Friday, August 26, 2011

life lessons.

I spent eight mornings this summer teaching creative writing to adults with severe physical disabilities.  It was my second summer teaching at this program, and I have hesitated to write about it, for several reasons.

I can't really share much about these students.  I can't tell you the incredible stories I've learned about the kind of lives they have led.  I can't share their names.   But also, all the things I want to say about my experiences with them feel so incredibly cliche.  I mean, seriously. 

It was my pleasure to teach these students.  

I have learned to see their abilities, not their disabilities. 

They taught me more than I taught them.

I'm a better person because of the time I spent with them.

See what I mean?  And yet, those statements are all true.

I'm embarrassed to tell you how nervous I was when I first started.  There were seven students, most of whom have cerebral palsy.  Five of them have very slurred speech and are hard to understand.  One of them has extremely slurred and labored speech and is almost impossible to understand.  One doesn't speak at all.   I had never taught, let alone spent any time, with people so disabled. 

They each had a one-on-one aide during classes (an incredibly talented and caring staff).  I wasn't sure if I was supposed to address the aides, or just look at the students.  I wasn't sure what the students could understand, what kind of prompts I should give them, how to go about sharing and workshopping poetry.  What should I do if one of them said something to me, and I didn't understand it?  What if they couldn't do what I asked?  Well, luckily for me, they gave me the time to figure it all out, and I trusted my instincts, and hoped for the best.

It will come as no surprise that what I learned is that I should give them the same kinds of prompts and ideas that I give my high school students.  I learned that they like to hear ideas, to brainstorm together, and hear examples of poems before they are sent off to write, just like my high school students.  They laugh with each other, and laugh with me, and make fun of me, just like my high school students.

Over the course of my time there, they started to trust me.  They started to see themselves as writers. We developed inside jokes.  They shared their fears, their dreams, their hopes for their futures.  They wrote about loved ones who had died, people who make them angry, pet peeves, favorite foods.  In so many ways, they were similar to all of my students.  I actually remember a moment half-way through the first summer when I realized that I wasn't seeing them as disabled people anymore, just people. 

These students also surprised me, and made me much more aware of sensitivities I should have already had.  They are frustrated that many people don't treat them like adults.  They are sad that children are often afraid of them.  At night when they sleep, they all (unanimously) dream that they can walk, run, and dance, even though none of them has ever taken one step.   It makes them mad when passersby look at the person pushing their wheelchair, and not directly at them.  They just want to be seen as normal, to be seen as people, not people in wheelchairs.

They love writing, and loved becoming poets.  They truly started to see themselves as poets over the months we worked together, and they crafted some amazing work.  On Wednesday night, they each read 2 poems to an audience of 40 people.  At the reading, they surprised me with two poems they wrote about me.  I cried.

They did great, and the audience was appropriately awed by their work. 

This is the student with whom I worked one-on-one for 2 summers, and I helped him to read his poems at the reading.  I don't have a lot of photos of me teaching, but this one would have to be my all-time favorite.  Such a kind, gentle, gracious soul.  And funny, too!

I truly cannot think of a non-cliche way to summarize all that I learned in order to end this post, so I'll just say this.  I hope they have me back next summer.


Jillrunsforsanity said...

This post made me cry. There is nothing better than making a difference in somebody's life and it sounds like that's exactly what you did. I always try to teach my kids never be afraid or nervous just because somebody is in a wheelchair and to treat them as they would their friends. When at field day at my son's school this year I was talking to a girl in his class with cerebral palsy and she told me my son was such a sweet boy (they are in 6th grade). That really touched my heart and made me realize I'm doing a good job as a mom.

The Finicky Farmer said...

This is an especially lovely post, Emilie. Thanks for sharing the experience and the moving photos.

It's funny, isn't it, the way in which cliches often harbor kernels of authenticity.

A former college mate had CP, and she was part of my creative writing group. Following undergrad, she went on to pursue an MFA. Right before her death last summer, she won a prestigious award for her work and was published for the first time. I like to imagine her shy, proud smile when she found out.

Lisa said...

So, so touched by your post. I have a nephew who has some disabilities. He's got the biggest heart ever and a great sense of humor. It saddens me when, out in public, people look afraid at times. If they only knew what a wonderful person he is.

What a gift for you.

ann said...

Oh Em,
I am so proud to be your aunt. Life's lessons are so precious and you are able to embrace them with gusto! I am often amazed that so many people don't realize that we are among the elite in this world and should be thankful for all that is bestowed on us--good health, food to eat, clothes to wear, and shelter over our heads. Your students are heroes in my opinion and they deserve someone like you to teach them!