Special Needs Children Can!

December 4, 2020

I was speaking with a friend recently and he was telling me about how the Tim Tebow Foundation sponsors, “A Night to Shine” a prom night experience for people with special needs, ages 14 and older.  I had never heard of this and loved to learn that someone of  Tebow’s fame was using it for such a high minded investment in people with disabilities. 

Our conversation then morphed into how something like prom night for special needs kids, who otherwise might miss out on a traditional prom, can have such an enormous and lasting impact on the lives of not only the attendee, but their parents and families who get to see their son/daughter/sister/brother in a whole new light.

Which brings me to the heart of this blog; the idea of involving your special needs children in activities that you might not imagine to be realistic options for them.

The following is an experience from my teaching days that was made possible with the support and trust of my school’s administration.  For that I am eternally grateful. It is a story of an annual endeavor that, going into, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the impact such an experience would truly mean for my students and, as importantly, for their families. 

For 27 of the 30 years teaching at my school, I was given the reigns to produce an annual Spring play.  I had been acting in my free time when I first began at the school and for several years until I was about 30 years old.  In the eyes of the administration, that gave me my bonafides.  However, I had never directed anyone before and in that first year I was fortunate enough to co-produce and direct with another staff member, my friend Connie.  We stumbled through and leaned on one another to guide our kids through a series of skits and song and dance numbers.  But I wasn’t close to the mindful person I would eventually become, regarding my place in this project and what this show was really about. 

As a young man, beyond seeing the smiles on the kids faces and trying to get the best out of them, I wasn’t thinking how this process and production might, in some small fashion, help to shape the students confidence in ways that could transfer to other areas of their lives.   Time would reveal a plethora of insights and I would soon come to see that…these kids were Hams!! And it was beautiful!!!

Over the years, I saw student after student who faltered and struggled in the classroom and in daily life, raise their level on the night of a performance to such a place that they would transcend their disability and expose gifts that repeatedly blew my mind.  Show after show I was gradually being inducted into a consciousness that unveiled the real purpose of this extra curricular happening.

Location Shooting

Aside from the obvious fun and fanfare, this acting thing was more than a throw away, one night memory.  It had the ability to influence lasting self-confidence and personal growth that could literally change the students self perception, improve social skills, increase awareness of others and even raise classroom performance. 

Results are, of course, varying from student to student. And while I can recall so many stories of personal growth, four revelatory individual exploits stand out for me to this day. 

The first, a 11 year old student who, for all intents and purposes, showed little sign of comprehension through all forms of communication.   I remember letting him play with my guitar in the classroom and watched as he came to life pretending to play it.  It gave me the idea to give him one of the main character roles in an ensuing year’s show.  Now, this boy could not read, he could barely write and he seemed to, at times, be absent.  But give him a guitar or put him on the stage and he came to life! 

In no time, he was commanding rehearsals, working hard with his classroom teacher and speech teacher to memorize his lines, and on the night of the show received a standing ovation for his performance.  He beamed with pride and his family members were beside themselves with joy.  Perhaps for the first time they saw him in a whole new light, with potential that they may not have imagined.  In the coming years he became very popular socially, his self confidence abounded, his comedic timing and humor grew and his school work improved greatly.  Mr. Personality😎

The second student was, a medically fragile, shy 12 year old, with a generous heart and curious mind.  She struggled greatly with her memory and although she wanted to be on stage, she had a tendency to freeze.  However, that didn’t stop her from wanting to try.  As long as we believed in her and gave her time and space, she didn’t give in to her fears.  

For the night of her final show before her graduation, she asked if she could introduce the show and say some words about her dad. He was in the service and hadn’t been home for awhile, but would be in attendance on show night.  Of course I let her.  

When the time came, and with the words hanging from her tongue and pulsing on her hands to sign, she froze.  A spotlight exposed her soul as an audience of 200 people witnessed her worst fear coming true.

With all formality out the window, I sat down next to this sweet child and began talking to her as if we were the only two in the room.  Show or no show, this was real life.  And as she fought through her tears, she expressed what was happening for her and listened as I reassured her and let her decide what she wanted to do. She had been so overcome by the emotion of the moment that she couldn’t move.  But as the will is strong, my MC would prevail.  She stood up and completed what she wanted to say, to the amazement of the tearful crowd and her proud father.  She cried through it all and then later, laughed and felt like she had conquered the world!  In the years following, she spoke of that night and how proud she felt for having pulled through and overcome her fears to honor her father.  

Third, was a troubled, socially immature 11 year old student, living with a sick dad and his financially strapped family, who craved the stage.  This was a boy whose classroom behaviors and academic performance often got him into trouble.  He wanted so badly to be loved by adults and liked by his peers but he just didn’t have it within him to know how to stop trying and just be.  I gave him the lead in that years show in hopes that his love for acting would work some magic for him.  And, as if ordered up, he rose to the occasion.  He was possibly the best male actor I directed in all of those years.  He was committed, worked hard and knew his lines.  He owned the stage!  

This story, however, is about more than what transpired for him following his stellar performance.  In the audience that night, sat his entire family, including his sick father.  His family had no idea of the potential and talent that this boy had. They knew him for his all-giving smile, his silliness and his good heart.  But that night they were transported to a new realization; in awe of the person dominating that stage.  

He was greeted by tears, hugs, smiles and mouths agape. But even more moving, and the thing that still causes me chills, is that within a year his dad would lose his vision from his illness. It struck me that if not for this, sort of, serendipitous event, he might never have known what his son was capable of attaining.  He wouldn’t have seen his boy triumph. For his family, this was a gift that humbles me in the presence of it’s enormity.  

The last example I’d like to share is of a student who was about 11 or 12 years old at the time. This incredible human being was legally blind, he couldn’t read without support and his retention for vocabulary and comprehension of subject matter and interpersonal communication, was limited at best and non existent at times.  He was shy and quiet except for when someone bothered him.  He would stand up for himself.  I admired that.  On it’s face, one would not think my friend to be an ideal candidate to play the lead on stage, but if I had learned nothing, I now knew that it was probably more important to roll the dice and discover the potential inside of these kids.

So I went with him.  And lo and behold an acting monster emerged! He took to the stage like a fish to water and his grasp of the show, it’s scenes, the dialogue and the stage blocking was off the charts.  Not only did he eventually know all of his own lines, this boy who could not remember sight words in the classroom, knew everyone lines and their blocking!! 

On the night of the show the front spot lights blew out.  A potential disaster for anyone, but especially for this boy whose vision was severely impaired, to have to negotiate the darker sections of the stage.  But without missing a beat, he overcame.   He knew his blocking so well that he traversed each scene effortlessly. No one could tell that his vision was compromised.  That’s how good he was.  

His family couldn’t hold back their joy.  As with the previous student, they had witnessed their son and brother exhibit a talent, wit and charm that was previously unimaginable.  They cried and showered him with love.  And the next year, with a much smaller role to play and fewer lines, this boy who never voluntarily looked at a book during my time knowing him, walked the playground at recess, script in hand, studying his lines over and again.  He was literally reborn and his confidence soared. 

Avail your child and yourself to risk failure in order to attain growth.  There is something to gain in every endeavor no matter how big or small.  We cannot know what can and can’t be gained by exposure to the many opportunities this life has to offer.  It’s all unknown.  Let no limitations stop you and your child from being a part of this world.   We all come with flaws.  We are all challenged.  And yet, we do🙂

Peace and Keep on Rising!

Published by riseup20

I am a retired teacher with a creative bent and I am excited to bring attention and assistance to parents and caregivers of children with special needs. Mark

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