There but for fortune. . .


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  "There was a student who rolled into kindergarten amidst concern that the school could not accommodate her special needs. She did not speak. She did not walk. People were worried about how this would affect the school."

WANT TO GET A BUMPER STICKER that says, "What moves you, baby?'' I want to go up in a little airplane with one of those signs trailing behind, questioning the people as to what really chokes them up. I want to grab the mic and ask what makes you feel so strongly that it brings you to tears. What poem is it that you're afraid to read in public because it always makes you cry? Oh, yeah — it has to relate to education!

What are the emotional pinnacles of one's educational career? The first day of school. Graduation. Winning an award. And then there are the quiet, unrecognized moments when you realize what's really important. I am moved to share some of these moments with you now.

There was a student who rolled into kindergarten amidst concern that the school could not accommodate her special needs. She did not speak. She did not walk. People were worried about how this would affect the school. Parts of the school were rebuilt to accommodate this child. Special plans were developed.

I spent time watching this child. It was my job to teach her to talk. The concerns that this student would be some kind of burden on the school vanished as she was accepted in friendship by her kindergarten peers. To the surprise of many, the other students wanted to sit with her. They held her hand. They invited her to their parties.

This student did learn how to talk, and she wrote me a thank you note claiming that it was great fun. That note, old now, sits on my desk today with my other valuables from school. But it isn't the note that moves me. It is the memory of those other kindergarten girls slipping their little hands into the hand of the new girl who could not return their grasp.

There's a place in Watsonville called New School where some other dramatic educational events are taking place. New School is a tiny school with a huge job. As their Mission Statement explains, New School "accepts only students who have experienced failure in other schools,'' drawing from students who have been expelled, are on probation or are habitual truants. Their motto is "Hard times can make you strong.''

I have had the pleasure of several visits to New School. These students are discovering a new way of life, one of responsibility and dependability, where learning is not only possible, it is a pleasure. The teachers are in the business of turning lives around.

One of the parents of a New School student shared with me the remarkable turnaround her son has made at that school. As if snatched from the jaws of a life of drugs and gangs, her son now attends New School. It has given this mom new hope and the young man, a new life.

I walk around our town and see all kinds of people on the streets and in the stores. People who seem born to drive a Lexus and those that prefer a pick-up truck. Others are on foot, on bikes, on skate boards. Vive la diference (pardon my French!). Some of these people are bearing incredible and invisible burdens. Some carry more visible loads. Short, tall, young, old, rich, poor, educated, illiterate.

I am always moved when I think about the vast variety of walks of life and how our paths are affected not just by the choices we have made, but also by our circumstances of birth. I am filled with the feeling expressed in a Phil Ochs song written by Joan Baez, "There but for fortune go you or I.'' If you haven't heard it in a long time, let me know. Maybe I can get my husband to sing it for you!

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, July 21, 2001. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2001