The following article was contributed by Doreen Engel, Director of the Benilde Program at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, RI.
The following scene will be familiar to any educator in the Catholic School Community. A mother is asking for something for her child, and we have to say no. We’ve all experienced discomfort in such conversations with mothers and other family members. Sometimes we console ourselves that another teacher or school will respond, whether we actually know this to be true or not. In the current climate, where “Growth Mindset” is the watchword of the day, situations such as this feel like anything but growth.
Any child can tell you that when we speak of growth, we often are speaking of discomfort. Who hasn’t experienced growing pains? There are many painful reasons we say “no” to families, but a common one and the focus of this essay is that the child has a disability. And yet, we cannot be dissuaded from the idea of children with disabilities being included in Catholic Schools simply because we feel uncomfortable or sense that struggles will be involved. Isn’t this what we tell our students – that struggle is the beginning of learning?
One question is how to start the conversation about including students with disabilities in Catholic schools that have little or no experience with this topic. Fortunately, we have Jesus’ own example to inspire and teach us. It is reasonable that some Catholic School leaders wonder if inclusion is simply not in keeping with the mission of their particular school. Jesus, the Divine Teacher, used many ways to help his disciples grow in understanding of his mission, and by extension theirs. A poignant example is his encounter with a Canaanite mother. (Matthew 15:21-28) As the story starts, we feel a knot of empathy in our stomachs; a mother is asking for healing for her daughter, and she is told, “No.” Why? Jesus declined because he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Verse 24.) Legitimate, surely? Leaders must say no rather often. It is irresponsible to lose sight of our mission, and thus tough decisions must be made. We can take comfort in the fact that Jesus said no, thus doing so cannot always in and of itself be wrong.
Then Jesus encounters the same courageous parent so many of us have been privileged to meet; desiring help for her child, she is both clever and honest. Her love is inspiring and infectious. Hearing her retort, we wonder if this is the moment Jesus first modeled for his disciples that his mission, and now ours, is in fact to all of humanity. A growth mindset if there ever was one. Had Jesus ignored this encounter, as his disciples recommended, they would have missed a critical opportunity for growth. Like those first disciples, perhaps our mission is broader than we first realized too. If we avoid such encounters, we may never know.
Would you like to open a discussion about Inclusion at your school or in your diocese? Perhaps this Opening School Prayer Service will start the conversation where it should begin, at the heart of our desire to follow Christ where he leads. My prayer is that your entire school community, like the 12 year- old Jesus, will keep increasing in wisdom in the 2017-2018 school year.