There I was, another week in the books full of significant accomplishments, challenges and milestones. At last it was Friday, the day my high school students had been looking forward to all week long. Every Friday my students had the opportunity to earn a fun field trip to the public library. The criteria to attend was simple, the students needed to have all schoolwork completed and behaviors had to be superb though out the week.
This was an extra special trip to the library because the students had a task; they each had to pick out a book that they would be writing an essay on. All of them were so excited; they had a chance to choose their own topic. This was going to be an exciting day.
Before we left, I went over the usual library rules:
- Whisper instead of using an outside voice
- Ask the librarian for help if they can’t find something
- Always be polite to strangers
- Only check out one book
These were simple rules, the same rules we go over every Friday before the library visit. All of the students understood and agreed to follow them.
When we arrived at the library, I gave another brief reminder of the rules and let them venture out to find their books. I walked around and supervised, making sure everyone was behaving. So far so good, it was the perfect trip. I was extremely happy that ALL of my 13 students earned this trip and were walking around looking at books independently. This was a huge moment for me… all of my students were doing what they were told to do by themselves… I was one proud teacher!
In my moment of happiness, I looked over and noticed an older man talking to one of my students. He was probably in his late 50’s, 6 feet tall, trim, nicely dressed as if he was going to a business meeting later that afternoon and spoke eloquently… or so I thought. Out of curiosity and concern I walked over and introduced myself.
Of course, my student got excited and told this man all about my life… “Mrs. Suzie is a high school special education teacher, she has a brown cocker spaniel named Mable, her middle name is Jeanine“… and on and on. It was quite funny.
The man just stared at me for a few minutes, which was awkward in itself. I broke the silence by asking what the two of them had been talking about. The man said, “Oh I was just asking your student if he was RETARDED.”
Was my student retarded?! Now I’m a calm person by nature. There aren’t very many things that get me fired up. However, this ridiculous and uncalled for question was one of those rare moments I lost my cool. I could feel the blood rushing to my face, adrenaline pumping through my body and my heart going a million beats a minute.
I stared into the eyes of this man, took a deep breath and said, “That’s an interesting question… actually, he’s about as retarded as you are educated, which appears to be very little. It’s apparent to me that you lack tact, kindness and anything else that resembles basic human traits.”
Okay, so that’s what I wanted to say… however, trying to set a good example for my student and not wanting to drop down to this mans level, I replied…”No he is not retarded, why would you ask him that?”
I was so irritated that he would have the nerve just to walk up to my student and ask such an inappropriate question and for what reason?
A few seconds went by and the man continued speaking, still acting oblivious to what was going on around him, “So do you teach retarded or should I say handicapped kids all day long.”
Completely shocked and in true disbelief I replied, “Actually, I teach amazing young adults with all sorts of abilities. All of them are unique in their way. They have the biggest hearts, personalities and actually CARE about people around them, which is more than I can say about you. I love teaching my students with special needs…”
But before I could finish, something truly incredible happened… my student interrupted me and shouted to the man, “Hey you, I am not retarded and if I were it wouldn’t matter. Next time you want to be rude, don’t use the “R” word, people don’t like that. I have autism, and that is something special.”
I had nothing further to say; my student had said it all for me. For the first time, he spoke up for himself.
This event made a massive impact in his life and mine. He had been an advocate for himself and those around him. Though it was only to one ignorant man standing in the middle of a public library, this situation taught him that it is okay to speak up for yourself.
To be happy, grateful and confident in who you are and to stand up against people who feel the need to blow out your flame in an attempt to make theirs glow brighter.
We can all learn a valuable lesson from this bright young man. The NEED to speak up for what’s right, never back down, and always believe in yourself and who you are so deeply, that NOBODY can sway you.
-Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.