As I am still feeling the reverberations of some of the news buzz last week, from hate crimes, escaped killers, continued terrorist threats and actions—I thought it was important to remind ourselves, there is still a lot of good out there, and often it is right in our own backyards.

Just last Tuesday, my son, Luke, graduated from Chatham Park Elementary School in Haverford Township. As the youngest of 10 children, one would think, as parents we have seen it all, felt it all, and therefore might be a little immune to the emotions and “good feel” that often accompany this milestone event. But had we?

It all stated last Tuesday, with the “Stepping Up Program,” when the fifth grade children marched through the school to the applause and cheers of the entire school community celebrating their successful completion of their elementary education and anticipated move to the Middle School this Fall.

As the children mounted the stage for recognition for their various achievements, I found myself getting a little nervous. Would Luke be attentive during the ceremony? Would he be able to navigate the rafters without falling? How would he handle himself throughout the ceremony when the other kids’ names were announced and not his? All unnecessary worries- Luke was just fine.

When he started to get a little tired and restless, he placed his head on his classmate and put his arm around him. The classmate, who has literally bled for Luke over the last 5 years in order to confirm that Luke received all the attention/help he needed, gently took his arm and gently brushed it aside. When Colin’s mom asked him, “Why did you do that?” he answered matter of factly and directly, “Mom, I wouldn’t let any of my other classmates put their arm around me during the ceremony, why would I allow Luke?” Smart kid-great mom…

See, Luke has Down Syndrome. He was assigned to Chatham because his objective evaluations deemed he would be most appropriate for a program where his academics would be conducted on his own level, separate from his typical peers, because he learned at such a different pace. However, where appropriate, he would be integrated with his peers into subjects such as computers, science, social studies, music, art, guidance, as well as lunch and recess. Thankfully, we, Luke’s parents, are a bit worn out, and the idea of fighting in the name of advocacy for our son to be included in every aspect of the typical education experience, seemed dauntingly exhausting, as well as illogical. Quite frankly, Luke does not learn like the rest of his other peers. His language skills (which have exponentially improved in the last year) have been for the most part, dismally delayed even in the midst of speech therapy that started as early as seven weeks from his birth. And as for reading and language arts, well, if you cannot speak, and have trouble holding a pencil at times, it is pretty difficult to keep up with your typical peers in writing class and language arts.

Thankfully, Luke did not qualify to be mainstreamed with his other peers. He was assigned to a life skills program which only has one location in the Haverford School District- Chatham Park Elementary School. This setting offered him a uniquely nurturing and special environment, in which he spent the better part of his classroom day with his special peers, five of whom also have Down Syndrome and one other with an unspecified learning delay.

In our competitive, who can succeed the fastest and highest minded culture, one might think, “Shoot, he didn’t make the grade.” If that was your initial thought, you could not be further from the truth. In fact, Luke managed to hit the super seven jackpot.

Over the last six years, our Chatham Special Family has become the most nurturing, loving, and accepting special-educational experience we could have hoped for. I have often been heard in our IEP (Individualized Educational Program) meetings as saying, “We couldn’t have dreamt it this well.” Luke received the special education he required tailored to his needs, learning style, and attention span, in addition to his developmental intellectual capacity. I guess, we were not altogether surprised when we found he was thriving in his special ed setting. To be honest, the teachers and the people who work in special ed are simply that- special. They have hearts and teaching skills that go beyond the typical level of compassion, care, and patience. They are quietly persistent and persevering in their efforts to support the children’s progress, not always in a linear fashion, but nonetheless, progress at a pace and standard that is unique for that individual human being. They project respect and love that translates into validating the dignity of the person.

… And those children…

They are kind, loving, happy, funny, and honest. No wonder they call them special-

They just are, and they melt your heart every time you enter that classroom.

We never felt guilty for “holding the class back,” nor was he ever accused of being disruptive as could have been the case had we insisted on his being mainstreamed with his typical peers. However, when it was appropriate, Luke was integrated with his peers. Now this is where the surprises truly DID exceed expectations.

From his earliest experiences of being integrated into the regular classroom, Luke’s experience has been positive. His teachers have worked diligently, but seemingly without effort, to provide learning experiences and opportunities for Luke to be included and a part of the typical classroom setting. His peers listened earnestly to him in the early years, when his articulation skills prevented him from really participating in Circle Time- but nonetheless, experiences like Child of the Week, guidance class, modified science and social study experiences, and many more were always provided while the workload was never too great, and never too demanding. What has evolved has been nothing short of one of those miraculous occurrences that simply appears too good to be true. Luke’s classmates have grown to respect his dignity, admire his confidence, and most importantly, enjoy his sense of humor and good natured personality. And guess what, they LIKE having him around- he’s just fun!

Recently, as the boys bid their high fives to each other the day of graduation, said goodbye to their classmates, and anxiously anticipating the start of another middle school ritual, Summer Tournament Baseball, one of the guys had a thought. Why couldn’t Luke join them on their tournament team?

Unsolicited by any adult, Tommy went to his dad, and said, (to the best of my knowledge) “Can we find a spot for Luke on our team? He deserves a chance, just like the rest of us,” His dad, a super nice guy, whom we have just recently met, was quick to recognize that goodness in his son, and you bet, took a step back and thoughtfully came up with some creative steps to make that happen. Within a few hours the texts and emails were exchanged, and the buzz was out there, “Luke was the official manager, thus a member of The Brookline Tournament Team. When he approached practice in his new sneakers and baseball pants, mitt in hand, I’m really not sure who was more excited- Luke or his teammates

My husband and I are somewhat mystified at the kindness we have experienced tangentially through our son. Our hearts have cracked opened and filled with goodness beyond our expectations or efforts.

We have asked ourselves on many occasions, “How do kids turn out this nice?” We both have had the same sentiment for some time now, but the recent baseball experience is just really the icing on the cake. Good kids, good families, good education.

Not pushing Luke to be more than he was created to be I think has been a valuable lesson for us as parents, and for our other nine children. And what Luke seems to draw out of other kids, and people in general, seems nothing short of a miracle in our calloused, crazy, text and social media driven, who’s got it bigger, better, faster- world.

As we prepare to celebrate with fireworks and festivities, the freedoms and privileges this great country offers, I am reminded of a sentiment I heard years ago.

We are here to teach our children about life, but it is often that our children, teach us what life’s all about. ( author unknown)

Happy Fourth of July, America

Go Brookline (the Blue) of the RED WHITE AND BLUE!!

With special thanks to Lindsay Montani, Alex Clancy, Colleen Bolger Bingamin, Mr. Sherbinko, Mr. Casey, Sara Christensen, Dan Marsala, The Life Skills Team and Chatham Park Family and Haverford Township

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