You don’t exist. At least that’s what a lot of people think.
The other day, some expat moms at my Swiss international school in Zurich were chatting in the garden about overdone American graduation ceremonies. Americans, apparently, are known for over-celebrating the graduation.
We dress up, pull out our videophones, slap our hands together at large gatherings in flowery rooms. We cry, give gifts and parties for kids moving-on from preschool, kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school and college. We share photos of graduates on Facebook, listing accomplishments, parading our pride. We weep over the years that have passed, the struggles, triumphs; and sometimes we slow down and reflect. For the privileged, certificates of graduation are granted for gymnastic level completion, piano, tennis, and so on. Speeches are made, and then we might eat too much and go swimming.
We forget you exist.
Meanwhile 75 million school-aged children and youth are in desperate need of education and support, either in danger of, or already missing out on their education.
I stood in the warm breeze giggling by the rose garden with moms. We laughed about the over-done over-everything that is perceived as terribly American. But afterwards, it occurred to me that the tradition of coming together to recognize the blessing of an education, any education might be a pretty good idea. It might be good to take a look at how very life-changing, how extravagant a good classroom experience really is. But in reality, how many parents and kids really do celebrate graduations? Americans or not? I wondered.
Then I found that according to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school at all in 2010.
But we keep forgetting that you exist.
Now for my backstory. Last year, I wrote a piece about the child at graduation whom nobody claps for. I wrote it after sitting at a graduation ceremony, bawling my eyes out, while watching beautiful kids graduate from the Connecticut school two of my children attended at the time— but where my son was not welcomed. I listened to stories told about proud well-dressed eighth graders glistening with pride. I watched teachers stand tall with emotion. Those kids were poised to change the world. Meanwhile, my then 10-year-old boy with special needs was home clinically depressed with a tutor. He was out of school after countless institutions had failed him. He was without a community, (other than the therapists we’d hired.)
Some of you can’t get a quality education because of your special needs, but others of you can’t get an education because you don’t have a home, a school or even a nation to call your own.
Sometimes it felt that no one really believed me. A child without an appropriate, safe school in the U.S.? No one wanted to believe that he existed.
But six months ago we left the U.S. and ditched our educational nightmare. Today all three of my children have a school. My oldest son has teachers, friends, classroom experiences, recess, and a caring international community at a very unusual Swiss International School supported by a learning support foundation.
Now I’m look over my shoulder at you. I see the educational landscape my child and I have been battling through where you still struggle, and I feel horror. I’m preparing for my boy to graduate from primary school (for which he has no good memories of until this year,) yet you are still out there without seat at a ceremony, without a safe, appropriate school or any school at all. There are other moms of special needs kids still homeschooling some of you rather than watching you suffer in a system at times abusing kids with untrained support and inappropriate behavioral protocols— a system, a world failing to educate millions of kids appropriately.
Some of you can’t get a quality education because of your special needs, but others of you can’t get an education because you don’t have a home, a school or even a nation to call your own. Some of you don’t have a classroom because of poverty or gender or because your district, your country, your world is busy spending money on soccer fields, oil, weapons, walls and security for government golf outings. Some of you don’t have parents or don’t have parents with resources, with community, with access to food, water, bathrooms and shoes. Some of you don’t have the ability to get any learning done. Period.
And so I’m hoping other grownups will put down the cameras for a moment. I’m hoping that they’ll join me in thinking of you without a school, without a seat at a ceremony.
I’m hoping that these other lucky ones who’ve been blessed with an education will join me in taking their intellectual gifts, their graduation gift funds…they’ll do much, much more with their over-everything American.
I’m hoping that we educated over-celebrating adults will work harder, much harder to admit that you exist. To know you. And to help you and every single kid, like you, get a safe, appropriate education.
P.S. In case anyone still tells you that you don’t exist, you can share a few more horrifying facts:
3.7 million refugee children have no school to go to of the 6 million school-aged children under the UN Refugee Agency’s mandate.
1 in 10 of the one billion people in the world with a disability are children and 80% live in developing countries. Among marginalized groups, children with disabilities remain the most excluded.
84% of U.S. principals say that students are coming to school hungry. Hunger increases the inability to concentrate by 88% and increases behavioral problems by 65%.
1 in 3 children with an identified disability for which they receive special education services in the U.S. are victims of some type of maltreatment (i.e., either neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse) whereas 1 in 10 nondisabled children experience abuse.
1 in 5 school districts leaders in the U.S. approved of using restraints or seclusion (for children with disabilities) as punishment. Restraint and seclusion in a disciplinary method often used for hyperactive children or children on the autism spectrum. It can include locking children in dark closets and tying them with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords, or even duct tape and was used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year.
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