Much of the credit for our son's remarkable growth belongs to our family. We've never doubted his value. But another sacred piece belongs to LaVelle Gipson-Tansil. Her belief that Eric was capable of learning with disabilities has made the difference in his education.
In recent years, the teaching profession has suffered a professional black eye, partly as a result of a few teachers who fail to make the grade. During the past five years, as I've struggled to get special needs inclusion for my son in the public school system, I've encountered some of them. But I've also met some outstanding educators who've restored my faith in education.
LaVelle Gipson-Tansil is a stellar example. She's a teacher at the Laboratory Preschool at Michigan State University who's earned plenty of accolades. I met her seven years ago, while I was still adjusting to my role as the parent of a child with cerebral palsy. Eric had been assigned to her preschool classroom. As part of her commitment to the success of her students, LaVelle was making home visits to interact first with students on their own turf.
I opened the door to find a stunning African-American woman in a flowing lavender dress. Her long, dark hair accented her nearly perfect model's smile. Initially, I was guarded, a response familiar to special education parents parents when encountering professionals who work with their children.
"Hi. I'm LaVelle Gipson," she said, confidently, her eyes focused on mine. I sensed that her beauty was more than just surface. She knelt down and spoke softly to my son as he sat on the floor in a special seat.
She explained to Eric what he could expect in her classroom in the days ahead, then addressed my questions. She touched Eric's hand gently as we spoke, returning often to meet his gaze. She never once ignored his presence. Eric smiled at her, a sign of acceptance I'd come to respect. Two years earlier, with the words of what our son would never do ringing in our ears, my husband and I chose to focus on our son's abilities, not just on his disability. We'd listened to the diagnosis. We'd reluctantly welcomed professional strangers into our lives and into our home. We'd become accustomed to professional arrogance and closed doors. But we were determined to open new ones to ensure a rich and productive life for our son.
It has not been an easy path.
When Eric was old enough to attend preschool, I called Dr. Alice Whiren, the director of the Laboratory Preschool at Michigan State University. We discussed my son's needs face-to-face. I still remember the phone call that announced Eric's acceptance into the school. At that moment, I realized that almost anything was possible with enough determination and faith, and with professionals who cared enough about a child to accept a significant challenge.
The day that Eric and I first visited his classroom, I parked in a lot across the street. Eric wouldn't tolerate a stroller, so I carried him in my arms. As the morning rush-hour traffic zoomed by us at the crosswalk, the doubts in my head were deafening. What was I doing taking this child to spend time in a preschool classroom? Eric was sensitive to noise and easily distracted. Did I really think that my disabled son was ready for such normalcy? Hadn't I heard the words of the professionals who surely knew more than I?
I kept on walking.
That decision became the cornerstone of my son's solid educational foundation. Today, seven years later, Eric is in a regular third grade classroom, where he displays age-appropriate behavior and is considered socially well adjusted. He's a charming child with a great sense of humor and strong determination. He understands complex sentences and loves to read books. Thanks to his solid start at the Lab Preschool, my son loves learning. He's excited about his recent success with learning to use the computer technology that enhances his limited speech and motor skills. Eric's still easily distracted by too much activity in a room, but now he's excited about what's going on around him.
He doesn't want to miss a thing.
LaVelle Gipson-Tansil's belief in Eric has made the difference in his education. When I was hesitant to leave him, she gently pushed me out the door. When the noise of her classroom was more than he could bear, she took him to the office to calm down. As she carried him to meet me at the end of each day, she instructed him to use his eye gaze to identify specific letters of the alphabet hanging on the walls. When other educators later doubted that he knew his ABCs, she reminded me she'd already assessed that knowledge many times.
Granted, LaVelle has the support of student teachers that allow her the time to focus attention on a student's special needs. But I believe she would've found a way to help my child succeed anyway. It's something I witnessed her do with every child in her classroom for two years. Recently, Lavelle told me that having Eric in her classroom was a rich experience. She credits Eric with refueling her educational fire and reaffirming her faith in parents. Working with Eric allowed her to confidently welcome other children with special needs into her classroom.
It's been five years since we've left her nurturing classroom, five years of meeting the intense challenges of inclusion in the public schools. While we've been blessed to work with some skilled professionals, we're constantly forging new educational ground. When other exasperated parents ask me how we've achieved what we have, my reply is simple. We've accomplished what we have because seven years ago one outstanding educator cared enough to model for us what education could be for our son--what it should be. It's a priceless gift we take wherever we go.
Judy Winter is the author of Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations and co-founder of the Eric 'RicStar' Winter Music Therapy Camp at Michigan State University. To learn more, visit: www.judywinter.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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