(“Beach Party” by Lucelle Raad. Her beautiful paintings of children are available for purchase at thewonderofchildren.com)
Child development experts loudly trumpet the importance of good parenting, as stage on which successful child-rearing relies. To most of us, that means ensuring our children attend school faithfully; overseeing their homework; busing them to scout meetings, CCD, Hebrew school, sports practices, athletic games, dance, karate, etc.
It means making sure those children are adequately cared for, physically and emotionally, for we acknowledge: Children must be ready vessels for learning to take place. As a teacher of 30-years experience, I attest to what I personally witnessed: the extraordinary difference good parenting/mentoring affords a child.
Over 3 decades, I interacted with children from all levels of the spectrum: those with extraordinary gifts who excelled among peers; the average majority who marched to the general beat; and dysfunctional others who persevered despite toxic families, forever shaped, by inadequacy. But, as struck as I was by the extremes of students, I was the more heartened and impressed by little souls who dealt with tremendous burdens every day, only to somehow come away enriching themselves and everyone else, despite their obstacles.
First, I remember Beth, a proper little candidate for the “I’m Not Going to Let Any of This Get Me Down Award.” She came into my seventh grade class, profoundly hearing-impaired, a child who more than likely would have been sent, by many parents, to a School-for-the Deaf. Not so-Jen. Her parents never let their daughter think of her difference as affliction but encouraged her in all pursuits. And, because of this, Beth shone, among her peers as a star, a child who had the rare combination of many talents, as well as a really positive self-image.
I recall her first days. We, in the faculty, had been apprised of the fact that this physically-challenged student would be entering our classes. I remember thinking, “Oh, God, all I need is one more problem to handle.” As it was, it seemed like we were always being asked to act in some super-human capacity to get our instructor’s word across: remember to assign special seating to those who were sight and hearing-impaired; make eye-contact as often as possible with that latter group; make certain ‘all’ students understand their assignments; be proactive in these areas.
But Beth would stretch me to the max. She could hear almost nothing. I was expecting more difficulty than I could handle. Guidance personnel got up and explained the technique: we were each to use a portable microphone which would be passed along throughout the course of the day to all of Jen’s teachers. She was to be responsible to give it to us upon entering our classes, and she was to reclaim it at the end of each period. Enough said.
And I’d sit there and grumble inwardly, “Oh, who needs this? All I need is to be monitored, now, by a mike.” I knew that if I remembered it was attached to me, it would affect my sense of spontaneity…and I always cherished that aspect of my teaching. But even more importantly, I worried about what would happen if I forgot it was on my person.
We were forewarned as to this possibility and reminded of the need to recall–at all times–that we were wearing this sound-enhancing device. Specifically, we were advised it would not be a good idea to seek a quick bathroom reprieve in that ‘all’ sounds would be transmitted many times over. We wouldn’t want that embarrassment.
Then again, we were informed that even those normally private occasions of sharing pertinent professional information about some student, or fellow faculty member–among colleagues, would be risky business, if we forgot the mike.. At that, my fears were confirmed: “Big Brother is here…and waiting to snare me.”
But after I interacted with Beth over time, she changed all of my preconceived ideas and my fears. Because quite frankly, she stands in my mind as one of the healthiest, well-adjusted young people I’ve ever had the pleasure of having in class. She was fun, had a grand sense of humor, and could appreciate whatever went on around her, even at times when her “hearing” classmates could not. And while I did struggle to understand her strange, almost guttural, language (conversely her peers ‘always’ knew what she said and translated for me), she was more than worth the effort in every conceivable way.
I marveled at how well she overcame a problem that would’ve leveled many adults. But then again, I’d met her parents at Open House, and they seemed upbeat, energetic, and gave me the impression that nothing was insurmountable; Beth was the living product of their optimism.
Next, there was Jen. She was born with a twisted skeletal structure, with her neck and back in unusual alignment, necessitating she hold herself in a most uncomfortable position in the mere act of remaining upright. Because her windpipe was not in its proper location, she suffered labored breathing, all the more difficult if she suffered a respiratory infection. And Jen was prone to many infections.
But every day, when other students were absent due to a headache, fatigue, cramps or whatever, Jen happily greeted everyone who passed her in the corridor, while she awaited the starting bell for entry into home room. Her special-student bus had arrived before those for the ‘regular’ students, so she became a one-woman welcoming committee as she sought to fill the time with productive activity.
I passed her every morning on my way to my own homeroom and marveled at how she remained so optimistic and pleasant regardless of the steel-grey weather, or the social life she didn’t have, or the crippling body dysfunction. I only imagined she must have had some very wonderful parents, because I had found, over the years, that had made the decisive difference in a child that had been asked to endure more hardships than her peers.
Because she became such a symbol of good will to me, I began to ask others about her–namely her resource teachers with whom she interacted daily. I was told that Jen’s father had removed himself from a troubling family scenario years ago; she didn’t even know him. And so, by process of elimination, I determined this girl had a marvelous relationship with her mother; that had been her saving grace.
In May of that year, I heard that Jen was going to the Senior Ball…it had been arranged by her teachers. They knew a young man who had the maturity to appreciate her uniqueness, and they’d set it up. That week they took Jen shopping for a gown; they arranged for her hair to be done; they got the shoes died the perfect hue. And on that special night, they drove the happy couple to and from the dance. But first they stopped at Jen’s mom’s to take pictures because Jen’s mom couldn’t do any of these things.
It was then then I heard the news that stopped me cold. Jen’s mother was dying of lung cancer and had only weeks to live. The family were currently receiving Hospice care, and people were helping with the rituals given those on imminent death watch.
And so, the Prom came and went…And I’d see the little girl still stoically standing outside her classroom each morning, ever greeting those who were ever-complaining because their bagel was cold or the car wouldn’t start or some such silly business. I marveled at this small soldier’s insistence on putting the best spin on her life and then, because I know this type of child doesn’t happen automatically, I secretly congratulated Jen’s mom for “Doing a Really Good Job!”, blessing us with this small but oh-so-important presence every day.
Jen would be all alone within the month, but I was sure she’d never be as alone as others who lacked the incredible ingredient that made this brave young girl’s life more than merely bearable and even a “joy”–a mother, who would remain with this daughter in many ways, other than the physical. In that, Jen would be luckier than many.
So what did I come away with from knowing these 2 incredible young people? The difference in their living productive, wonderful lives–as opposed to sterile, resentful existences– was their attitude, one nurtured and developed by loving and positive adults who refused to give into desperation early on. They imbued these children with a special talent to override life’s obstacles and revel in the joy all around.
For this reason, Beth and Jen will live in my memory as the good little soldiers that they were, and society is all the more richly rewarded for being blessed with their presence.
And to their parents and/or mentors, Biddy commends them on their success and only wishes more children–with or without problems–had such an upbringing.
Lucelle Raad’s work is available at www.thewonderofchildren.com. In the meantime, here’s her philosophy on her art:
“She (Lucille Raad) celebrates the life of the child. Her style and palette are distinctive. Her vision is the wonder of children. Pensive moments, secrets shared, a helping hand, simple play. These are among the elements of life she portrays. There is joy, discovery, wonderment.” (a quote from her website)