Saturday, May 18, 2013

Looking Past The Scars



      I debated with myself about whether or not to include a photograph with this post. I settled for Mel Gibson in the movie, The Man Without A Face. I looked online for images of burned faces and I found some that were less scarred than Mel and some were more scarred....more like the face of my former student Jeffrey. Jeffrey's facial features were barely recognizable, and his whole head was scarred; he could not grow hair on his head. He was a teenage boy wearing a terrible wig.  There was one image I found online that looked very much like him, a wig perched on top of the scarred skull, but I simply could not force myself to represent him like that.....like he looked on the outside. His "inside" was what was really exceptional about Jeffrey.
     Jeffrey was a physician's son. When he was four years old, there was a fire in their house. A frightened little Jeffrey hid under his bed, was difficult to find, and although he survived, he was grotesquely scarred for life...on the outside.
       On the inside, he was the "Jeff" in my earlier post about Wendy,  I'm Going to Marry Jeff, & We're Going to Get a Poodle! , posted 4/7/13.  Wendy, as I wrote (and I hope you have already read), did not live long enough to marry Jeffrey, but he was definitely the "marrying kind". He was wonderful kid who had a seriously life-changing bad break. His intellectual functioning had been normal for a four-year-old before the fire, but that changed drastically. There seemed to be no definitive explanation; it could have been post-traumatic stress, or perhaps brain damage due to lack of oxygen to his brain during the fire. His diminished capacity could have been a combination of factors, but whatever the cause, Jeffrey was in my special class in our special school.
      Many of the students in my class did not look "normal", for a variety of reasons. Kids like Scott, in the post "Silence Is Not Always Golden", or Troy in the post "Wanna See My Fried Egg Face?",  are two examples. Scott looked average, but his disability caused him to present himself in an out-of-ordinary manner. Troy was a student with Downs syndrome, so he appeared physically different. Well, Jeffrey didn't look intellectually challenged, just horribly disfigured....on the outside.
      However, the inside of Jeff was charming, kind, and very gentlemanly. He took school seriously, but he knew how to have fun. His scarred limbs somewhat inhibited his full physical inclusion in Special Olympic athletics and regular playground activities, but he always made a sporting effort to participate as much as he could. He was curious and had a tremendous work ethic. He took much pride in achieving all his IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) goals. He loved working in the woodshop as much as his beloved Wendy did.
       My fondest memory of Jeffrey is from one of the weekly trips that a fellow teacher and I took to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market. This market was held daily, Monday through Saturday. We would leave pretty early and walk our students nearly a mile from our downtown school to the market on the near north side of town.  Farmers would back their trucks up to the long, raised cement slabs and put out boxes of their fresh produce. It was always a busy place, and in the fall, there were almost always several elementary school groups there for a field trip.
        One fine fall day, we got to the market and there was only one shiny yellow school bus there. The children getting off the bus appeared to be kindergartners...also fresh and shiny, very new to school, and probably on their first field trip. They seemed a bit unruly, compared to our experienced and well-trained adolescents.
        As the little students lined up in their field trip "buddy pairs", I noticed a couple of them were pointing at Jeffrey. They weren't laughing, just pointing, and actually looking a bit frightened. Jeffrey's looks could have that effect, especially on young children. On our other trips to the market, it was not unusual for students to stare, but that day it was more serious than staring. Jeffrey also noticed them eyeing him.
       He made a U-turn and walked right up to them. Their teacher was at the bus door, and suddenly realized that she was farther away from her students than she wanted to be. I quickly followed Jeff, not knowing what his reaction might be. He had never been confrontational before. The two children took a step back, and Jeffrey stopped in front of where they had been standing. By now, many of the other "buddy pairs" were observing him.
         What came out of Jeffrey was amazing.
         In a strong and clear voice he said, "It's OK to stare at me. I look awful, but I can't help it. When I was little like you, my house caught on fire. I hid under the bed. If you are ever in a fire, make sure you get out. Get out fast. Don't hide under your bed."
         One of the pointers asked, "Does it hurt?"
         "No, it just looks bad."
         "I'm sorry."
         "It's OK, just don't hide if your house catches fire. Get out. Bye." Jeffrey turned and walked away, to catch up with our group.
          By this time, the kindergarten teacher had arrived. She just looked at me as I stood there. Jeffrey was gone.
          Kindergarten teacher asked, "Was there a problem?"
          "No problem", I proudly replied. "Jeffrey just gave some of your students an important lesson in fire safety. They can tell you about it."
         Kindergarten teacher said, "I don't know what to say."
         I answered, "Just promise me you'll make sure they remember this,"
         Kindergarten teacher, "I promise. Thank you."       

         I always took my two oldest children, Jenipher and Charles, to Emerson School during the school year, for occasions such as field days, open houses and Special Olympic activities. They were exposed to those two hundred intellectually challenged kids from the time they were about five and six years old, until we moved back to Iowa when they were twelve and thirteen. Jenny and Charlie played with them, talked to them, and spent time getting to know them. It didn't matter that they looked different, or spoke funny, or sometimes did just plain strange things. I taught my children that those students were so much more LIKE them, than they were UNLIKE them.
        What was important was what those students were like on the inside. They were adored by their parents, just like Jenny and Charlie were. They liked to tease and be teased. They laughed at jokes, and played jokes. These kids liked hugs, just like Jenny and Charlie. They were sad when their pet fish died. They liked to learn, and they liked to tell what they learned. That is exactly what Jeffrey did. He may have appeared to be the "r" word, but he had a very important lesson to share. And he did it very well.
        When I reported the farmers market incident to Jeffrey's parents, they were justifiably impressed. They already knew they had a very special kid; what Jeffrey looked like on the outside was gruesome to some, but not at all to them. What Jeffrey looked like on the inside was beautiful to everyone who took the time to get past the scars and get to know him. 
          That's all that really matters...with anyone...  Our "scars" might not be as obvious as Jeffrey's were, but we all have them. And we have lessons to give others, if they take the time to get to know us.
          I'm so glad I had time to get to know Jeffrey.