I got a message from my daughter’s teacher the other day and it brought me to tears. First, a little background: as I write this we are only a few week into a new school year and my daughter’s teacher and I have found ourselves communicating often during these first few weeks of the school year because my daughter has Down syndrome, she is fully included in her general education 5thgrade class, and it is the first time in her teacher’s 18 years of teaching to have a student with Down syndrome in her class. Another important piece of information to note is my daughter attends our local neighborhood public school. It is a non-inclusive school, meaning the original placement my daughter was offered was a separate special education classroom. We have decided this placement is not an option for her, for many reasons, (but that’s a discussion for another time) all that to say: having my daughter fully included in a general education 5th grade classroom is a steep learning curve for everyone involved.
When I picked up my phone and saw I had a message from my daughter’s teacher my stomach dropped, just a bit. This happens every time the school’s number flashes on my caller ID or an email shows up in my inbox from a school personal or a message pops up on my phone from a teacher. My stomach drops because when the systems in play, in this case the public school, are not set up for a child with Down syndrome to be successful there are lots of unsuccessful moments, (which my husband and I have learned to call “opportunities for learning and growth”)! There have been dozens of times over the years when I have received an email, phone call, or message letting me know how my daughter is misbehaving or acting inappropriately or not fitting in, or needs to be picked up because it’s just not working out. You could say over the past eight years of my daughter’s educational career I’ve developed a form of PTSD triggered by some form of communication from the school.
Back to the message. When I picked up my phone and began to read, the sick feeling in my stomach was replaced with tears of gratitude and relief. Here is what her teacher wrote:
“Today after recess [Macyn] was very happy and I asked her what she had played. She told me she played with several girls in class on the swings. The girls then told me that Macyn had struggled to reach the swing and they couldn’t get her on it, so they piled up the woodchips and created a ‘step’ for her to use to get on the swing. She loved it and had a great time.”
Friends! Do you see what happened here? Macyn’s peers modified the playground so their friend could have access to it. This is amazing! They didn’t learn this from a classroom or a lesson. I guarantee you they have never gone to a class about modification and inclusive practices. They are 5th graders. I’m sure they have never thought about what makes a playground inclusive or not. They are 5th graders. But they know a thing or two about feeling left out or needing to know they belong, because, well, they are 5th graders. What happened is they saw a person who is in their class, who they have been building a relationship with, in need of some assistance. And then they got creative and solved a problem so their friend and classmate could get on the swings. They had an opportunity to embrace the essence of what it means to be human and in doing so made a way for the goodness of our collective humanity to shine.
This is what inclusion is about!
Inclusion is about so much more than Macyn having access and opportunities. It is about her peers and teachers and every other person at the school having access to her which creates one of a kind opportunities for empathy, compassion, leadership, creativity, understanding, teamwork, generosity, kindness…basically every quality we pray our children, and ourselves, will possess. Yes, it is critical to Macyn’s growth, development and well-being for her to have full access to her school and be seen as a citizen of her school. But equally as important, or arguably even more so, it is critical for the wellbeing of humanity for the other students and people in the school to have access to Macyn.
The truth is, we are a world divided. A society drawing lines in the sand when we should be building steps with the woodchips. But how can we when the very people who offer us the opportunity to do so are systemically slotted and separated? The thing I find so profound about this simple playground story is it has little to do with woodchips and everything to do with what they represent: a core need in all of us to have a sense of belonging. And a testament to how life is better when we live it together.