The letter I am writing is to Chris. I was one of Chris’s teachers in both 5th and 6th grade (I looped) at Long Branch Elementary from 1993-1995. Chris had a great impact on me both personally and professionally. He had a personality and wit that attracted all sorts of friends, young and old, and his sense of humor was well beyond his years. When I’d tell a joke or make a comment that would fly over the heads of the majority of the class, 9 times out of 10, I’d hear a chuckle come from Chris’s direction. I’d look over and he’d have a wry smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He was that kind of kid. Another thing about Chris that always stood out was his drive to keep up with his classmates and friends. There was never any question about his work ethic, he always gave it 100% or more and was diligent (some might say stubborn) to a fault. The two classes that Chris was a part of were fully inclusive, meaning that all students had their needs met in the general education setting. Each class had approximately 24 students in it with about five needing additional support of one sort or another, according to their IEP’s. Nobody had to leave to learn – we did that together. In many ways, Chris defined the character of the class. His kindness and caring had a great influence on his peers, who took care of him when he needed it, but always understood that he was one of them. A description of Chris wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that he did have a rare form of brittle bone disease, and needed a wheelchair, communication board and other supports throughout the day. This however, in no way, shape or form, defined who he was. Chris was fully included in 5th and 6th grade where he had tremendous success academically and socially.
After Chris left Long Branch, he went off to middle and high school with his peers. His health was always an issue and during his junior year, March 2000, he died due to complications from pnuemonia. While it was a striking blow to all who knew him, Chris far surpassed what the doctors had said was his life expectancy. Typical Willy – beating the odds and proving people wrong. Perhaps the most remarkable testament to Chris however, was the turnout at his wake. It was packed with extended family, various former teachers, but mostly friends – lots of friends. The impact he had on those around him was evident and powerful.
Although he’s always in the back of my mind, life tends to get busy and I hadn’t thought about Chris in a while. That is, until this semester. A couple of factors brought memories to the surface. The first being the fact that a large portion of our class was dedicated to issues of social justice in schools which I connect strongly to the issue of inclusion of students with disabilities into general education classrooms alongside their peers. The other factor was that the mother of one of Chris’s peers, Mark Peters, was a member of our class. Mrs. Peters knew Chris and his family well and along with her husband were two vocal supporters of inclusion at Long Branch. They saw the benefits to all of the students, including their own. As we discussed various topics dealing with equal educational opportunities in schools and the barriers that still exist, the connections that I made to my own experiences focused primarily on that group of students, families and Chris. As the semester has drawn to a close, he seemed like a logical choice to write a letter to, as the memories that I have of him connect so deeply to the content of the course.
It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought of you often. In the past nine years many things have changed in my life – mostly on the professional front. I left Long Branch three years ago and work, teach and learn at Syracuse University. In many ways, my move has been invigorating, but in other ways, it has been uncomfortably eye opening. When we were together in 5th and 6th grade, we created a setting that above all else focused on valuing diversity and embracing the idea that everybody belonged. Unfortunately, I don’t see too many schools following our example. Today, almost 15 years later, as I observe in classrooms, and work with teachers and administrators, the core values that guide me are constantly in play and often challenged. You’d think by now that people would understand the power of inclusion in schools – but the more I experience, the more I see the continued prevalence of exclusion. On a positive note, I have been taking a graduate course this semester that has dealt with many of the issues associated with equality and social justice in schools. And here’s a weird coincidence – Mrs. Peters, Mark’s mom, is a classmate of mine. Mrs. Peters and I have talked about you more than once, and throughout the discussions that we’ve had the past few months, my thoughts have been drawn back to our days at LBE.
So, I am writing you this letter because the experiences that we shared and the example that you set with your actions have helped mold the sturdy foundation that allows me to stay true to what I believe. I didn’t stray from my convictions when we worked together back then and because of our partnership, I hold onto the powerful experiences and memories that you provided me and use them to have the strength to know that what I am doing is right (even when I’m the least popular guy in the room – hard to believe that could happen, I know!) The lessons that you taught me relate so deeply to the work I’m doing now and are what people need to hear and take to heart. Perhaps the most important reason that I’m writing this letter though, is to let you know that even though schools and communities still struggle with issues of inclusion and equal rights for all students, at the very least, your example has left a lasting impression on me and directly connects to the important discussions that educators are still struggling with today. I’m sure at the time, I didn’t get a chance to share the importance of the different life lessons that you provided me (and all those that came into contact with you), so now that these issues are fresh in my mind, I thought this might be a good time to get them out on paper. Better late than never, I suppose.
A good portion of our class focused on a book called Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference (2008), dealt with the issue of equal opportunity in schools for all children regardless of race, gender or cultural background. The one element that seemed underrepresented was the issue of dis/ability. The connection between all “groups” mentioned wasn’t a hard one for me to make and many of the points that were made in the text as being essential for fair and just schools that are related directly to our lived experiences. The issue that stuck me as being the central theme was that of what educators and school communities choose to value. Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference (2008), as well as a variety of other articles including “Diversity, Transformative Citizenship Education, and School Reform” (Banks, 2008), and “The Trouble with Black Boys… And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education” (Noguera, 2008) talked about the importance of seeing the value in all students. Too often in schools, groups that are considered marginalized are viewed as being on the fringe because the schools do not see value in them. This was not the case with you, Chris, and I wish more people could have learned from your example. OK, so you used a wheelchair because you couldn’t walk, a touch talker to help you communicate, an occasional lift here and there, and help with various tasks throughout the day – big deal. The bottom line was that we did not let those things define you in our eyes. Your warm and kind personality, contagious laugh and insatiable desire to be in the thick of things, made you just another one of the kids. We provided you with the opportunity and you did all the rest. Many people from the outside (reporters and the such) would say how courageous you were for working so hard and overcoming obstacles and barriers. When they’d ask your classmates about it – they’d have no idea how to answer. This was because you were just Chris to them, not the kid with brittle bone disease who used a wheelchair.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, you gave them a living, breathing example of what it means to define and value someone for what they bring to a school community that makes it better for everyone. This is why, as the literature states, we need to value diversity. It gives us all an opportunity to embrace individual uniqueness and look at difference as a strength in a school community as opposed to a problem.
Another issue that was highlighted in our readings and discussion focused on the lowering of expectations for certain groups of students. We had high expectations for you and gave you all of the opportunities and choices that everyone else had. It would have been easy to limit your options based on your learning and physical needs. It happens all the time, even today. Students are not given a fair shake at a quality education because of the color of their skin, family income or way they learn. The potential for personal achievement and growth as well the opportunity to positively influence those around them is squashed. The people that set up those structures and make those decisions need to understand the consequences of their actions and take responsibility for the educational disconnect that occurs for a vast number of students. You achieved beyond the expectations of many because you were given the chance, I believe that all students should also be given that same chance.
Although many years have gone by, my desire for the creation of school communities where all students and families are valued for who they are and defined by the gifts they possess, has not faded. While I still continue to deal with systems and individuals who do not share my viewpoints, I hold strongly to the notion that all children have the basic human right to be treated equally. You showed me that this could happen if we want it to.
Thank you, Chris.
Banks, J. (2008). Diveristy, Transformative Citizen Education, and School Reform. In M. Minow, R.A. Shweder & H.R. Markus (Eds.). Minow, M., Shweder, R. A. & Markus, H. R. (2008). Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference (227-254). Russell Sage.
Minow, M., Shweder, R. A. & Markus, H. R. (2008). Just schools: Pursuing equality in societies of difference. Russell Sage.
Noguera, P. A. (2008). The trouble with Black boys: … And other reflections on race, equity, and the future of public education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.