Guest blog post from Ellie Goldman, Director of Youth Engagement
In second grade I sat next to a boy named Jason. I don’t remember his last name but I know his first name was Jason because it was on the board every day with a bunch of checks next to it. He was the kid who was in trouble at every turn for one thing or another – he was a bad seed and even though we were only seven – we all knew it.
One day our teacher sat us all down and said we needed to discuss something as a class. She said that Jason (who was there as well) was really having a hard time, that staying focused was difficult for him and that he was falling behind. She said we were all going to work together to get things back on track. As a class we strategized about possible solutions. One classmate asked Jason if he might have trouble hearing the teacher. Another thought perhaps he needed a snack in the middle of the day because he was hungry. Ultimately we concluded that it was we who were the distraction. Sitting near friends was a temptation he struggled to overcome. We made him want to talk and joke and turning away from the socializing was just harder for him than for other kids.
We brainstormed different options and then that afternoon we constructed a 1-man cubby around his desk. I can picture it like it was yesterday – covered in yellow, waxy butcher paper and extending high above his desk. We moved his seat so that it was without an immediate neighbor but still part of the larger group. Someone thought having headphones might help as well to dull the noise of the room so we outfitted his desk with those. At the end of the day Jason had his own private learning oasis and we had all been a part of the process. I can still see him sitting there, hunched over a worksheet or a book with his headphones on working away. That cubby changed his whole existence at school and it changed me as well.
I think about Jason and his yellow cubicle frequently, sometimes daily. I think about how my brilliant teacher saw a little boy, branded as a bad seed, who had a desire to learn and she asked us to help him succeed. She crafted a conversation that was not shameful or demeaning but rather powerfully respectful of him and trusting of us. I think about how beautiful it was to create a space that was separate for him but which ultimately allowed him to be included and to become a learner.
That single day, more than thirty years ago, has completely shaped the way that I understand what it means to be in community and has guided me throughout my career working with young people. I am constantly aware of Jason, what his needs were, how he encountered school and how we provided for his needs in a spirit of joy and support. In this, the month of Inclusion Awareness I am grateful for that 2nd grade lesson about what it means to be responsible for one another and how important it is to value each individual, even (especially) the ones who struggle the most.