My great-nephew has provided yet another perspective on life. Leo, the pint-sized philosopher, recently expressed in simple terms what I eventually discovered during my years of teaching. His father reported on Facebook Leo’s reply to the idea that nobody is perfect: “Dad, I think everybody’s perfect in their own way.”
My initial reaction – that Leo will soon enough learn his belief is much too idealistic for the real world – changed when I spied a scrap of paper taped to my computer. Months before I had scribbled: “What’s your sparkle?”
I had been moved by a news item about Valerie Jensen, who works for a Connecticut organization serving adults with disabilities. Her heart urged her to find meaningful jobs for those adults, one of whom was her own sister. Jensen’s agency eventually acquired and transformed an abandoned movie theater into a first-run cinema, where more than half the employees are individuals living with developmental or physical difficulties. Jensen manages the employees – or “prospects” as she calls them. They pop corn, usher patrons to their seats, work in the restaurant. Regardless of their specific positions, they work with joy and dedication.
Jensen considers herself a prospector looking for the passion in each employee – their sparkle, if you will. Discovering one’s sparkle reminded me of a recent UDC article about the Downsize Farm Career and Job Center. The report spotlighted three local individuals who, despite challenges, are gainfully employed. I particularly remember the young lady able to sort parts for a manufacturer better than its full-time employees. Talk about sparkle.
I also thought about a favorite movie, one I taught in my Film Studies class at GHS: Rain Man, the story of an autistic adult portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. His performance showcased Raymond’s sparkle: unbelievable recall of details, ability to count hundreds of objects at once, and incredible mathematic skills.
I have long believed that the 1990’s were a special time at Graham for a similar reason: a classroom for a group of students from Lawnview opened just down the hall from my room. A vision by dedicated parents and an equally-dedicated teacher, Lynn Richards, created an important learning environment for every student and teacher in our building. In fact, I think the rest of us learned more from Lynn and her kids than they learned from us.
And did they sparkle! They were finally going to school in a place filled with hundreds of other teenagers working their way through adolescence. I remember Lynn’s clear and realistic explanation that the students in her room were more like every other student in the building than they were not. Her students may have differed significantly in abilities, but they were excited about football games, wanted to go shopping, had ups and downs with friends, loved being Graham Falcons. I believe today, as I did then, that every school should make room for kids at every level of ability. We owe the experience to all our students.
However, it is not only people in need of special help who possess sparkle. Somewhere inside every individual lies a passion. I need only look at my mother, who loved kneading bread dough, knitting baby afghans, and reading yet another book, to see a woman who came alive in her sparkle. Some people volunteer their time to rock babies in maternity wards, while others regularly donate blood. Still others create beautiful gardens or train rescue dogs. The hours that transported me were the ones I spent in the classroom with fascinatingly unpredictable – and often sparkly – kids.
Too often, unfortunately, we bury our sparkle under negative labels we attach to ourselves, or we bog ourselves down with the “shoulds” of life. Just as regrettable is our inability to accept and appreciate the sparkle of those around us. Years ago a student was failing German 1 by the end of October. I wanted him to remain in my class, although I expected little change. I required acceptable behavior and tried never to belittle his lack of effort. In May I happened to mention my nephew who raced dwarf cars at Shady Bowl. The very next day, as the student showed me a photo album full of racing cars and flabbergasted me with his knowledge and enthusiasm, we developed a different rapport. No, he did not pass German 1; but when we ran into each other five years later at commencement, he proudly showed me his diploma. I still remember him: not as a student who failed my class but as a young man whose passion I wish I had recognized sooner.
I wish we could all learn to sparkle the bejeebers out of negative descriptions of ourselves and others – descriptions based on physical appearance, inabilities, or personal choices. Whenever we allow passion to sparkle, we all edge closer to being our most excellent and positive selves. The world could be a much shinier place if we all decided to live up to our sparkle rather than down to our labels.
To paraphrase a poem by an unknown author: Each of us is like a butterfly in the wind. Some of us can fly higher than others, but we each try our best. Why compare? Each of us is different. Each of us is special. Each of us sparkles. And yes, Leo, each of us flies perfectly – in our own way.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.