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A real cowboy



I had a blog entry ready from a couple months ago about one of my students with mental retardation and physical disabilities. This is how it was going to start:

I have a 14-year-old cowboy in my classroom who cannot add. He cannot remember the alphabet. And he most definitely cannot read.

But even with a disabled hand and a limp, “Elmer,” who has mental retardation, can cut bales of hay. He can tell you which direction the sun rises. He can feed the horses, figure out which sheep are missing and make dinner in the microwave. Sure, there is physical therapy and he gets occupational therapy, but more importantly, there is water that needs hauling. And wire that needs cutting. And porches that need sweeping.

According to the therapist who evaluated Elmer earlier in the year, most children with his level of physical and mental disabilities would not be able to manage the range of motion, strength and skill that he has. Years of being a cowboy and helping the family survive has given him abilities that he probably would not have had if he had been sheltered, coddled and living in the urban confines of, say, Washington, D.C.

This was originally going to be an entry on his incredible life skills abilities despite his major academic inabilities. But now I have to change it. Because now Elmer can read about 25 life skills words and spell about 15. (Once he reaches 50 sight words, we’re going to have a party. We’ve discussed this for a long time now. It will involve the biggest and bestest chocolate cake that Ms. Shyu will hand-craft for him despite never having baked a chocolate cake before in her life.)

He can now comprehend stories read to him at the upper-second grade level. He knows which books he likes at the bookstore and he knows how to nag me until I drop my work and record the story onto a tape. He knows how to “take notes” and “summarize” stories into a tape recorder so I can grade it after class. He knows how to use a calculator to add and subtract single-digits, double-digits and money values. He can count by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s for pennies, nickels and dimes.

There is so much more we must do. He is 14 now and has less than seven years to go in public education. When I imagine what countless skills it will take for him to be able to go grocery shopping independently one day, I’m overwhelmed. And sad.

But he’s overcome so many hurdles and surpassed so many expectations already. Who am I to be sad? I’m just here to bake a cake.


Hi Jessica! I just wanted to say that I've been reading this blog and finding it very inspiring-- you certainly put a lot of care, time, energy, and reflection into helping your students, and successes like this one only go to show that all your work is having a real effect. Thank you for sharing these experiences with all of us!

I am a special education major about to graduate from college. I just found out last week that I will be joining Teach For America and coming to New Mexico to teach special ed. They sent me the link for your blog and all I can say is that entries like this one make all the little worries that go along with life changes seem insignificant and I'm left with excitement.

Thanks for this reminder of what is really important. As I think back on almost 30 years in Indian education, I remember those those enormous victories that seemed so insignificant that they would not have even been noticed had not a child tugged on my sleeve to remind me.

I really am enjoying your blog, as it brings to mind so many of my own experiences. Like you I was only going to stay for two years. All of a sudden I am ready to retire and can't bear to leave those who have touched me so deeply

Don't get me wrong--I'm a big fan of your blog and have been following it for more than a year now. But I find the title of this entry "dis/Abilities" to be just one more euphenism for people with disabilities. I'm tired of euphenisms: dis/Abilities, differently abled, challenged, etc. I believe that when it comes to people with disaiblities, actions matter more than words. We can call people with disabilities all of the most polite terms in the world, but still discriminate.


A person with a disability.

koodoo hozhoo dooleel - from here, there shall be blessing. Dine people have always been very independent from the beginning, the world changed, there are now new tools we have to all learn. Disability never stop us from doing anything. It's all in our prayers.

This is my first time reading your blog. A fellow Special Ed teacher forwarded it to me. I teach Middle School Special Ed in San Diego. I just wanted to let you know that your story touched me. I know how difficult it can be, and how many people find it frustrating to work with a population of students whose progress is measured in what can be seen as very small incriments. So, I wanted to share a story with you...
I started teacing in a Special Ed Day Class in one of the poorest parts of San Diego. I had a 6th grader who was reading at a kindergarten level. 'Jose' was an Eng. language learner, yet would not utter a word in English or Spanish. But we worked... I helped, but he worked. In May, I asked Jose to prepare something to say to the class. (I figured it would be a sentence or two.) We had been working on "When You Give a Moose a Muffin". He came into class with the 'big book' we had used and read the entire story to his classmates. The room was silent. When Jose finished, the entire class stood, started clapping and then chearing so loudly the sound was deafening! Jose stood there, turned red... and smiled so brightly. It was a joy to behold.
It is in these moments when our jobs make sense. Your cowboy, my Jose... it is these children that make each day worth it.
Enjoy the journey... and may your teaching career be filled with many beautiful moments.

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