I had cousins with special needs when I was a child. Two of them were called Adrian and Etienne, first cousins. As a young child, I understood that something was different. Their mum looked at them differently. She had an unintelligible look in her eyes, that inspired in me great respect.
As we grew up it became clear that Adrian and Etienne would not grow up to be like everyone else. They learned to walk like we did and gained some independence. Then the falls started, Adrian started falling when he walked, his development it seems started regressing. They both had muscular dystrophy. It wastes away at your muscles until you are left with no speech, can’t walk or eat.
As a child, I loved them dearly, it bred in me a deep sadness in the understanding that in the face of this I and everyone else was powerless and it was their destiny to live out. Over the years this affected me greatly although for many years I gave in to teenage wastefulness due to some horrific personal experiences.
I went to University almost by a fluke. I was smart-ish but didn’t do much work at all, I was more interested in literature, art, film, poetry and a myriad of non-academic subjects.
Luckily I was promoted without sitting for exams due to extensive changes in the curriculum. Later I joined University as a student-teacher but never really intended to teach. As I toyed with the idea of dropping out of Uni, I was sent to a school to work on a computer literacy project.
Here I met a child. He said nothing to me, he stared me in the eyes and sat on my lap. I started showing him how to use the computer, the child was a genius; one of the smartest kids I ever met. Turns out he wasn’t shy, he couldn’t speak due to speech delay caused by his autism.
I had never heard the word before. I spent the next three months reading about autism, from the historical background of the boy of Aveyron to the latest discoveries in autism from Temple Grandin who was autistic herself. I even tracked her down and exchanged a couple of emails with her.
I graduated two years later, finishing off my studies with a dissertation in Autism, based on an 18-month study including interviews, research and many hours of observation. During my observations, I became familiar with the special schools the students I visited attended. I was earmarked as a good potential substitute for a teacher that was being promoted to head of school.
One of his students was an autistic boy, he also had an area of genius and took to me as much as I did to him. He was a difficult child, at times aggressive, everyone was afraid of the changes to come, so I was pinpointed as a potential solution to this problem. I got the post and immersed myself in managing a class of children with autism and other mental disabilities. I loved it. It was hard but worth it.
I was aware that I was under-qualified to teach there when I got the post. Other teachers had to qualify by proving over 5 years experience in a primary school, I had no such experience. So the Summer before my new school teacher job kicked off I joined a special school. I thought if I’m going to have classroom assistants and facilitators I need to see the world from their perspective, so I took a post as a facilitator for 3 months.
I was assigned to a girl that had very severe muscular dysfunction due to cerebral palsy. The pain of dealing with her pain daily left me broken hearted. I couldn’t stop thinking about my cousins. So I decided to visit Adrian. Sadly his brother Etienne had recently passed away. I didn’t visit Adrian as much as I would have liked to when he was alive. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was aware and likely a smart man too. His face was unmarked. No sign of pain or age, he looked like an angel, but the awareness in his eyes broke my heart every time I visited him.
It grew my determination to fulfill my potential, no matter what that may be. I felt like I had a strong responsibility to be the best I can, to fulfill my deepest potential, simply because I can.
This feeling was sharpened every day that I spent at Guardian Angel school with my students. I loved them all and still miss them. I promised myself I would fulfill my potential in order to help and support people who are not in a position to fulfill theirs. This is what drives me to do what I do.
I have often been called obsessive about my efforts to achieve and do more. If only they could see that we all have the responsibility to be what we can be.
To drop the fear, the doubt and the constant need for someone else’s approval. Our stories are written in our souls and it is a big disservice to the rest of humankind to leave our potential unfulfilled. It’s lose-lose when we go to our graves with our music still in us. With our potential unfulfilled.
We all have a responsibility towards all those who do not have such opportunity, to fulfill our potential, to be who we might have been had we been fearless.