John Patrick Weiss shares a story of an inspirational teacher.
If you look back on the landscape of your childhood, certain people and events stand out. There are obvious memories, like special birthdays or the passing of a grandparent. But lodged in your memory, beyond the big events, are fragments of seemingly inconsequential people and experiences. People like Ralph Denman, Skipper and Melinda.
My entire elementary education occurred at Denman Day School, an outstanding little private school that has (sadly) long since closed. Ralph Denman was the owner and principal. A robust, no nonsense man, Mr. Denman believed in the three r’s of education: reading, writing and arithmetic. But some of his greatest lessons occurred outside the classroom.
Every lunch recess, Mr. Denman would rally the kids to play a game of softball. Mr. Denman always served as the pitcher and umpire. And he always encouraged Skipper to play softball.
Skipper was a pleasant boy with a significant physical disability. He was considerably shorter than the other school kids and had a limited range of motion. His disability affected his voice, giving it a “inhaled helium” quality. But none of this affected Skipper’s spirit and positive attitude.
Skipper’s physical challenges didn’t prevent him from participating in lunchtime softball games. He could barely hold the aluminum bat but always gave it his all. Mr. Denman may have had a gruff exterior, but he had a kind heart. He would pitch the ball a bit slower for Skipper.
Skipper often would connect with the ball and it would dribble a few feet in front of him. Mr. Denman, in an exaggerated manner, stumbled for the ball. He’d eventually toss it to first base. All of which bought Skipper enough time to trot, with those nearly frozen legs, to first base.
Part of the team
Of course everyone knew what was going on. Mr. Denman’s antics allowed Skipper to have some fun. It allowed Skipper to feel good about himself. To be a part of the team. To be a happy kid.
Other times, Mr. Denman would snatch Skipper’s ground ball and quickly throw it to first base. He didn’t want to help Skipper every time. That would be too obvious.
Maybe Skipper knew what was going on and maybe he didn’t. But Mr. Denman taught us a powerful lesson about the importance of inclusivity and kindness. He also demonstrated his love for us by playing softball everyday.
Skipper taught us about human dignity. About the will to participate and contribute, despite one’s disabilities or shortcomings. He also had the ability to laugh at himself. I learned a lot from hanging out with Skipper.
Treat girls with respect
Another developmentally challenged student at Denman Day School was Melinda. She was a sweet girl with a cognitive impairment. Most students treated her well, but some would make fun of her behind her back. Kids can be cruel.
One day after school Melinda’s carpool ride fell through. My father picked me up that day and, learning of Melinda’s predicament, told Mr. Denman he’d be happy to take her home.
I remember feeling embarrassed when she got in our car. I knew other kids would tease me the next day about taking Melinda home. Such are the selfish worries of a young boy.
We arrived at Melinda’s house and I said a quick “see you later.” My father turned to me and said, “Johnny, be a gentleman and walk Melinda to her front door.”
Begrudgingly I got out of the car and escorted Melinda to her house. I remember the way she looked at me, with a big smile and gratitude in her eyes. I had made her feel special. She thanked me and I hopped back into my Dad’s car.
“Johnny, you should always treat girls with respect. Even if they’re a little bit different.” My father’s words and the glint of happiness in Melinda’s eyes are forever etched in my memory.
Despite the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, Denman Day School offered some art instruction. Mrs. Price was one of our instructors and a gifted artist. Everyone, including Skipper and Melinda, got to immerse themselves in the pleasures of drawing, painting and paper construction.
It never occurred to me back then that we take personal expression for granted. Most of us are able to convey emotions, thoughts, ideas and artful creativity. But it’s not so easy if you’re a child with special needs. You may lack the motor skills or vocal ability to share your emotions. Melinda and Skipper seemed to do okay with art, but for some special needs kids, it’s more difficult.
Art teacher Rosa Clemens-Hines, in her article “The Art Of Special Needs,” wrote:
“Fortunately, art benefits cognitive and physical development, strengthens problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, develops a sense of goal-setting and nurtures social skills that are critical inside and outside the classroom, according to a study by the non-profit organization Americans for the Arts.”
I don’t know if Ralph Denman and Mrs. Price knew about all the amazing benefits of art, but they valued it enough to include it in the curriculum at Denman Day School.
Our common humanity
Author Mitch Albom’s book “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” explores how other people’s lives become woven into our own in unexpected ways. They may not be pivotal players, but they can shape us in ways unimagined.
Ralph Denman passed away years ago, but his lessons live on in me. I don’t know what became of Skipper and Melinda, but I’m glad our lives merged in grade school, because I am the richer for it. The same can be said for my art teacher, Mrs. Price. She always encouraged me with my artwork.
The power of art is that it unlocks many portals to creative expression. The power of love is that it connects us to our common humanity. The power of special needs kids is that they can bring out the best in us and teach us a great deal about human dignity. I learned all these things at Denman Day School.
Close your eyes and consider the supporting characters still anchored in your childhood memories. If you know where they are today, give them a call and thank them. And if they’re long gone, say a quiet prayer of gratitude.
This article originally appeared on John Patrick Weiss’s Blog
Photo credit:More Good Foundation/flickr