The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) is humbled to share the following story from Meghann Kirzeder, a mother and former Catholic school teacher. Meghann (ACE 10, Nashville) is a friend of PIE, and here she provides her perceptions from the other side of the desk as she advocates for her own child to be served inclusively in Catholic schools. Many thanks for her guest authorship!
~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; Program for Inclusive Education, Director
It’s been ten years now since I last served as a full-time teacher. Ten years since I last planned for my six classes each day; ten years since I last graded a stack of essays; ten years since I last stuffed Tuesday folders; and ten years since I last sat on the teacher’s side of the desk during parent-teacher conferences.
Although it’s been ten years, that classroom experience leaves a lasting mark on you–one that permeates many facets of your life. I think I always knew that when I had children of my own, my parenting would be profoundly influenced by the perspective I’d gained as a middle school teacher in a Catholic school.
I remember looking around at the families at my school and wondering what my future family would look like. I remember those last days, packing up my classroom and being grateful for some incredible examples–deeply faithful, close-knit, loving families. I thought of moms and dads who lived and parented according to their faith and values, who seemed to have it all together. I thought of kids who worked hard and whose default mode was respect even as they bumped up against the social and academic challenges of early adolescence. I didn’t know what these parents’ secrets were, but I hoped I’d figure them out by the time I had a family of my own.
I pictured myself with my husband (whom I wouldn’t meet for a few more years!), enrolling our kids in our parish school. We’d go to school Masses to hear our kids read or watch them carry up the gifts; we’d print baptism photos as our second grader prepared for First Communion; we’d drill spelling words and multiplication tables and strike that balance between helping enough on the science fair project while still making our kids do the hard work themselves.
Now, my oldest is starting kindergarten this fall, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my family’s school years are going to look very different from that picture.
When my son was a baby, we slowly came to realize that he wasn’t developing the way most babies do. We’ve never really had a diagnosis, which means that for better or worse, we’ve never been offered a prognosis either. What we do have is an exceptionally sweet, determined, loving, forgiving, hard-working little boy who has impressed us over and over again.
It’s incredible to watch him learn–to see visible signs of those invisible processes, undeniably in constant motion below the surface. His muscles get stronger, his movements get more coordinated, and his mind solves problems and makes new connections, until suddenly he surprises us all. He pulls to a stand and cruises down the counter to reach the kitchen sink. He finds and shakes a tambourine when we put on a song. He steers his walker to his classroom door, somehow finding the right door among the six identical ones in the hallway. He coordinates both arms to hug his baby sister and smiles with his entire face.
I’ve clung for several years to the hope that my son would have a Catholic school education. Disabilities notwithstanding, I’d love for him to be in a school where the faith we teach at home is reinforced, and where the academics and community life prepare him to serve God and the world in whatever vocation lies ahead for him.
I also want him to grow up among peers who take for granted that he is a part of their community and their Church. I can’t help but be just a little bit afraid that, if relegated to a special-education classroom, for too many kids he would become the object of their (well-intentioned) service hours. That would be a disservice to all of them. I want my son’s peers and teachers to have the chance to get to know the boy I know, and I want his relationships to be more than those of a dependent and his caregivers. He deserves to have real friendships and real mentors.
We certainly believe that many of these hopes will find fruition in public schools. The schools where he attended preschool last year and where he’ll start kindergarten this fall have reminded me over and over that faith-filled, mission-driven educators can be found in classrooms of all types. I’m floored by the dedication, knowledge, experience, and love that his teachers and therapists pour into their work. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities he’ll have in their inclusive classrooms.
I still grieve the fact, though, that we couldn’t choose a Catholic school for him.
That little ache in the pit of my heart makes me think back ten years. It calls up memories of my former students who struggled with their own learning and behavioral differences. Their families made me a part of their children’s formation and a part of their ongoing quest for answers, strategies, solutions, and hope.
One of the beautiful truths about Catholic schools is that no one is there by default. Every child is there because his or her parents have chosen that particular school and have committed to certain sacrifices for the sake of what that school offers. Every family has its own reasons why.
However, when I think back to so many conferences, I remember discussing incomplete homework and low grades and classroom disruptions. I’m sure I missed too many opportunities to really know and really serve those students. In all of the focus on solving problems, I don’t think I ever asked a parent to tell me what hope it was that led them to choose our school.
I should have always started that way. I really wish I could go back and ask. I can only imagine that it would have made me a better teacher for those kids, and by extension, a better mom to my own.