How a person perceives himself and how a person is perceived by others carries a very strong emotional impact. Self-esteem can propel someone to great heights and to achieve great things. On the other hand, a negative self-image and one that is reinforced by others can generate depression, self-doubt and loathing, and can often lead to a downward emotional spiral.
Each child is unique and special. Not just to his or her parents, but as a Divine gift to humanity. I am constantly amazed by the ability of so many individuals to rise above their difficulties and apparent limitations to achieve greatness. The weightlifter with one arm, the gymnasts and runners who are amputees, the paralympians, the students with special needs who are now teachers, the musicians and singers who are part of Shalva, the actors with Down syndrome and, this year, the Radio City Rockette who has no left hand.
What each of these individuals likely had was a positive self-image that was reinforced by those around them. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy to tell a child what he cannot do or accomplish. The poet Robert Browning wrote that…”a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a Heaven for.” This exhortation should be the mantra of every teacher for every child, especially those with developmental and learning issues. This is the mandate for every parent as well.
Every child is like a seed which must be nurtured. If it is not properly cared for and cultivated, it will not blossom or bear fruit. This is a great challenge for teachers, especially with a class of 20 or more students. It is exponentially more difficult if some of those students have special needs. Not too long ago, Orthodox children with special learning needs had nowhere to go except the public schools to get what they needed to succeed. Obviously, the atmosphere was not compatible with the family lifestyle, nor was there any religious instruction available to them. Day schools and yeshivot in New Jersey were not willing or able to accommodate these children.
Eventually, there were those who swam against the tide of complacency, ignorance, self-righteousness, and fear, and programs were established to meet these needs in the appropriate religious environment. It was a slow start, but it was a beginning, and it has snowballed into a success story in many (but not all) of our local day schools. Over the years, we have thankfully recognized that these children have every right to the same education as their peers. Torah was given to all of us, with no exceptions, and no child should be educationally disenfranchised. The methods and practical pedagogies exist and are being professionally implemented.
Children and their parents and grandparents have received a long overdue gift that the community must support. Although their classes are different, they ride the bus to school with their friends, they have lunch with them and they are part of a school community for assemblies and special occasions. They belong and have a chevra. This cannot be adequately measured or quantified. They are no longer segregated or told they don’t belong.
As a community we have many obligations—shuls, schools and mikvaot. Education has always been an important priority. Special needs education is indeed special and we must actively support those who give these children the future they deserve.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator, administrator and consultant.