I fell into teaching by accident. After graduating from college with a degree in Film, I spent six months in Hollywood and realized I liked my soul too much to sell it out to celluloid. So I packed up and headed back to the East Coast to figure out Plan B. As I was only qualified to make movies and wait tables, I would have to go back to school if I didn’t want to starve. My mother was a teacher and had a couple of ins for me at the local university. So there I went, where I majored in special education.
This career path, though guided less by passion and more by paycheck, turned out to be a life-changing one. It opened me up to a world I never expected. There I found people of superhuman compassion and character and ideas that challenged the way I viewed the world. I worked with children who both inspired and infuriated me, families who amazed and perplexed me.
One family in particular made a significant impact on me. In Israel, I formed a close relationship with one of my teachers, Rebbetzin Tavin. She had a megawatt smile and personality to match. She was warm, accessible and real. One Shabbos, I went to her home for dinner and I was amazed by what I found there.
Despite the fact that Rebbetzin Tavin had a large number of children in a relatively small apartment, there was a palpable sense of peace in her home. All of her children were gracious, happy and polite. They readily helped their mother serve and warmly spoke with all the guests. But the most amazing thing about these children was the love and care they gave to their special needs brother, Binyomin Dovid.
In the light of their love, Binyomin Dovid was given the freedom to shine.
At five years old, Binyomin Dovid was a light-haired angel with a smile as bright as his mother’s and an exuberance that was contagious. Binyomin Dovid also had Down syndrome. Having worked with many families of children with special needs, I was accustomed to seeing resentment and sometimes even verbal or physical abuse between siblings, usually due to jealousy, shame or embarrassment. But there was not a trace of it in Rebbetzin Tavin’s home. Older siblings carried him, younger siblings played with him. It was clear that everyone in that family adored Binyomin Dovid and were proud to have him as a part of their family.
They saw all the beautiful things he was, instead of despairing over the things he wasn’t. They recognized they opportunity they were given to raise such a special soul, and encouraged every member of their family to do the same. In the light of their love, Binyomin Dovid was given the freedom to shine.
I returned to America and continued on in my career. I cared very much about the children I worked with, but at the end of the day, I sent them home to their parents and went about my business. Because they weren’t my children, it never became truly personal. Deep down, I was relieved that raising a special needs child was not my full-time job, though I would never have admitted that to anyone.
Everything changed some years later, when my son’s teacher sat me down to express some concerns she had. She’d noticed some “red flags” she thought we should have checked out, which we did. We learned that while very intelligent, my son also had some significant issues that would require therapy if he was to be successful in school, and in life.
The prospect of something being “wrong” with my child went through me like a shockwave.
The prospect of something being “wrong” with my child went through me like a shockwave. How could my child have a problem? Even more, how could I not have known? Everything I’d learned about in school, all the diagnostic jargon, came to life before my eyes: OT, sensory integration, motor planning, socialization, processing. I had seen it all in countless children, but for the first time, it was real to me, because the kid they were talking about was mine.
I felt like I’d failed. If I’d only done this, if I hadn’t let him eat that, if we exposed him to this, if we gave him more of that. The what-ifs ran like a news ticker in the back of my head, tormenting me with the thought that my son’s disability was all my fault.
Around this time, someone very close to me told me about her daughter who was struggling terribly with an eating disorder. After years of sending her to treatment centers and therapies, nothing seemed to be working. The bingeing and purging continued, her connection to Judaism and spirituality had evaporated and it seemed this girl was bent on self-destructing. Her hope depleted, this mother asked me, “What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why do I have to go through this?”
My answer, I promise you, was not my own. It was as if I was a puppet and a Ventriloquist was speaking for me. And this is what He said: “Imagine if she’d had a different mother; someone else might have thrown her out on the street. She could have been dead by now, God forbid. With you as her mother, she always has a safe place to come home to, and maybe one day, recover. Maybe it’s God’s kindness that she got you as her mother. Maybe this has nothing to do with you at all, and everything to do with her.”
This mother was calmed, cheered and contented by what I’d said. She thanked me profusely and told me that my words had given her true peace.
A few weeks later, I called her to talk about my son’s diagnosis and therapy action plan. She offered pointers on how to best work the system and then listened intently as I told her how I felt: that maybe, somehow, this was because I wasn’t a good enough mother.
I heard her smile from the other side of the phone. “Maybe this has nothing to do with you at all, and everything to do with him.”
Those words somehow worked like magic. The fear and guilt disappeared. I suppose that message was a gift to both of us.
God's Department & Mine
I remembered a midrash I had heard once about souls that are waiting up in heaven to be born. They look down into the world and choose the two people they want to be their parents. They know that those parents will be able to provide them with exactly what they need here on earth. This means that, though imperfect people, we are perfectly matched with our children to help them grow into whom they’re meant to be.
Our job is to embrace their unique mission with a full heart and to teach them to do the same.
As I thought of this story, I realized that every child has special needs. They all need to be loved in their own way, taught in their own way, and make sense of the world around them in their own way. We, their parents, are there as their guides and helpers, to provide them with support, love and unconditional acceptance, to see them as they are, to embrace their unique mission with a full heart and to teach them to do the same. Our job is incredibly simple, and also the most challenging one in the world.
As the parent of a “special needs child,” I’ve had to chuck my expectations of my child and of myself. My son is a gift from God that I have the great responsibility of watching over during his sojourn on Earth. Who he is supposed to become is
God’s department, not mine. All I can do is love him as best I can. Of course I make mistakes. But instead of beating myself up about it, I remember that this kid picked me; maybe my “mistakes” are just what he needs to help him – and me – to grow.