This is Dave who was my my student over 20 years ago. Dave recently crossed over and I wish to extend my sincere condolences to his family and friends, especially to him mom whom I have tremendous respect and admiration for because of her love and dedication to ensuring that Dave lived the best life he could have lived. I feel blessed that I met Dave and knew him well – not only as his teacher but he was also a soul companion who taught me more about Special Education than any class could have taught me. He was my first student after I graduated from the MICO University College in Jamaica and I spent five years with him in an integrated classroom with five other students with other disabilities. Dave kept us all amused with his smart responses, refusal to accept anything, determination to have his way but above all his loving nature will always remain close to my heart. As I write these words, I can still feel his small gentle hands on my face and I can still hear his voice saying, “Mrs. Maxwell, this is your nose?” He would touch each part of my face almost daily to reinforce the names.
I met him when he was only 5 years and I believe that Dave and I were destined to meet because he was truly one of my greatest teachers. With him, I experienced the Ying and Yang of life and knew that his presence on this earth was just as perfect as anyone of us walking through life with perfect bodies and perfect minds.
On the first day of my job as a specialist teacher for the blind and visually impaired, the school principal introduced me to Dave.
She said, “This is Dave. He is blind, he has problems walking, is mentally challenged, can be rude sometimes,…”, and continued to explain to me the various challenges he faced. At first, I thought I would not be able to do much with Dave because his disabilities almost overpowered his strengths. As a new Special Education teacher, I felt overwhelmed. However, within 2 years of working intensely with him, his family and the community, we got this kid to walk independently, sing, identify colours, carry out conversations and most importantly think through things. He had a mind of his own and it was a beautiful thing to watch him push his boundaries and to have his voice heard and respected. Four years after working with Dave, he was integrated into the regular primary school on a part-time basis and became an inspiration to teachers, students and the community at large.
My experience with Dave and the many other persons with disabilities, has made me more appreciative of their presence in this world. There are all kinds of myths around people with disabilities and often parents and families are put under severe pressures, navigating through the maze of health care, daily care, long-term care and generally the responsibilities that come with caring for people who are challenged in various ways. I learnt to work with them using their strengths and must say that in some cases their strengths will never be able to provide work to help them sustain themselves, take care of themselves or do anything ‘meaningful’ in the way which we define it.
However, what if their only purpose on this planet was to teach us kindness, respect, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness? What if they came to teach us unconditional love?
Among the many lessons I learnt from Dave, was this experience in teaching a blind child to smile.
One day, I was photographing him and just as I was about to snap the photo, I asked him to smile but he showed no response. He stood there like a rock with his ears on the alert. I said, “Come on Dave, smile.”
After a pensive moment, he asked quietly, “What does smile mean? What do I have to do?” I was shocked for a moment. How could I explain what a smile is to a blind child? It is something we learn automatically through observation.
I said very foolishly, “Smile, is like laughing.”
To that he responded curtly, “I don’t have anything to laugh about. What is “smile”?”
I put the camera away and told him I would try to explain it to him. None of my education had taught me how to teach the concept of ‘smile’.
“Come here.” I said. “Let us play with the ball.” He enjoyed rolling the ball on the floor and finding it. His face beamed with a smile every time he found the ball and rolled it back to me.
“Dave you are smiling!” I said. “You smile when you roll the ball.”
“I don’t know what smile means.” he said. “What is it that I am doing that you call a smile?”
This was getting hard. I tried to explain to him how to move the muscles in his face and his mouth to create a smile but he could not get it. When he did it, he was just stiff without any emotion. We rolled the ball back and forth and he squealed in delight each time he found the ball.
I asked him, ” Dave, how do you feel when you find the ball?”
He said, “Happy.”
“When you feel happy, how do you show it?” I asked.
He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
“The next time you find the ball tell me what you feel in your face”. I said.
He found the ball and then said, “I feel happy when I get the ball and I think that my face smiles.” There was an “Aha” moment on his face!
“What part of your face smiles Dave?” I asked.
“I feel my mouth and my eyes smile.” he responded.
I never forgot this statement. Even though he was blind, I could see the sparkle in his eye and he was so right when he said “I feel that my mouth and my eyes smile.” His eyes were smiling. This was a profound teaching /learning moment for me – when a 5-year-old child, who is blind, could connect that his eyes and his mouth created a smile. How authentic and true is that!
Dave reinforced to me that we can’t smile if we don’t feel happy. We don’t really smile when we simply poise our mouth to show our teeth. Our smile is an automatic response to the happiness we feel.
After four years of working with him and teaching him how to use his residual vision, one day he said to me, “Ms. Maxwell, I can see you smiling at me.” He moved closer to me and let his hand touch my face and then my lips. I can only imagine with the little vision he had, how I must have looked to him.
Teachers and students from the Vieux-Fort Infant and Primary Schools as well as the Saltibus Combined School would remember him. He loved singing and would often bless the schools with his voice.
After many years, I re-connected with Dave’s family through Facebook. The family has moved to the USA and he graduated from High School and attended an adult day care.
I am grateful for the time we spent together. I will never forget you Dave… may your soul rest in peace.
Tune in and pay attention to those who have disabilities. Be grateful for all the gifts you have. Step up to look at life through their souls – there may be some beautiful insights for our growth and learning.