They sneak up on you. Life changers come from out of nowhere. You wake up in the morning expecting a typical day, but you meet someone new, or something unexpected happens on that day, and it changes the course of your life. Sometimes you figure it out on the very day it happens. You say to yourself
Wow. I’m going to remember this day forever.
But some life changers only reveal themselves over a long period of time. It may take decades before you know the full impact they have on you. Life changers can feel wonderful or horrible. The things they have in common are that they are out of our control and they change us profoundly. They are different from significant days that you plan like a wedding or a reunion. They appear suddenly and alter our lives in unexpected ways.
One of the things I love about teaching is that we get to experience so many life changers. Sometimes it’s a person, often a student, other times it’s an event or simply a tiny moment. Sometimes we teachers become the life changers and we may even be unaware of it. But in this wonderful profession life changers are possible every single day.
This is my youngest daughter, Kelsey Easley. Her life was a life changer for me. This story isn’t mostly about Kelsey but it begins with her. When Kelsey was born I had already been a teacher for fifteen years. I believe I was a good teacher, creative and hard-working. But watching my daughter’s life and her experiences changed my teaching profoundly.
Kelsey was diagnosed with brain cancer at age five. She battled cancer off and on for eleven years until the disease took her life at age sixteen. When Kelsey had to receive radiation to her brain at age five, it saved her life but it also changed her life. Radiation kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells. As a result Kelsey’s intelligence plummeted. She went from being the top reader in her kindergarten class, to the lowest reader by the end of the first grade with the same peers. Now she didn’t just have a deadly disease to battle, she also was forced to enter the population we politely label special needs.
That experience put me (Kelsey’s mom) on the other side of the IEP conference table…the side of the table where no parent ever chooses to be. I learned a lot of lessons on the parent side of the table, most of them painful. I saw teachers and specialists in a whole new and often unflattering way. Too often I saw condescension or inflexibility. It changed me.
I also learned how naturally accepting and inclusive young children are. They’ll love you bald. It makes no difference. But acceptance changes at about junior high age. What Kelsey needed the most in junior high and high school were friends and there were very few. I watched her hurt and no one deserved it less.
How This Changed Me
It would be impossible to describe all the ways parenting Kelsey changed me; but for right now I’ll share one story. When I began teaching a Teacher Academy program at the high school level, I decided to begin a Friendship Club between my class full of academically talented future teachers and the students with special needs in our high school. Kelsey had taught me that friends were what the special population needed most. Instinct and my own experiences taught me that my future teachers would learn even more. My students knew all about Kelsey. She had passed away by then but I shared many stories about her.
We planned monthly activities pairing our aspiring teachers and their new friends from the special education department. The outcomes were wonderful. True friendships emerged. Simply a new friend to greet in the high school hallways was an improvement for the special population. Many of our new friends wandered into our classroom routinely before school and during breaks. My future teachers learned to plan appropriate activities that encouraged conversations and natural friendships. They also learned patience, tolerance, how to modify activities to feature all talents, a new respect for challenges our less fortunate friends encountered and a gratitude for our own gifts.
You’d think a win/win idea like this one would be greeted with positive reactions from all, but it had its challenges. Most of the special population didn’t drive and were quite dependent on school transportation specially equipped for their needs. This meant our functions had to happen within school hours. Some teachers were opposed to having students miss class, though we tried mightily to schedule these events during lunch hours. Locations were hard to schedule too. But the challenges were worth the effort. Relationships formed and barriers were removed.
Will You Help?
One day an unexpected email (a life changer) challenged all of us to examine just how sincere our intentions were. The email came from Steven’s mom. Steven was one of our new friends who was almost completely nonverbal. Steven’s mom wanted her son to have the opportunity to attend the prom. Would any of my students be willing to have Steven be part of their prom night? I read the question from the email aloud to my future teachers and waited. It was very quiet. No teens made eye contact with me. Here was Kelsey’s mom standing in front of them asking an uncomfortable question. PROM? A pretty sacred night for a teen.
After a somewhat lengthy pause Chelsea finally spoke up.
I’ll take Steven to the prom. I didn’t have anyone special I wanted to go with, and I couldn’t rationalize spending the money, but this gives me a good reason to go.
Her friends complimented her and told her they’d support her in her decision.
The Friendship Date
Prom night was a little more challenging than Chelsea had expected. Steven didn’t like the noise level in the room where the dancing was taking place. He mostly enjoyed standing at the front doors in the lobby watching the limos come and go as teens arrived. Chelsea, on that night, didn’t realize that she was right in the middle of a life changer. But she was.
Steven’s mom called Chelsea the next day and told Chelsea how much Steven had seemed to enjoy the evening. A friendship grew as Chelsea began to make sporadic visits to Steven’s house to hang out. She followed his lead into things that he enjoyed, basketball, wood working and equipment that digs. He learned to make an attempt at saying her name. He pronounced Chelsea’s name “Chs.”
Before long Chelsea went off to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher. But, as a true friend does, she took the time to visit Steven whenever she came home for breaks. When Chelsea was a junior in college she walked back into my high school Teacher Academy classroom to share some news with me. She grinned a little as she said these life changing words.
Guess what Mrs. E? I’ve changed my college major. I’ve decided to become a special educator.
I, of course, was pleased but not even the tiniest bit surprised. Today Chelsea is in her second year of serving in the classroom as an intervention specialist in a school not far from here. It’s close enough that she can still be a friend to Steven; and that is exactly as it should be. Steven and Chelsea were life changers for each other. It was a particular joy for this teacher to watch this transformation take place.
I can feel Kelsey grinning down on all three of us.
Chelsea and Steven, Still Friends Today