It was 1967, I was three years old when my parents rolled me into the biggest room I had ever seen with kids in wheelchairs from the ages of 3-12. My eyes were drawn immediately to the blackboard, the long table slightly to the right, the play area and a yellow piano. As I took in the scene with my keen eyes, I saw a young girl. She was so pale and fragile and not much larger than me even though I later found out that she was nine years older. Elizabeth, unlike me, who was very loquacious, could not speak or feed herself. She had a smile brighter than sunshine, and she beamed whenever she saw me. A year later, I met Bruce who had eyes the color of a blue jay and a great Tarzan yell, so I was deeply in love for a four year old. Forty years later, I carry these two in my heart; they taught me so much about grace in the face of terrible pain and suffering. At seven years old, they gave me the courage to leave them so I could help break down barriers for us and other handicapped children. Who would speak to Elizabeth and bring that wonderful smile to her after I left? I saw Bruce one last time; the light of life was absent from his eyes. Later, I learned that Bruce had gone home to be with God and Elizabeth’s Dad had placed her in a nursing home.
Everyone at California Avenue treated us with such loving compassion as if we were their own children or grandchildren. Praise was never in short supply! “What a great job, two gold stars, Kathy!’’ Whenever one of us celebrated a birthday, we would all work together to whip up a birthday cake for him/her. I wonder how many eggs I cracked all over the table, but nobody ever raised their voices. We were our own assembly line starting with the birthday person who began by adding the precious ingredients to our much anticipated treat. It was a sneaky but fun way for us to practice our therapy skills and our counting simultaneously. It was a little tricky for me to hold the mixing bowl and stir with my right hand as speedily as possible while counting by fives: “:five, ten, fifteen…’’ By the time the bowl was passed around twice, all the lumps were beaten out. Next, the birthday kid poured the batter into a pan with Mrs. Coles’ help, our marvelous teacher! The same lucky kid was given the momentous honor of licking the mixing spoon. While waiting with great anticipation for the oven to produce its eagerly awaited treat, we loved gathering around the piano to sing and/or clap to rousing, but slightly off key renditions of Old McDonald, and other favorites. I must have had the most fun of anyone that ever went to school! Our class even put on a grand production of The Little Gingerbread Man. Bruce played the Gingerbread Man and I was the old Grandma who made him. I still recall the bright smile Elizabeth gave me as I took over the part of narrator from my teacher and my Dad’s roaring, snorting laughter that rose above the applause. I think Bruce and Elizabeth were so especially dear to me because they had the most tragic diagnosis of all the kids. They kept such a bright outlook in spite of their sad circumstances Both of them were part of my nightly prayers.
One day, we went on an exciting field trip to Camp Pendleton, the nearby Navy/Marine Corp Base, because President Nixon was appearing there, and one to the zoo as well. For the most part, these excursions were fun adventures, but they were also personal lessons. My first lessons that showed me people could be extremely cruel to kids in wheelchairs, especially toward my sweet friend Elizabeth. “Look at that stupid retard!’’ This happened many times to her and anger seethed through me each time, but I didn’t know how to cope with it. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but the cerebral palsy had robbed her of the ability to voice her agonies! I made it a point to let her know she was a beautiful, smart person; they were the dumb ones! It was around this time that I noticed that Bruce was growing weaker. Mom explained that he had Muscular Dystrophy; he was dying and that meant I would not see him again once he died. It was a difficult concept for me as I had thought that only old people died. Little did I know or comprehend how much the winds of change were swirling in my life and in society as a whole. .It started the following year. First grade saw me mainstreamed two hours a day into a regular classroom at the elementary school next door to my special education school.
I was part of a trial group selected as an experiment to see if children with severe disabilities could succeed in a class with able-bodied children and if we would be accepted by them. Our success in part led to the inclusion laws a few years later that allowed children the least restrictive education possible. Toward the end of first grade, my parents were called to a meeting. The experiment would be expanded to see if I could handle a full day in my neighborhood elementary school. I would soon be leaving my precious friends. How would I say good-bye to Bruce and Elizabeth? I was filled with sorrow. Mom said that my new classmates could be mean to me, and my mind recalled Elizabeth and the agony at the zoo and other places as well.
A mixture of dread, sadness and anticipation filled me on that first day in my new school. As I rolled to the front of my second grade class, I introduced myself, explained about Cerebral Palsy (CP) etc. I was so nervous that I could not recall what I said even a few minutes afterwards. It amazes me now that I do not recall my years at San Luis Ray nearly as easily as I call to mind my time at California Avenue. A piece of my heart stayed behind there with Bruce, Elizabeth and the others. Part of me wanted to return because I KNEW I was accepted there, and I missed them a great deal
It turned out that it was not my academic performance or my classmates who tried to railroad my mainstream experience, it was the school administrators. They hired aides for me that they knew would not last long; Mrs. Brand was pregnant, Mrs. Stover was elderly… Mom was my aide until she caught the flu and I was forced to stay home. Flu or not, the school district had greatly underestimated a mother’s love when her child was being denied a quality education. She had college dreams for me, after all. Mrs. Deibert entered my life a few days later, and she has never been absent from it. We have had a great many good times together all the way up through my high school graduation and beyond. At this moment, I type away doing my best to fulfill a mother’s wish, dreamed so long ago. This dream has rekindled in me as well; the fire burns deep in my heart to get my degree.
It took me five years to achieve my goal. In 2016, I finally received my BS Degree in Social Work with a specialty in Gerontology (working with people 65 years of age and older) as well as people of all ages with various disabilities which have a major impact on their lives. I hope and pray that both my parents were there in spirit to see it; somehow, I know they were because God made sure of it. This is just one chapter of my well-lived life; there will be more to come.