One of my best friends has Autism. When we met in 1988, he was in a segregated classroom with small chunks of time spent in mainstream classes. Over the past 30 years, as our friendship has grown, I have witnessed a variety of reactions from the community choosing to include or exclude Steven.
Let me start by sharing how we met. In 1988, I was in grade 8 at Dr. Charles Best Secondary in Coquitlam. Like many high schools, my friends and I had claimed ‘our table’ in the cafeteria, and day in and day out we sat in the same space. The first table passed the lunch line was reserved for kids with special needs. As I made my way from the cafeteria line to ‘my table’, Steven shouted out “Hey – what’s your name? Come sit with me!” In that moment, I made one of the best decisions I have ever made and accepted his invitation. I sat down at his table and he asked me for my phone number. He promised to call me every day and asked if we could be friends for 40 years. Thirty years later, we are still great friends and he has kept his promise of calling every single day.
As years have passed, Steven has become more like family. He was an usher at my wedding and a groomsman in my brother’s wedding. He has travelled with us, volunteered at every place I have worked and he gives back by cheering for or helping with any sports team my kids join. He loves to meet new people and brings joy to everyone around him. He absolutely oozes enthusiasm and he could teach us all a thing or two about acceptance and friendship.
There have been a few times where people around us have not accepted Steven. A restaurant sat us in a closed section, people stood and moved away from us in a movie, and a border guard was really skeptical when I tried to convince him I wasn’t ‘working’ when I took Steven to Disneyland. “You mean to tell me you are taking him as a friend?” Yes.
Luckily, there have been more times where Steven has been accepted and I have been fortunate to see friends, family and colleagues welcome Steven into their lives and their classrooms. Many people have gone out of their way to make Steven feel welcome.
Whenever I move schools, I wonder how the next school community will welcome Steven. Will they wonder why he is volunteering? Will they see him as an inconvenience? Or, will they get to know him over time and welcome him? This September I moved schools, becoming the Principal of Laity View Elementary. Yesterday was the first day Steven volunteered. While other schools have embraced Steven, I have never seen a welcome quite like what we experienced yesterday. It is one of my favourite days ever.
Here is our story of yesterday.
On Thursday evening I emailed the staff of Laity View with a photo of Steven, introducing him as my friend, and letting them know he would be volunteering for a few hours on Friday. I wanted staff to know his name and a little about him, should they see him at school.
Steven was dropped off at 12:30 PM, in the middle of lunch hour. When he arrived, I was outside amidst a sea of children in a football game that could have possibly broken a world record for the most players in one game (approximately 350 students… a student organized game to spread a positive message that ‘Everyone Can Play’).
As Steven approached me on the field, ten to fifteen children ran up smiling shouting ‘Hi Steven!’. Surprised and confused, I asked “How do you know Steven?” They then explained that their teacher has put his photo up on the smart board in class and told them he would be volunteering. They had a class discussion about Autism and what it means. They asked about other children in the school who have Autism and appreciated their strengths and unique talents.
As the bell went to head inside, Steven was surrounded by new friends. One grade five girl named Danika went out of her way to take Steven under her wing. Busy with some lunch hour incidents, I asked if Danika could walk Steven inside. Her class embraced their guest and invited Steven to head to the gym for a game of dodgeball.
Next, he joined a kindergarten class for ‘buddy time’ where young students paired up with older students. He participated in craft activities and received a wonderful gift from the grade 5/6 class:
As the school day ended, Steven made his way through the school introducing himself to teachers and parents. Soon our PAC parents invited Steven to help and he volunteered setting up for the school carnival. Miss. Kim, our school secretary, took Steven under her wing and made his day giving him a school sweatshirt, a new planner, and a pre-carnvial bounce on the adult size bouncy castle!
Steven loved his day at Laity View and Laity View loved him back. He is now part of our school community. He has multiple offers for his next school visit: reading to kindergarten classes, helping in the library and the office and visiting his new friends in K-7.
Inclusion is not about class placement and just creating a space for a child with differences in a regular classroom. Inclusion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people or acting with sympathy. Inclusion means acceptance, friendship, learning from one another and recognizing that we are all better together. Thank you Laity View. You have heart – and I am so incredibly proud to be your principal.