In my family, summer is the time for photographs, as we try to capture images of our experiences with each other and the people we love – those images are reflected on, shared, saved, and savored. They stand for more than they are – they are full of meaning – of the feeling behind the image, the messages about who we are and what our lives are made up of.
I have a few snapshots, or even entire photo albums, that are sticking with me this summer, that seem to represent the greatest challenges and the greatest hope for people who have been clinging to the edge of our communities as outsiders. One is of “Spirit Day” at my daughter’s school. Thomas and I volunteered to help with the typical activities of the middle school that day, a mix of athletics, games, music, and competitions.
Snapshot: The Middle School Principal approaches us, knowing our interest in disability issues, and says,”We are so excited to show what we have done for our learning support kids so they can participate today”
The day starts with a parade – the entire middle school has been divided into two teams, the Grey Team and the Blue Team, and they are competing throughout the day for “spirit points”. The Blue Team and the Grey Team organize themselves, sort of, in two bunches, line up on the track and form a parade, accompanied by music through the loudspeakers, with each homeroom sporting brightly colored t-shirts made by the students.
Snapshot: The Life Skills Class leads the parade. About 15 students with obvious disabilities and matching T-shirts with bulls-eyes painted on them slowly move or are wheeled around the track. They are not a part of either the blue or the grey team. They are their own team. They are heralded by an announcement over the loudspeakers,”and HERE are our life skills students, leading the day”. When they have made it halfway around the track, they are led back into the school building.
Snapshot: The day proceeds with many games and lots of fun. It is a real scorcher, and the school provides bottled water, which means that water fights erupt with fits of laughter and much chasing around of each other. The kids are having a great time. Well, most of them. The children with the bulls-eyes on their t-shirts are long gone, excluded from the games and protected from the heat.
I try to keep an eye out – What happened to the children with disabilities who led the parade? After a few hours of keeping score on the flag football field, I head for home,and the Spirit Day is in full swing. I cut through the school to head back to my car.
Snapshot: The hallways are mostly empty, as the kids are all outside. Except they aren’t. I pass the The Autism Support classroom on the right hand side of the hallway, and its class members are in the room. If you missed the fact that it is the “Autism Support Class” by the sign on the door, you will note the posters outside educating the other students about Autism by asking true/false questions. “Autistic people don’t can’t make friends” T or F. I wonder to myself what passers-by are really learning.
The snapshots now come fast and furious, as I pass the Life Skills Classroom, full of the students that led the parade, now watching a movie while the other middle schoolers play, run, flirt and have a great time dumping water on each other. Then, a few hundred feet down the long hallway….the Multiple and Severe Disabilities class, indicated by a sign and full of students, as is the other Autism Support Class and the Emotional Support Class, around the corner.
It is a stunning realization that my local neighborhood middle school has 5 segregated special education classes, for a student body of 468. Five. It appears to me that none of those students are participating in Spirit Day with their classmates. Maybe it is too hot, maybe the students opted out, maybe there were not enough aides. Maybe it was ENOUGH that the life skills class led the parade.
Two weeks later, I am visiting another middle school. It is just a regular day at this school.
Snapshot: It is 7th grade Science class with about 21 students. They class is filled to bursting with exuberant middle school energy, as they work on group projects, clown around, and build models representing “energy and momentum”. After being there awhile, I realize that there are two students with significant disabilities, who are working with other students. One student slings his arm around Justin with affection, as they complete their model and it actually works.
Snapshot: Mr. Grisher’s 8th grade Math class. Alana is noticeable in the class, as she is a student who uses a wheelchair, and has pretty obvious disabilities. They are working with geometric forms, and Alana is working with the same materials, is answering questions about the forms using eye gaze and a really cool communication system. A student leans backwards in her chair and starts asking Alana questions as well – she is reminded by the teacher to attend to her work. Alana and the student in front of her exchange conspiratorial glances and smile at each other.
Snapshot: Interview with the principal. “How many students attend this middle school?” The answer is 708. “How many segregated special education classes do you have here?” The answer is zero. Zero. Zip. None.
These snapshots keep coming into my mind this summer, as schools prepare for the return of their students this Fall. When my soon-to-be-eighth grader started at her school last year, being her parents’ daughter, she was filled with indignation at how students with disabilities were separated. As they year went on, she would talk about how the students with disabilities went to lunch ALONE and before the regular students. “We can’t even eat lunch together?” she would say with some heat. She would talk about how they did not even change classes at the same time as the rest of the students, or take phys ed” with the typical students, assuring that there would be virtually no contact.
As the year progressed, an incidental comment was tossed out which made me cringe. Following a comment about how the “special ed” students change classes at different times, she said, “and they make SO much noise” with more than a hint of disdain. I felt a chill, mostly at the power of segregation to shape and color the judgements we make and the conclusions we reach.
This is how we learn from the images, practices, and environments around us. This is how devaluing attitudes are shaped and passed along across and among us. I wonder again about the snapshots of the school where Justin and Alana attend. I suspect some different attitudes are being crafted and shaped. Their school is nowhere near as well resourced as my daughter’s school, so it can’t be money. I think it must be mindset and leadership. This is the album I want to carry with me from this summer forward. It contains the message that the right thing really can be done, and it matters.