I was a child with a special need in a Catholic school back when no one knew what special education meant and almost no one knew what to do about it. Today I am a professor of special education at St. Joseph’s University and the former Assistant Superintendent for Special Education for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I was responsible for children with special needs in 200 elementary schools, 20 high schools, 5 schools of special education and many programs for students with learning disabilities in grades k-12.
I use the five keys I have created over the past twenty years, to open minds and open hearts to the needs of all students. I have stood where our Catholic administrators now stand, I have taught as our Catholic teachers now teach (for a starting salary of $15,500), and I have sat in the desk where the child with a special need in a Catholic school now sits.
I was once told that to write well, you need to write what you know, and this is what I know, this is my story….
From the first day of school at St. Gabriel in Norwood, I knew I was different. I didn’t learn the way the other students seem to learn. In the third grade, I was tested and I started to hear rumblings about the possibility of me attending public school. One night, when I was supposed to be in bed, I was sitting at the top of the stairs listening to my parents’ conversation. My mother said, “If what they are saying is true and she really is different in some way, now is not the time to separate her from Jesus.” That sentence changed my life.
My parents’ wish for me would have been incomplete had it not been for the teacher who was waiting for me in fourth grade, Mrs. Margaret Egan. She said to me, “You learn in a way I have never seen before and I’m not quite sure what we are going to do but we are going to figure it out together.” For the first time, I didn’t feel alone. I wish I could tell you that I turned to Mrs. Egan in that moment and replied, “Yes, we do need to figure this out because one day, I’m going to be the Assistant Superintendent for Special Education of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, responsible for thousands of children with special needs attending Catholic schools and I’m going to be a nationally published author and speaker on the subject of special needs children in Catholic schools.”
I wish I had said that. I didn’t, but it came true anyway.
My Story — Part Two
Today, I am a person with a physical disability. As a result of a car accident, I spent years not working and fighting my way back to a quality of life that would allow me to work. One night, I had a dream. A man with no face said to me, “It is time to pay her back. It is time to pay her back. It is time to pay her back.” The next day, something jogged my memory of the dream and I was troubled by it. What did the voice mean? “It is time to pay who back?” I had the same dream two more times that week and every time, the man with no face said the same thing. “It is time to pay her back. It is time to pay her back. It is time to pay her back.” Did God want me to get even with the young girl who crashed into my car and forever changed my life? I had never seen God as the “fire and brimstone” God of vengeance and I had no desire to “get back” at anyone.
The morning after I had the dream for the third time, I saw a posting in the newspaper. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was looking for an Assistant Superintendent for Special Education. My first thought was: “Catholic schools have special education? Boy, would Christian love to hear about this.” The position seemed perfect for me. I was at the point physically, where I was ready to return to work and here was something that could be a good fit for me. Just as I was finishing that thought, my beloved Shetland Sheepdog, Shefield, hit the paper with his paw and barked three times, which was very out of character for him.
Suddenly, all the pieces started to come together in my mind. My past as a special needs student in a Catholic school, remembering to leave room for Jesus, the accident which left me physically disabled, the dream, the newspaper posting, exactly three barks from Shefield, “It is time to pay her back.” “It is time to pay her back.” “It is time to pay her back.” Suddenly, it was clear. The message was not referring to the young lady from the car accident, at all. The voice was talking about Mrs. Egan, the teacher who changed my life. She had reached out to a scared little girl, who had a special learning need, and now I was going to have the opportunity to pay her back. I was going to serve thousands of Catholic students with special needs, in her name.
I knew then what my dream meant. It was time for me to return to work and the work I would do, would be at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as its Assistant Superintendent for Special Education. I put down the newspaper and I turned to Shefield and said, “It is time, Shefie. It is time to pay her back.”
TO READ MORE, ODER MY NEW BOOK!
To learn more about my story, and what my friend Christian and I endured as the only two students with a special need in a Catholic school and to be introduced to the educators we encountered – both tragic and triumphant and to discover what I have learned about disabilities as a person with a physical disability – order my new book!