September Elegy … on the subject of Special Needs & Special Gifts

I swear I will not dishonor /my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly /as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery, / as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

—Diane Ackerman
“School Prayer”

Every year about now I bring out this beautiful poem and wish it could somehow be declared the official prayer of school teachers and principals and superintendents and coaches and custodians and librarians and band directors … a prayer they are required to commit to memory and recite each morning before their school day begins.

In her final stanza the poet promises “to honor all life – wherever and in whatever form it may dwell – “ and I can’t keep from wondering why there are always some who find it so hard to recognize the inherent beauty, the inherent worth and dignity of each and every kid who comes through the door, regardless of how their Beautiful Beingness is packaged.

And then I remember that we are all human, all flawed, all scarred; how it is that some are more scarred, and more scared that those who are “different” are somehow taking up space and resources meant only for them.  Many of us grew up in a time when those who were deemed “different” were tucked away in “special homes” and “special schools”, some never to be seen or even spoken of again. Younger siblings never knowing they had an older sister or brother, and family photographs like mine, taken when I was 14 with two smiling little sisters and an empty space clearly meant for the baby brother who did not live. How far we have come!

And so it jars me to read about a high school student with an innate gift and love for music, especially percussion, who happens to carry a Downs diagnosis. Change.org tells the story of how hard his mom had to work to get his school band to let him play with them and now, after the band directorship changed, how hard she is fighting to get them to keep him on.

And then there’s this story about a tiny 3-year-old drummer girl ‘prodigy’.

(Warning: Just watching this will exhaust you! )

Special Needs and Special Gifts … how do we tell the difference?

I think it comes down to what it always comes down to …  kindness.  It seems to be lacking in so many places in our lives these days.  How do we bring it back? Perhaps the way we bring back a lot of things misplaced and almost lost.  Relentless persistence … one of us at a time withdrawing our contributions to unkindness, until we’ve reached the critical mass that returns kindness to its natural flow.

In her latest poetry collection, One Small Sun, Paulann Petersen sheds a bit of light on that notion in her poem, “Special Needs”.  We invite you to read it here.

Special Needs

Special. Because she needn’t
sing a note. Her specialty being
unneeded antic gesture—the at times
right-in-rhythm wave and flap of her hands,
the at other times out-of-sync swoop and pump
of her arms, those tilts, those bobs of her head.
Pulses of joy. Her constant ecstatic motion.
A sung note from her, now and again?
Perhaps. No one can tell.

One wild
smile after another, she holds her place
on the riser’s third tier. In the all-girl
Fernwood Middle School Choir
she’s a member
in good standing.

Who would say
she doesn’t belong? Not the twenty-two
other girls who specialize in keeping
their eyes straight ahead on their director,
on her gesturing arms. They lip-read
their leader’s mouth as she swiftly forms
a lyric’s words. She models the script
her girls strictly follow. Their part
is to stay aligned with the song, regardless
of outbursts from the girl who attends
no regular classes, the one
needful of special care.

Between two numbers,
the girl shouts out a bit of needling impatience,
anxious to get to the next number.
The director laughs, quips aloud,
“She’s said what’s on all our minds!”
Stretching her arms toward her group,
she coaxes them into the first notes
of “I See the Light,” while that girl’s
upper body jolts into charadesof the lyric.

On cue from their leader,
the twenty-two have given the twenty-third
their gift. They make room for the odd one
by not giving way to her distractions—
the only possible way this
Special Needs girl could,
with their choir,
stand and sing.
—Paulann Petersen

And if you haven’t yet watched Denise’s little DanceAbility documentary, it makes a nice followup.

Let’s talk soon, Sulima.

Published by Sulima Malzin

This 'Aging Rascal & Occasional Writer' invites you to embrace the world through her open window of poetry, art, activism, music, and humor.

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