Commencement Speech for My Special Needs Second-Grader
By Melissa Hart
Members of the second grade class: two years ago, you scampered down these hallowed halls to play with the unpainted wooden dollhouse and the felted gender-neutral puppets and the classroom newt in a kindergarten done in womb-pink. Among you moved a little boy named Oliver.
Oliver wasn’t like other children. He forged his own way, eschewing circle-time and songs and hand-clapping games, and sprinting for the nearest exit at recess. His voice rang out above all others, commanding attention. He was, in short, a trail-blazer—a child so original that the teacher’s aide devoted her days to him.
As you struggled to form letters and numbers on your soft ecru paper, the aide bent over him, fingers gripping his around the hand-carved pencil, sometimes for half an hour while you soldiered on alone. You wonder now: What did Oliver have that I didn’t have? I’ll tell you:
A learning disability.
Like yours, dear children, Oliver’s parents visited a vast array of educational institutions. They pored over commentary at GreatSchools.org and debated into the wee hours self-directed curriculum versus whole-child learning and how each might ensure happiness.
Oliver–like the 22 of you now sipping chamomile tea while covering your soft ecru paper with watercolors–learned to finger-knit yarn spun from the alpacas you fed on your field trip, becoming so attached to his string that he wound it around his fingers until they turned purple, and screamed and bit the aide. Inspired by his teachers and principal and his tearful disbelieving mother, he forged a new path to a behavioral classroom across town.
He didn’t try to be special, dear hearts; he simply was.
I tell you this because today–as the morning glories stretch and beam from the garden boxes you lovingly decorated—there’s another child in your midst who shows the same spirit that you may recall from Oliver’s days.
Unlike that boy with his feet planted firmly on the spectrum, however, this little girl came into the world drug-affected and placed in foster care. As a toddler, she enjoyed the perks of regular feedings and diaper changes, unhampered by distractions such as caregiver eye-contact and physical embrace. Thus, she learned to sound her barbaric yawp so that she, like Whitman rolling naked in his leaves of grass, might make herself known.
You know her as the child in the front row, directly in front of the teacher’s podium, with all the privileges that weighed blankets and noise-cancelling headphones confer. The letters ADHD mean nothing to you—but you marvel at her ability to turn cartwheels behind the teacher. She’s memorized the words to over 100 songs and locks herself into the bathroom daily to belt them out. She isn’t like you, dear hearts. She marches to the beat of her own drum and refuses to learn with the rest of you how to play the pentatonic flute.
Like Oliver, she doesn’t try to be special; she simply is.
Education is a community-driven endeavor, and you exhibit this daily. For years, the little girl in question watched you arrange playdates and sleepovers in the hallways. She heard thrilling tales of birthday parties to which she wasn’t invited. Just this morning, two of your fathers dialogued in the classroom about a class camping expedition—a trip apparently open to a select few. How inspiring to know that you gather so lovingly to support one another at a school that prides itself on inclusiveness.
A mystery to you, the little girl’s mother who shows up each morning with a smile plastered across her face as you gather outside to jump rope while her child screams because she’s forgotten her homework. What pride the woman exudes as your parents remark on the artful display of her daughter’s uneaten lunch on the floor among her shoes and jackets where they lie below your own neatly-hung Columbia windbreakers and precise rows of Bogs.
How unfriendly that mother appears with dark circles under her eyes as your parents pair up to arrange warm-hearted diversions after school and on weekends. It’s impossible to picture her, dear ones, weeping at night for all she’s been given, not the least of which is a flexible schedule that allows her to work early in the morning and late at night, the better to homeschool.
So you see, dear ones, this story does have a happy ending. Next year, the little girl in question will turn cartwheels each Monday morning in gymnastics class and take professional singing lessons at the music studio downtown. She’ll study on her living room couch, travel weekly to wetlands and science museums and animal shelters. Hell, her mommy may even adopt an alpaca.
For a moment, as you pause on the threshold between your second and third grade classrooms, you may glimpse the future—six more years in these same hallways fragrant with patchouli and the bliss that only true oblivion can provide.
It’s your future, dear ones. Keep in touch.
Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within and Gringa. Web: www.melissahart.com.