Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Influence of a Child

I’ve been struggling with writing this for some time. It’s hard to capture my thoughts and emotions around this, yet I’m going to give it a shot.

It was early July and I was looking forward to a week of one-on-one time with Sam, my ten year-old son. Jill and Sydney were out of town, and Sam and I had the week to do whatever we wanted. We had celebrated July 4, and after having to work Tuesday and Wednesday we were planning to head to the family cabin for a few days.

As I was packing on Wednesday evening the phone rang, changing our plans for the week. One of Sam’s classmates, Michael, had passed away Tuesday.

I hung up the phone and laid back on the bed. How do I tell Sam that his classmate has died? How will Sam respond? Why? Who can tell me how to tell him? Why?

I remember talking with him like it happened just a minute ago. I called Sam into our bedroom and asked him to sit down next to me, “Sam, you know your friend Michael?”

He replied excitedly, “Yeah, Michael is going to be in my class again. I’m going to get to help him with…”

I stopped him, and with a cracking voice shared the news with him, “Sam, Michael died yesterday.”

Sam just stared at me with his big, brown eyes, tears forming and slowly running down his cheeks. It was probably only about ten seconds, but seemed like forever to me. He then asked, “Is there a funeral so I can say good-bye?”

We went to Michael’s funeral the next evening, at which I learned so much about Michael's influence.

You should know that Michael faced more challenges in his ten years on this earth than the typical person faces in a lifetime. He was a child with many special needs, and was blessed to have a family who adopted him and cared for him. Yet, as his father said at the funeral, it was the family and the people Michael met who were blessed by their time with him.

The same can be said for the school Michael and Sam attended together. The school embraced Michael and his family each day. This allowed Michael to have an influence throughout the whole school, resulting in the students and staff learning so much from the courage he demonstrated on a daily basis. That school, through their work with Michael, became a better school, enriching the hearts and minds of the educators and students in ways they couldn't have anticipated when Michael arrived.

That was so evident in the stories I heard from teachers and students at his funeral. A teacher talked about the hug she got from Michael every day in the hallway, and another talked of the smile she would get when he would have a success. I heard the laughs, and saw the tears, of his classmates as they talked with each other, or silently took in their surroundings, trying to make sense of this at such a young age.

I also watched my son. He looked at every picture of Michael, including those of him helping Michael in the classroom, playing games with him, and watched a video that showed Sam helping Michael with a puzzle when they were in second grade.

What I realized during this time was how much Sam had learned from Michael. They were in class together every year from kindergarten through fourth grade. Sam looked forward to every opportunity he had to work with Michael and assist him with any little task. He learned a sense of empathy, care, courage and overcoming adversity that he never would have learned to the same level if Michael had not had the opportunity to be in his classroom. These are attributes that were instilled in Sam, and his classmates, because of their opportunity to learn with and from Michael. This was possible because the school embraced Michael and all of his challenges, despite the occasional frustrations, and held no limits for him.

There was a time not so long ago that a child like Michael wasn’t included in the classroom. This is a better time. We all need to remember that every child makes a difference, every child can learn, and we never know the limits of a child.

Michael learned every day, and he made a significant, positive impact in his short life. His classmates, teachers, and staff learned because of him. Their lives were enriched. I thank Michael's family for advocating for him, and his school for including him. My son is a better person because of his opportunity to have Michael as a friend.

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