Updated: Jun 24, 2022
By Marina Vaserman
Edited by Laura Barker
Note: This article was originally posted in 2016 to draw attention to the barriers that isolate our children from their friends and their communities. In 2020, these barriers have only grown wider as schools go online and disparities imposed by race, class, and abilities impact every aspect of our students' lives.
When I was pregnant, I wasn’t ready to pick motherhood over my career and I soon learned that I
would never pick one over the other. When my son was in the womb, he got plenty of kisses and hugs from my students and he heard the wails and kicks of tiny heroes fighting big battles.
Days after giving birth, I was ready to go back to work. So, I did the only thing I could think to do: I invited parents and children to do therapy in my apartment. Between feedings and rocking my son to sleep, I played games, chased kids, and tutored. With my son in a carrier against my body, I had some of my absolute best sessions in those early months.
Once he was old enough to walk and talk, it was time to get him involved in community- based programs. Early intervention programs one and two turned him away because he did not have a diagnosed disability. He didn’t belong because he didn’t have support needs…it was an entirely new concept to me. These programs claimed to be ‘for students of ALL abilities’ but they turned away my son for being neurotypical.
I requested membership to special-needs parenting groups on Yahoo, but I was denied. These groups promote wanting more inclusivity, but they still said my son didn’t belong. I was surprised at how exclusive these ‘inclusive’ groups could be.
We were different from what the groups expected and there simply wasn’t a place for us. At this point, I enrolled my son in the best preschool I could find. An expensive private school annual tuition with bilingual immersion, chef onsite, all typical peers, involved families, and enrichment activities coupled with academic rigor. He gained many wonderful experiences that year.
Despite the wonderful setup, something didn’t feel right. The next few months I didn’t spend enough time with Kaleb, and I felt a divide in my personal and professional life. Something felt missing, something essential for my son’s education and our life experiences, but I couldn’t put my finger on the missing piece.
One night, I sat down and thought about what I wanted for my son. I wrote a list, but it still didn’t feel right. After reaching Goal #33, I crumpled up the paper and took out a new sheet. This time I wrote one word. KIND. Basic, trivial maybe, but the single most important adjective I wanted to be attached to my child. I want him to grow up open-minded and big-hearted.
So when I couldn’t find a truly inclusive program, I decided to start one. Open Mind, a place where neurotypical and neurodiverse students were all simply seen as children deserving of a spectacular education.
That year I continued to get questions about why my son went to preschool with disabled children. I got strange glances when I showed up at a special-needs playdate and my son played appropriately, had language, and patiently waited his turn. And more times than I care to admit, I was asked why I put my son through that? Why have him in programs where children don’t talk or cry more than him or struggle in things he doesn’t struggle in?
I can sum it up in one moment. On a whim, I decided to leave work an hour early and pick up my son from daycare for some fun in the park. After an hour of chasing, slides, and sandcastles, I decided to sit on a bench nearby. At that moment, a school-aged child on the playground began to wail. The wail grew louder as the child threw sand. In that instant, the other children backed away towards their parents. I saw Kaleb patiently watch the child. After a minute, Kaleb quietly walked over and sat next to the boy. Then he handed him a sand toy. If I didn’t know it before that moment, I knew it instantly in that second.
Kindness. My son is kind. I have no doubt that a kind gesture can reach a hurt soul in a way that only compassion can. Kaleb is kind because in high-quality educational programs that foster a spirit of inclusion; a humanistic kindness that simply cannot be found in any other program, any other setting, in the world is captured.
Now more than ever, we need kind people. Raising our children in inclusive settings allows them to experience the world representative of the diverse demographic of our beautiful community. They learn to see the world through different perspectives, they learn how to tackle problems from different approaches, to build genuine relationships with peers of all walks of life, to understand a world outside of their own. That’s a value that will stick with my son his entire life. That is what can change the world. Kindness.