Respecting People With Special Needs
It takes a village to teach children to love others
Children can learn compassion at a young age
At the little church I attended during my childhood, girls went through an unofficial rite of passage the year they turned eight. That was when you joined Josie's Sunday School class.
Josie wasn't the teacher. Josie was a student. The rest of us would only spend a year or two in the class before moving on, but Josie never went further than the eight-year-old class. Josie was an adult, but she had Down Syndrome, and her mind was forever locked in childhood,
Back then, there were no Special Education classes, and "mainstreaming" referred to fishing or boating. Sadly, sometimes children who were "different" were sent away. But if their communities were lucky, they were simply integrated into daily life. Our community was one of the lucky ones.
Josie could have been any age – at eight, it was hard for me to determine. I could see that she had wrinkles, and her hair was turning gray and thinning. But she wore patent leather Mary Jane's, the gathered-skirt shirtwaist dresses of the time, and a hat. Those were the days of straw sailor hats festooned with clusters of plastic cherries and yards of grosgrain ribbon, and no little girl was considered properly dressed without one. Like the rest of us, she also wore dainty white, wrist-length gloves, and carried a little plastic purse. Church and Sunday School were dress-up occasions; you wore your Sunday best to worship the Lord.
Our lessons in love came from experience
We learned to accept Josie just as she was, and to celebrate her accomplishments
On the surface, we were in class to learn about God and Jesus through the Bible. We did learn about God and Jesus, but our best lessons came from Josie. Each week, we had opportunies to practice patience and acceptance, and to find joy in the smallest of things.
Josie could not read, and she could not speak normal words. But she communicated freely and openly through sounds and gestures, and left no doubt as to whether she was pleased or displeased about things.
Each week, the worn Bible we used in class was passed from one set of small hands to the next, and our young voices labored aloud in turn, reading King James’ verses written in words well beyond our years. Sometimes a class neophyte would assume that we were to skip Josie, and would hand the Bible across her to the next person. It only took one such mistake to learn the drill. Josie would protest indignantly, and one of us would matter-of-factly explain how things worked.
Josie took great pride in reading her Bible verse. She would hold the Bible in her lap, and the little girl nearest to her would read the verse for her, pointing to each word. Josie would beam broadly when her verse was over. Her sense of pride and accomplishment was contagious, and we praised her for doing such a good job.
Josie's love of life was infectious, and she taught us to love unconditionally
Joy was a prominent and overriding emotion for Josie. She was certainly capable of showing anger and irritation, and we learned readily to be sensitive to her feelings. But she helped shape us into sensitive future adults, while reminding us it was okay to continue being children. From her, we saw how easy it was to experience childlike pleasure in the simplest of things.
At eight years of age, the timing for us was perfect. We were not yet the self-absorbed teenagers we would become, but we were old enough to think ourselves superior to anyone younger – they were just little kids. We wanted so much to grow up, and quickly. Thankfully, Josie helped us slow down a bit; her guileless behaviors were gentle reminders to enjoy the moment, and her knack for expressing unselfconscious, pure delight was an example of how to live each day with joy. Because it was so easy to make her happy, we learned to freely seek ways to do so.
If we congratulated her for being a good Bible reader (even if by proxy) she wore a wide smile for the rest of the morning. If we were astute enough to compliment her on a new purse or dress, she laughed and glowed from the attention. Gradually we began to talk to her as though she could answer us back, unaware that we were learning a basic lesson in honoring human dignity. We learned through time and love to discern the difference between doing for her that which she could not do herself, and in working with her to reach the simple goals that she could achieve through help.
When we passed around the little plate to collect the dimes and nickels tucked in the sweaty palms of our gloves, we knew Josie could find her coins in her purse if we handed it to her and helped her open it. If we held the plate in front of her, she remembered to put them in with the rest of the offerings.
Sometimes she would laugh or sing a special song of joy when we said our closing prayer – we quickly learned to take it in stride and let her know we viewed it as her personal way of praying with us. Josie was a true Child of God, and sharing Sunday School with her each week gave us regular lessons in understanding the requirement, and ultimate thrill, that we should love all of God's creatures as He created them.
A church cherishes a special needs child
Our entire congregation cradled Josie in love
The church's open acceptance of Josie wasn't entirely a product of the eight-year-old Sunday School Class. Our minister's love for all people set the tone for how the congregation felt about her. She was an integral part of the church family; as much a member as anyone. Josie's mother, a single parent, would sit with her during the morning worship service. From time to time, Josie would burst out with some sound of joy, or maybe a cry of concern, in the middle of the sermon.
"That's right, Josie!" the minister would say, never missing a beat. Recognizing her name, Josie would grin widely in satisfaction, causing everyone to smile and laugh with her. The sermon would continue, with the congregation somehow more sweetly united.
When we left Josie's Sunday School class, we wondered why she couldn't move along with us. We wanted Josie to graduate to the next grade. But the adults all said it wasn't possible; Josie needed to remain with a younger age group. We would grow older and wiser, but Josie would not.
That made sense to us, but we all missed her; she'd become a valued part of our weekly experience, and her lesson of love crossed gender boundaries as well. There was no Josie in the eight-year-old boys' class. But they'd met her through us, and treated her as we did. She was one of us.
A bit sadly, we moved along to the next class. And a few years later, yet another. Soon we were learning about make-up, and teetering to church in tiny spool heels and saggy nylon stockings. We were beginning to date the gawky boys we'd met in Youth Fellowship, who walked beside us in the church hallways and joined us, through our examples, in giving Josie a friendly "Hello," each week. The warmth we'd felt for her as children had transcended the years of our youth. She had helped the girls become responsible young women, capable of embracing the weak and humble, and she had allowed the boys to learn the graceful and manly law of loving and protecting all creatures.
I don't believe Josie's needs were the real reason that she stayed behind each year. The real reason lay in the transformation that would happen to little girls fortunate enough to spend a year or two of their childhood in Josie's class. God had an important plan for this precious woman who never grew up. Wisdom was a gift she gave to others, not something she developed and hoarded within herself.
Special needs children are angels among us
Many generations of children were taught to care for those with special needs through the lessons Josie taught us
Years later, after I became a wife and mother, I passed the current crop of eight-year-old girls sitting in class with Josie. I stopped for a minute, lost in childhood memories, and my eyes sought her out.
Josie didn't let me down. There she sat, surrounded by the innocents of the church, who weren't yet old enough to know they were at the throne of an angel. Some little girl next to her helped read Josie's Bible verse, followed by a chorus of childish voices celebrating their most cherished classmate's small success.
And I knew something was very right with the world, because we had Josie as a steward of God's plan. Through the magic of her presence she was teaching yet another generation of young girls to develop the gentleness, patience, love and acceptance they would need as women.