harmony in our lives, and in the world.  And then if we all would take the time to educate our children about these values verses “protect” them from “difficult” subjects (an adult’s excuse to not deal with it him or herself?), then maybe we’d see young people having and showing more respect and compassion for all people – elderly, parents, strangers, people in authority, individuals with disabilities, even each other.

Yes, these kids can and do get it, sometimes better than we adults do!

In the Next Blog Entry: Going Once, Twice, SOLD! - Periodically during the auction, bidding becomes exclusive for WFC peeps who loved the thrill of the competition!  Bidding starts at a dollar, and several times, their bids reached close to $100!

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