This is a story of why inclusion works. This story is about the sincerity of a fifth grade class, who like most 11-year olds moving to middle school, are full of excitement and angst. They had been together since kindergarten. When they were in fourth grade, a new student arrived. Abby (not her real name) entered their classroom as sweet student full of spunk and delight. A child with Downs Syndrome and autism, Abby is non-verbal. While in school, she learned how to use PECS, some signs, and her Dynavox. Most of all, she developed a fierce attachment to her peers, teachers and school community. The feeling was mutual. When she was absent, her friends would ask how she was doing. Her peers pulled her into their games and conversations, whether by using sign, or learning to use her communication systems. An outside observer would never have guessed that Abby was relatively new to the class or her school.
Which is why, two days before fifth grade graduation, when Abby didn’t come to school, her classmates became worried. They discovered that just a few days earlier, Abby had fallen and broken her leg, and would miss her graduation.
And that’s when the good stuff happened. The class decided to make Abby a get well video, and sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, a personal favorite that she often asked for when in class. Her elated parents called the school. According to her parents, Abby sat in her leg cast, watched the video, and beamed. She smiled and waved at the video while her friends wished her get well and sang.
Then the school organized a graduation ceremony. Given her injury and sensitivity to sound and large crowds, the school arranged a smaller graduation, just with her fifth grade class. We all hoped that Abby would be well enough to make it that following Monday.
Monday arrived. With fans blowing, and classrooms sweltering 90 degrees, Abby came into school by wheelchair. Even though the class had graduated a week earlier, they wanted Abby to experience the same excitement they did at their own graduation. The staff cued up Pomp and Circumstance, and the class filled in the bleachers with Abby in line. My friend and colleague gave a graduation speech dedicated to not just Abby, but to the whole class. She spoke of how this class that grew up together readily embraced a new student to their class. How their acceptance reflected sincerity found in communities of people that care for one another. They learned how to reach out to her, and she taught them how to become a friend and advocate.
The ceremony concluded with the class singing and dancing to, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Abby’s favorite song. Then, for the second time in a week, the students received their diplomas, congratulations and a handshake from the principal and staff. As she rolled up and took her diploma, the class gave an enthusiastic (but silent) cheer for Abby.
As the class emptied the bleachers row by row to the song, Time of your Life, Abby began to cry. Maybe it was the activity, or the noise, but it almost seemed that on some level, Abby knew that this was the end (or the beginning) of something special.
The values posted on the front of our school building our simple: Be kind and respectful to everyone and everything. Include everyone.
Role models are what we need most in inclusion. Congratulations to the class of 2013, you sure are the best. Thanks for reminding me why I got into this career in the first place.
Kerry Davis, Ed.D, CCC-SLP, is a city-wide speech-language pathologist west of Boston. Her areas of interest include working with children with multiple disabilities, inclusion in education and professional development. The views on this blog are my own and do not represent those of my employer. Dr. Davis can be followed on Twitter at @DrKDavisslp.