Friday, December 3, 2010

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

One of my favorite places in the world is the classroom across the hall from me. This room full of wonderful children and teachers is affectionately known throughout our school as 'Mr. David's class.' Each morning, as I pass by their door on my way to pick up my second grade reading group, I hear music.

Today, I heard the sound of that music and stopped to listen. I looked through the window in the door and saw the students and teachers sitting in their chairs in a circle. They saw my bespectacled face smiling at them. Mr. David called out, "Come on in, Mr. Barton! We like to have visitors!" I'm shy by nature but their music and their hospitality drew me out of my proverbial shell and into their circle.

They were singing The World Is A Rainbow by Greg and Steve. Mr. David and Mrs. Fuller were signing the signs that go along with the song and the kids were singing and signing along. The classroom is a mixture of students who have Down's Syndrome and Autism and they were out of key, off rhythm, and loud. But the finest of choirs and the masters of art couldn't have created a more beautiful sound or a more splendiferous picture than they did together.

My favorite moment was when L, a little boy with autism who has never spoken to me, looked over from Mrs. Fuller's lap and stirred his arm around and around to the words, "Now you be you, And I'll be me. That's the way we were meant to be. But the world is a mixing cup. Just look what happens when you stir it up!"

Paul Farmer is one of my heroes. He is a medical doctor and an anthropologist who has spent most of his life and work between Harvard University and Haiti. He has written an insightful book titled Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. In Chapter 5, "Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology," he works out the idea that doctors are called upon to make 'a preferential option for the poor,' to take best practices in medicine to the smallest and most forgotten people in our world. He inspires me to work out the similar idea that teachers are called upon to make this same preferential option for the poor, so I ask myself each day, "Where are the smallest and most forgotten children and teachers in my school?” I find them tucked away on our 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grade hallways, working in their special education worlds.

Even though I am a regular education teacher, I try to meet every special education student in my school and become friends with their teachers. We eat breakfast and lunch together and try to do special projects together during the school year. One of the greatest compliments I have received as a teacher was when one of our TMD teachers told me, "Mr. Barton, the Mom of one of my students asked, 'Who is that nice teacher who speaks to us every morning and who knows our kids by name?' and I told her it was you!" Knowing the names of all of our special education students and hearing them call, "Hey Mr. Barton!" is my badge of honor as a teacher.

In the preface to the original edition of Awakenings, the great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks wrote, "My aim is not to make a system, or to see patients as systems, but to picture a world, a variety of worlds - the landscapes of being in which these patients reside." I believe our special education children aren't nameless asteres planetai (wandering stars), moving in seemingly aimless ways, with no gravity to keep them in orbit. They are worlds in our system waiting to be explored, wanting to be known by name, hoping to be friends with other people who will visit the landscapes of their being and say ‘hello.’ As Greg and Steve say in their song, “the world is a rainbow with many kinds of people and a place that takes all kinds of people to make it go around.” I’m thankful for the special education students and teachers at my inner-city elementary school and the colors they add to my world.

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