The Mighty Oak of Inclusion

By: Traci Brewer

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The email caught me totally by surprise:

Dear Mrs. Brewer,
I don’t know if you remember me, but your daughter, Emily, and I were really good friends in elementary school. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, but I think of Emily all the time and miss her.

I’m writing to let you know that I graduate this year, and I have decided to pursue a degree in Special Education. Having Emily in my elementary classroom was so life-changing for me. It taught me to see everyone as a person, to focus on what they CAN do, and to learn from others.

The email went on to ask if I would write a letter of recommendation for her to be admitted into the Special Education program at her selected college.

Of course, my mind replayed the years my daughter who has Down syndrome spent at her public elementary school. I remembered with great appreciation and tears, the phone call I received from her soon-to-be kindergarten teacher the summer before she was to start school. I was beside myself with worry over how she would communicate, (she was non-verbal at that time and relied on sign language), how she would be treated by other students, how she would last the entire day with low stamina due to her heart defect. This wonderful teacher called my cell phone to say she was so happy to have Emily in her class, could we meet for coffee, and did I have any books or information that would help her teach Emily. Please note: she did not say Emily has been “assigned to my room,” nor did she say, “The principal has decided to place her in my room.” Actually, I remember her exact wording, “I am so happy that I get to have Emily in my room!” What a great way to start her elementary years!

I went on to think about the students who embraced my child, in a very large part due to teachers like her kindergarten teacher who didn’t point out Emily’s disabilities, set up her classroom to allow Emily to learn best along with her peers and set the highest expectations for all her students. While we had challenges — and let’s face it, what child does not have challenges in elementary school? — I know that Emily was in the best possible school for her. She was included in all activities, adored by staff and students, and thrived.

Because of the email I received, I also remembered back to this student coming to our house for a sleepover, inviting Emily to her birthday party, playing with Emily on the playground, and always choosing, (not asked), to partner with Emily for projects and special events. After elementary school, this friend went on to a different middle school. But even after not seeing Emily on a regular basis, she went out of her way to invite Emily to her baptism. You can bet we were there!

Now, this young lady is going to change the world for students with disabilities. Her attitude toward her students will forever be changed because of the time she spent with Emily. Conversely, our family and Emily will forever be changed because of her friendship. From the tiniest seed, a might oak will grow!

When I was in school, children with disabilities seen or unseen were in a “special” classroom. They arrived 15 minutes before other students, took lunch in their room, did not participate in any general classes and left 15 minutes before everyone else. I lived in a very small town, yet I never knew or saw the children in this classroom. What a disservice to me, the other students and the staff! It saddens me to think about the enriching experiences we all could have had by being together and learning from one another.

Inclusive education is not yet a reality. It is better in so many ways, but there is a very long way to go in improving what we now call inclusive education. We were blessed with a wonderful elementary school, yet in the same school district, I hear stories that are very different and heartbreaking. I hear good and bad stories from other school districts across our state. While I understand this is an extremely challenging process, I see it as truly a civil rights problem. When schools were segregated, the challenge of integrating students of all colors, backgrounds and neighborhoods seemed insurmountable. However, it was the right thing to do, so it was done. Inclusive education with high expectations is the right thing, and so it must be done. Sounds simplistic, but once all the politics, negativity and barriers are stripped away, this is the bottom line. It’s the right thing to do!


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