Like most parents, I have a lot of funny stories about my kids. I also have some frustrating stories, some things I could brag about, a few sad tales, and a handful of stories about those “aha” moments. But every once in a while there’s a story that seamlessly merges our parenting and professional lives. This is mine.
First, a little professional background: I am a Jewish educator. Sometimes I say I am a Jewish special educator. Other times I just acknowledge that I’m a synagogue education director who cares deeply about disability inclusion. I began my career as a teacher in a secular middle school, moving into the world of Jewish education specifically to bring this knowledge and my skills around special education to a supplemental religious school. Over the past 16 years, I have strived to make it possible for all students to receive a meaningful education in our synagogue and for our community to truly understand what it means to be inclusive.
Next, a little personal background: My husband and I have close friends that we have known since high school. They fall into that special category of “lifelong friends,” so of course our children have become friends, too. Their son is 16, our son is almost 15, and our daughter is 12. None of them remembers a time when the others weren’t a part of their lives. Oh, and their son has Cerebral Palsy. He uses a wheelchair and a communication device.
Now, here’s the story: One weekend when my kids were 5 and 3, we got together with our friends for dinner. It was unremarkable in that we went to their house, the kids played, and we parents schmoozed. Nothing significant happened, nothing out of the ordinary—just a yummy dinner and good company.
Two days later I was in my kitchen making dinner when I looked up to see my son pushing my daughter around our hallway at top speed in her small, stuffed Disney Princess chair. He was headed directly toward a step down into our living room, while veering precariously close to a flight of stairs behind the open basement door. Immediately worried for their safety, I did what any self-respecting, responsible parent would do. I yelled. I yelled at them to stop—and then I paused long enough to ask what they were doing.
My son’s response? “Mommy, we are playing wheelchair!”
In that moment a two things happened:
1. I cried. Real tears. The joyous ones.
2. I quickly closed the basement door so they would not topple down a flight of stairs and told them to go back to playing.
And of course I called my friend to tell her the story. And she cried, too. Since then I have told this story to pretty much anyone who will listen. It brought together all that I had already known, all that I believe, and these lessons I strive to teach:
Lesson #1: Modeling works. Period. It is totally and completely possible to teach children that disabilities are a normal part of life. That wheelchair is not our friend’s son. It’s just a way for him to get around.
Lesson #2: Children innately know how to overlook the things that make adults uncomfortable. Adults bring complicated emotions to their interactions; children bring a natural sense of joy and wonder. Of course my children wanted to have a wheelchair—they are big and shiny.
Lesson #3: Every child is a precious gift from God. Each of us is created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of God).
I’m so proud that my kids have the gift of this friendship in their lives. And I am so glad that they recall this story as fondly as I do. It is a hallmark for me as both a parent and a Jewish special educator
So, what’s your story?