Hala is 18 years old and she loves the swingset. Every day at recess she runs out the door of her classroom past the line of students waiting to buy snacks and down the ramp to the playground, arms stretched towards the swings and a grin stretched across her face. She always sings while she’s on the swing and she makes up the lyrics herself. She uses the tunes from children’s cartoons and then replaces the words with the names of people she loves. The other kids don’t mind Hala’s singing, even though it’s very loud and pretty much unceasing for the full hour of recess. They also don’t mind that on most days Hamza walks around the playground holding a piece of cardboard up to his ear like a phone or that Abdullah talks at twice the volume most people do because he’s hard of hearing. And they don’t mind me either- my funny clothes or my halting Arabic or my strange ideas.
Every day I walk home from school and sometimes my older students walk with me. One day a few months ago my student Abdullah was walking with me and we passed a group of girls walking from the other direction. They stopped and stared as we passed, and then they giggled and shouted “Foreigner! Foreigner!” at our backs. “What’s wrong with them??” Abdullah demanded. He turned around, his chin jutted out and his fists clenched, staring them down as we walked away. “Crazy,” he said, making the sign for it at the side of his head. And it pained me to think of how many people had said the same thing about Abdullah, about all of my students. Especially when I remembered how many times I’d told my friends and neighbors about being harassed in the street and how few of them had ever offered as much support or loyalty as Abdullah, who is fourteen and wears a hearing aid and has probably gets plenty of harassment of his own.
I tell people that I work at a school for kids with disabilities, but sometimes disability seems like the wrong term to me. Because it’s based on the assumption that some abilities are more important than others. The ones that someone has decided my students don’t have. And while I know that the diagnostic process is useful in a lot of ways, I don’t like that assumption. I have never seen people that smile more than my students. I’ve never seen people with more love to give or more capacity for forgiveness or more energy and delight and creativity when taught something new. And all of that from children whose lives are much, much more difficult than most other people’s. My students are some of the strongest people I have ever known.
Temple Grandin is a scientist, writer, and advocate for people with disabilities. She has Autism and is a strong proponent of diversifying education to meet the needs of every type of learner. One of her most frequently quoted phrases is “The world needs all kinds of minds.” I think about that a lot. I once had a student who had memorized the entire weekly train schedule for our county and could tell me which train I had taken and from where based on the time I arrived at work. I have a student now who can draw, in impeccable detail, the view from the front seat of our village bus. I have students who have learned words in English with perfect inflection just from listening to me answer my phone. Every day I bring them art projects and the examples I create for each lesson are basic and predictable. But the art they produce from those examples makes me grin. It is wild and strange and colorful and done with incredible focus or incredible freedom and it is entirely theirs. I once gave my students sponges cut into shapes and asked them to paint whatever they wanted. I painted a house with green grass and a yellow sun. Moath painted purple mountains with red birds and a dark gray sky. The world needs all kinds of minds.
The playground is my favorite place to be and my students feel similarly. Every day I’m out there pushing Hala and Hamza on the swings and looking out at these age-old mountains and I know Hala and Hamza will be here every day for a long, long time. It breaks my heart that I won’t be here too. But today Hala is singing again and I hear her chanting, over and over, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie” with each upward swing. And pretty soon a teacher will probably yell from the window that she should quiet down but I know that she won’t. And thank god for that. Because in just a few months I’ll be gone and there won’t be anyone pushing Hala on the swings anymore, but I love to think that every day she’ll still be here, still looking out over these mountains and shouting the names of the people she loves at the top of her lungs. And right now it feels like a gift to be one of them.