Like many students, I kept a journal of my thoughts and experiences during my elementary school years. These books were filled with pictures, words and stories of my time at school. One particular event is captured in these pages.
In grade two, my teacher entered our class in a community arts festival to recite a poem. Twelve other schools also entered their primary grades. Now, I do not talk, but that did not seem to matter to my teacher. She believed I could make a contribution. In her eyes, it would not be good enough for me just to be present: I was going to participate. My parents made an enlarged copy of the poem and placed it on the tray of my wheelchair. To communicate at that time, I was using picture symbols that I pointed to on my tray. My parents replaced some of the words of the poem with the appropriate picture symbols. When my class practised the poem, I was expected to point to the correct words and pictures on the copy of the poem on my wheelchair tray. My classmates would help me in my efforts to make sure I was correct. In my enthusiasm, I began to vocalize and soon drowned out the voices of my classmates reciting the poem! My teacher and speech language pathologist worked with me so that I could vocalize more quietly to better blend in with my classmates. Our principal would drop in to our class to tell us how proud he was of us because we were working together. When I arrived at school each morning, the custodian often greeted me with the question, “Hey John, how’s the poem coming along?”
I don’t remember all the details of those weeks that we prepared for the community arts festival. But my journal is full of pictures of happy faces, friends and people working together. When it was time for our class to compete, I felt both excited and nervous – just like the rest of my classmates. When it was our turn, our class proceeded to the stage; one of my classmates pushed my wheelchair into position. In the audience were many people from our school, including parents, family members and other teachers. Even the custodian snuck in the door at the last minute. My class did a wonderful job, and I was so proud of our efforts.
When the time came to announce the winner, I remember there was a great cheer, and then the classmate sitting beside me leaped up and said, “John, we won!” I was excited, but not just because my class was about to receive a trophy. I had experienced something far greater than a prize. I had experienced a sense of belonging and acceptance – a sense of being connected – a sense of community.
This summer, let’s all reflect upon ways we can create that sense of community in our workplaces, schools and communities… and then make it happen.