Lessons from the Greatest Teacher Of My Life
Ironically we met in a hospital and not in a school. She wasn’t even the one who inspired me to become a teacher. When we met, I had already been a teacher myself for fifteen years. But that just made it easier for me to recognize what a master teacher she was. I made myself a promise. I would watch her carefully, ask questions, and learn everything I could.
The greatest teacher of my life is my daughter, Kelsey. Born with cerebral palsy, she later developed brain cancer when she was five years old. Vivid and remarkable are the lessons she taught me. I am a better teacher forever because of her patience with me.
When Kelsey was four, she wanted to learn to tie her shoes. A best friend had accomplished this important childhood feat. Even though I had worked with preschoolers for many years, I was stumped. Because of cerebral palsy Kelsey was left with very little use of the fingers and thumb on her left hand. I was unable to tie a shoe with one hand. How could I teach her? Medical insurance refused to cover occupational or physical therapy. It seems the term “pre-existing condition” excuses them, forever, from a child’s needs. We struggled for three and a half years with this one maddeningly simple task. But she mastered it. On the first day of summer vacation when she was seven and a half years old, as I watched and encouraged her she taught herself to tie her shoes with one hand. She beamed from ear to ear. I cried.
I noticed something important after she conquered her shoe laces. No one ever asked her how old she was when she mastered the skill. Lesson learned by this teacher? In the long run learning pace is of little importance. Accomplishing meaningful goals within our own timetable is what matters most.
Then Came the Cancer
Throughout her cancer treatment, Kelsey gained some control over her circumstances through play. Whenever we were in the hospital, she wanted to play “restaurant”. She was always the waitress and I was cast as the customer. Hours on end we played this game of her choice. She lost herself in this dramatic- play-acting; it was if we weren’t in the hospital at all.
When we were home where she felt safe, she always wanted to play “hospital.” In this game she was the doctor – in charge for a change. Family members and friends had to be the patients. She developed a game called “radiation” that had an uncanny realism to it. Her play often included medical terms her peers and many adults didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter. She had found a healthy way to cope with the scary things that were happening to her in the hospital. She did much better than cope. She was happy. What had I learned? She taught me firsthand and emphatically about the important therapeutic value of play.
The Enthusiastic Ballerina
When Kelsey was six she wanted to take ballet lessons. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this frightened me. At the time she was in chemotherapy. Her muscles were weak from the chemo drugs. She had very poor balance following her brain surgery and her weight had slipped to 34 pounds. There was an awkwardness to her left leg and arm due to her cerebral palsy. She was bald and wore a patch over her left eye. I was afraid she would fall and get hurt. And, let’s be honest, I was afraid the other girls would make fun of her.
Fortunately I didn’t know how to tell my daughter about my fears, and she persisted with her request until I enrolled her in ballet class. I had forgotten what she knew instinctively. The process is always more important than the product. She danced with joy. The sheer fun of dancing was her goal. Did she fall? Of course. Was she awkward? You bet. Did it matter? Not a bit. Every child and adult who watched Kelsey dance gained something special from it. Her dancing career lasted four years. She only quit when she decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons instead. This time I had learned my lesson. I signed her up without hesitating.
Lessons from Basketball
In fifth grade Kelsey excitedly brought home a registration form for intramural basketball. She wanted to play. I knew it would be a major challenge for her. Our daughter could only run very slowly and with great difficulty. She was also very short as her pituitary gland had been severely damaged by the cranial radiation she had received to survive cancer. For many, many years she received a daily injection of growth hormone to grow at all. She only had the use of one hand to play ball. Caution bells went off inside my head again, but I had learned to ignore them. The excitement in her eyes emphatically canceled out all those drawbacks.
We signed her up. After the first practice the coach/gym teacher, George Losh, said he was afraid for her to play in a regular game. He was afraid she would get hurt. I’m certain lawsuits danced in his head. But every child who participates in sports risks physical harm. If her risk was greater, her need to belong was greater too. We encouraged him to let her play. George Losh’s physical education classes were always child-centered and structured so that every child could feel some measure of success. For two years Kelsey played basketball harder than any girl in the league. No, she never made a basket during a game. Some huge successes are subtle. In two years we never once saw a teammate treat her as anything other than as asset to the team. After weeks of trying, when Kelsey made her first basket during practice, every girl in the entire gymnasium stopped to applaud. Watching this young lady struggle and triumph increased the humanity of all who knew her. On game days when we stopped in the grocery store, Kelsey quickly shed her winter coat into the grocery cart. It took me a few times to figure out that she was so proud of her team shirt, she didn’t want it to go unnoticed under her coat. She was thrilled to be part of a team.
Most Important Lesson of All
What is the single most important lesson Kelsey taught me?
Being excluded hurts. Be certain of this. The older my daughter grew, the more excluded she was… both by her peers and unfortunately by some teachers too. Whatever educational jargon or current political term you choose to use, the results are still the same. Being excluded hurts.
Possessing a physical disability or struggling with a different learning style did not rob my daughter of her sensitivity. Being excluded hurts! It hurts the children being excluded. It robs them of the role models-their typically developing peers-they so greatly need. It shortchange the children with ‘normal’ growth patterns too. Inclusive environments reduce fears, build understanding, and teach compassion, patience, and tolerance in a way ‘special’ schools and ‘special’ classrooms never will. Inclusive environments reflect life and the society in which we live. How can we separate our children now and expect them to adjust successfully to one another at some magical, mythical time in the future?
Becoming a Great Teacher
Good teachers become great teachers when they become students themselves. Children have much to teach us if we will only watch and listen carefully. Kelsey’s dream of becoming a teacher did not end when her cancer returned and she died at age sixteen. Kelsey was an incredible teacher all of her life. I cannot tell you how many times one of her teachers would come to me at the end of the year and say, “She taught me so much more than I taught her.” I came to expect it, because I had learned that it was true.
Kelsey modeled for me how to handle rejection without becoming angry. She showed me how to simply ignore seemingly insurmountable challenges and just focus on living life to the fullest. She taught me how to more greatly appreciate the simple joys of family and traditions. She modeled how to maintain a sense of humor and grace even in the face of death. She has left the most incredible legacy for all who knew and loved her…and all my future students too. She will forever be the greatest teacher of my life. May her story touch your teaching life, too.
Kelsey Noel Easley
TEACH…To Change Lives
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