The Thanksgiving Gift
I did not attend a traditional elementary school until I was in third grade. My early primary school years were spent in a series of cottages nestled in a wooded area located down a white, rocky road about a half-mile from my Omaha home. The cottages were part of a larger school district. A select group of students attended them due to traffic concerns and space limitations in the larger elementary school. There were four red cottages: a kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and a final cottage that remained somewhat of a mystery to us. Each cottage, once a single family dwelling, had been converted into a single-room classroom. The bungalow-type house consisted of two floors: a vacuous upstairs with beautiful Maplewood floors and a cold, gray concrete basement where, in the wintertime we played games in our coats and mittens. Each cottage had a private driveway where the milk truck pulled in each morning to deliver a steel crate filled with pint-sized cartons. The milk was always tepid by the time lunch rolled around.
My memories of the cottages, like the milk, remain warm. It was in those small, one-room schools where I developed my love for learning and an appreciation for diversity. The latter was especially nurtured when I was in first grade. It happened on the day before Thanksgiving in that fourth, mysterious cottage.
We rarely saw anyone enter the fourth cottage or, for that matter, leave. You can imagine my surprise then when my teacher, Mrs. Bach, asked if I would walk over to cottage four and bring its occupants a small box of empty glass baby food jars and lids. I probably felt pretty important knowing that Mrs. Bach entrusted me with glass jars, but I’m sure I felt equally apprehensive about approaching that unfamiliar site.
I remember walking slowly over to cottage four, the cold November air stinging my eyes, my arms carefully wrapped around the box as if it contained all my worldly possessions. I rang the cottage doorbell, (Now, how many students can say they rang a school doorbell?) and a big boy opened the classroom door to greet me. A screen separated the two of us, distorting our appearances, but through the fine mesh I noticed that there was something unique about his appearance. He didn’t look like the other kids I knew at school. He said something indecipherable to me and then opened the screen door.
His teacher approached the open door and asked me to come inside. A sweet, pungent smell greeted me as I crossed the threshold as did about a half a dozen boys and girls. They were all excited to see me; their excitement expressed through joyful looks and a smattering of words. I remember thinking that they looked older than the other cottage students. I admit now that I felt uncomfortable. Who were these children? Why hadn’t I seen them before? Why was it difficult to understand them?
Their teacher took the box of jars from my hand and thanked me for the delivery. She then asked if I would like to stay and help with a project. I must have said yes because the next thing I knew, she was on the rotary phone with my teacher explaining that I would be absent for a while.
The sweet smell was coming from the small kitchenette that was found in each cottage. A large pot of boiling water was perched on top of a hot plate. The water enveloped hundreds of bright red cranberries, each dancing in the churning water. My job was to cut, with a plastic knife, small pieces of spongy orange rind that would be added to the mixture. The students were busy coloring holiday cards. Occasionally, one would come over and give me a hug before being sent back to his or her seat.
Eventually, the teacher drained the pot, added a lot of sugar, allowed me to dump in cups of rind and then mashed the concoction together to form cranberry sauce. She took a ladle and showed me how to pour the syrupy Thanksgiving confection into the baby food jars I had brought.
I too was allowed to design a Thanksgiving card with crayons and construction paper. Before heading back to my first grade class, the teacher bundled me in my winter coat, gave me my card, presented me, on behalf of her students, with a jar of school-made cranberry sauce and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. Her students waived bye as I left.
I never told my classmates about the cranberry sauce. I tucked it away in my coat pocket. I also never told them about my experience with the children of cottage four. I could not put into words what I had experienced.
The next day, like all Thanksgivings of my childhood, was special. An extra long table occupied the length of my living room. It was adorned with white linen tablecloths and bejeweled with my mom’s finest china and silverware. I’m sure I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on our black and white Motorola before going outside to play football with the neighborhood kids.
It was while putting on my jacket to play football that I felt the small jar of cranberry sauce still nestled in the soft pocket. Sensing a messy and dangerous disaster should I be tackled, I ran into the kitchen to present my mother with the jar of sauce. My mom wanted to know the origins of the condiment. One question led to another, and before I knew it, my mother, despite her busy cooking schedule, patiently explained to me who the special students were that occupied cottage four.
In 1966, students with special needs were segregated from the general school population. They had their own special program, special schedule, and special teacher. Some were institutionalized. My school district sent them to cottage four. They did not learn, play or in any way socialize with other students. They were an invisible populace – unseen and unknown to the general school population, left to be discovered by chance encounters. My mother explained, the best she could, that they were just like me, but just had different challenges when it came to learning. She conveyed that I was to treat them with respect and kindness. She told me that I shared something in common with the students of cottage four. We would both be sharing Thanksgiving with loving families and eating sweet, school-made cranberry sauce.
I would like to say that when I returned to school after Thanksgiving, I visited cottage four on a regular basis, but I did not. I would like to say that, as a child, I squelched any negative comments I heard about students who were different, but I did not. I would like to say that when I decided to become a teacher, I chose to work exclusively with special needs students, but I did not. What I have done, however, since that Thanksgiving encounter, is to continue to try and understand those who are different from me. I have learned to ask questions, engage in conversation, and identify shared attributes and interests while accepting each person’s uniqueness.
Public schools present a wonderful forum for diverse populations to gather together and learn from each other. Today, more than ever, boys and girls of all religions, ethnicities, cultures, races, economic statuses, family structures, and health and learning challenges, can sit in classrooms and celebrate their commonalities while acknowledging and accepting their differences. Today, our schools strive for the inclusion of all. At Island Park we include and embrace all learners no matter their strengths, needs, languages and challenges. Our school’s instructional models serve the needs of students in general education, ELL and resource center settings as well as through innovative, inclusive programs like our Personalized Learning Program (PLP).
While we still have gaps to close and bridges to build, we no longer engage in practices of overt seclusion and segregation. And that, like the little jar of Thanksgiving cranberry sauce gifted to me from the students of cottage four, is something sweet for which we can be thankful.