Kelli was a kind soul. A sweet girl, sensitive and strong. She had endured so much already in her five short years on earth. Her mother was diagnosed with Leukemia when Kelli was about three. She barely knew her father. She had a little sister. She had an uncle with significant special needs.
Kelli is part of my proudest teaching moment. My second year of teaching was tough. I was transferred to a new school five days after my mother died. I went from a year round school to a traditional school (no summer break for me!), and was starting a brand new Kindergarten class all over again. The four other kindergarten teachers in the school were women who probably should have stopped teaching years ago. As a result, I was the teacher who had all of the special education students mainstreamed in my classroom. Our school had a significant special education population and there were sometimes up to seven additional students in my class.
Some of these kids were easy. They enjoyed being in the class and were not disruptive or dangerous. Some of these kids made me want to quit my job. I had to clear out my classroom when they escalated in behaviors, and was stabbed in the hand with a pencil. I was able to handle it all, sometimes I was more willing than others, but by the second semester, my class was an absolute delight, and here is why:
My class, led by Kelli and her kindness, stood up for these special education students. As children, they were all naturally curious about why Alex flapped his hands when he was happy, and why Miles was talking a mile a minutes about tigers. We had many talks about how kids are all different and that it’s okay to be different. My students that year were mature beyond their years. Instead of excluding the kids who were different, they included them. They protected them. They stood up for the students who couldn’t stand up for themselves. They made me proud to be their teacher. That group of 20 five-year-olds showed more class and respect than even other teachers in that school. I can only hope that they continue to show the same empathy today as middle-schoolers.
Kelli and my other students were a shining example of how educating a group of individuals about someone “different” can change the definition of different. My students did not tease these kids who were different. They didn’t exclude them. hey asked questions and became involved in supporting these students in the classroom and at school. They ended up being friends. They were even friends with the kids who couldn’t talk. They were always included. They were no longer “different.” They were just friends in class.
I am lucky to be able to keep in touch with Kelli and her family. Today Kelli is 13 and in the 7th grade. She is in the process of earning her Silver Award in Girl Scouts and has two new step sisters. She is involved in leadership at her school and actively participates in community service, making a difference in her community. She continues to be that sweet girl, befriending the “different” kids, I knew eight years ago. I am one proud teacher!