As a parent, I’ve always tried to teach my children that God made each of us unique, and He calls us to embrace the uniqueness in all of His creation. God created us all exactly the way we were supposed to be. He has a purpose for each of us. My husband and I try to be open and honest with them about how we are all different - “that child is blind so he uses his fingers to read words in braille; your friend has cystic fibrosis so he has to work harder than you to breathe and take special medicines to stay healthy; that classmate has dyslexia so it is more challenging for her to learn to read; you have dysgraphia so it is difficult for your brain to get your words to paper... There is nothing ‘wrong’ with any of these people (or you!) but some people need extra ‘tools’ to help them be successful. For some is a wheelchair, for others it is medicine, and for others it is just extra time on a test.”
My boys each have their own unique challenges and have been blessed to attend school with others of various abilities. You always hope that you have instilled values in them so they “get” it. It all comes down to the Golden Rule that Christ taught us - “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There are times that they have failed as we all do, but I wanted to share a conversation I recently had with my freshman in high school that I believe reflects the importance of inclusive Catholic education.
When my son started high school this fall, he obviously met a lot of new classmates. One boy who I’ll call Jack shares almost every single class with my son, and they also ran on the cross country team together. At a cross country meet this fall, Jack mentioned to me that he had a lot of homework that weekend which set off a red flag to me because my son struggles with organization and had not mentioned a homework overload. I wanted to try to prevent a last minute panic on Sunday night. On the way home from the meet, I asked my son about his own homework situation since Jack commented he had a lot. My son responded, “No, I don’t have very much homework; Jack often just gets hyper focused on things.”I replied, “Well, you know Jack has autism, and being hyper focused on certain activities is often a characteristic of autism.”My son’s response? “Jack has autism? I had no idea! It makes total sense now. I ask Jack to sit with us at lunch sometimes, but he always prefers to sit by himself. I bet he just needs a sensory break! It gets really crazy in the cafeteria.”
Later in the semester, my son learned that the campus ministry office at his school offers the opportunity for faith conversations during lunch. He commented to me that he really enjoyed the change of pace in the campus ministry office because it was so much quieter than the lunchroom. We discussed whether maybe Jack would feel more comfortable joining him for lunch there since it was a calmer environment. The next time he decided to have lunch there, he asked Jack to join him, and they both really enjoyed it.
I was very proud of my son for extending the invitation to someone that he saw as isolated in the lunchroom, but this conversation also served as a testament to me of the value of the inclusive education that my son has received in Catholic schools. His Catholic faith has taught him to respect the dignity of others and to respect the distinctiveness in all of God’s people. He has learned acceptance and patience by working with others different than himself. As a family, we have normalized differences among people. By building awareness and understanding of different abilities and challenges within our schools and parish, it builds up the church and God’s kingdom on earth. It reinforces the culture of life and the value of all of God’s creation. Can you imagine a parish where everyone was welcome at Mass and made to feel like they belonged? What about a school where differences were not just tolerated or “managed” but embraced and celebrated? These differences are not mistakes that God made, but deliberate choices that bring God’s likeness to the world in a way no other child does. Think about how much more rich and vibrant our parishes would be if we could fully embrace and help each person and child. Every one of us has a story. Let’s continue to open up the dialogue with our children, our families, our parishes, our schools, and our communities as we embrace all learners.