I’ve recently taken to substitute teaching on a semi-regular basis. It’s not my favorite thing to do, and every time I leave the school for the day I am reminded that my taxes should be higher just so teachers can get a raise. There was a day, however, that I won’t soon forget.
I had told my bride that no matter what the phone call was the next morning at 5:45 a.m., I would say “yes.” And I did. And I chuckled to myself at 5:46 because following through on a promise is the only way I would have said yes to a day of substitute teaching for a special education class. My God is a sneaky One. And I’m glad.
I have my preconceptions—you might call them prejudices—about special education. I talk a good game about inclusion and understanding, but now I get to put my workday where my mouth is. If I’m honest, I would really just say I have fears. I’m afraid of not being able to predict what a person may say or do. I’m afraid of not understanding a person’s thought process. I’m afraid, if I’m honest, of being injured.
The majority of my day was to be spent at a local retail store where two of my students would be practicing a workday. They were to straighten shelves and help clean up the inventory. We worked side by side by side. It wasn’t as easy as you might think. The toy aisle is the place where children pick up toys for a while and drop them when they see something else interesting.
The two high school students I worked with were lacking a few of the things I tend to hold in honor: wit and cleverness. But I found they had something I had been repressing within myself: humanity. They were kind and thoughtful. They were honest in a way that unnerved and freed me. They embraced each other’s anger and forgave and moved on. They were beautiful.
A grandmother, with child in tow, walked down the toy aisle. The child was clearly happy to find himself in child heaven. When grandmother realized she was in the company of people with intellectual disabilities, she quickly guided her grandson to another aisle.
I was angry. Didn’t she know these friends of mine were human? Didn’t she know they had something to teach her grandson? Didn’t she recognize in these students the missing foundation of our society? And that was the moment.
That was the moment I realized our society tries not to notice people with disabilities. In fact, even though they are all around us, we (maybe just me) try to ignore them and pretend they aren’t there. And I was angry. And I was sad. And I was contrite.
The truth is, the more we conceal or hide from those in our community who are different from us, the more we withhold the graces and gifts of God that can make us more fully human. The fruit of the Spirit in its raw form, unfettered, stands there: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And while not every person exhibits each part of that great fruit, these new friends of mine showed me, reminded me of what I was restraining within me.
With nothing to gain, they show forth an image we have forgotten—the image of God somehow more preserved from that lost garden. Where humankind found an unholy ambition and started within our race a marring of the image of the One.
In the toy aisle of Walmart I was drawn to Jesus, called home, reminded, and humbled. My new friends, by just being themselves, firmed up the ground beneath me. They gave me footing on the path seemingly too difficult for me—the path of Christ. In the toy aisle of Walmart, with an unsettling honesty, they held up a mirror to me, to our society.
Let us look, unblinking, at what we have forgotten, and embrace our need of the more full image of Christ in our midst. Let us not hide from, nor conceal, those who are truly a gift from God—those without whom we would forget. Let us not push aside this great preservative, this salve to our self-inflicted wounds.
(Rev. Jim Daniels is a specialized minister in the Reformed Church in America who serves as a chaplain with Hospice of Holland in Holland, MI.)