by Seema Renee Gersten

Featured in Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul
Chosen by CS intern Erick Baldwin

It was my very first teaching job, and I was anxious to make an excellent first impression. I had been hired to lead a vibrant group of four-year-olds. As the parents escorted children into the room, I attempted to deal with crying kids, teary-eyed moms and tense dads. Finally, I managed to seat the kids on the carpet and we were ready to start our “morning circle time.”

We were in the middle of a rousing rendition of “Old McDonald” when the door opened and a mysterious woman entered the room. She stood next to the door quietly observing the children and me. My voice and smile never faltered, but quite frankly I was very nervous. Who is this woman? Why is she here? What exactly is she observing? When I looked up again she was gone.

The day went relatively smoothly, but by the time the last child was picked up, I was physically and emotionally drained. I longed for a nonfat latte, some Chopin and a bubble bath. Then my director came in and asked to meet with me before I left for the day.

My heart raced. Did this have anything to do with the woman who had observed my class? Did I choose the wrong songs? Was the circle time too long? Too short? By the time I reached the office, I was an emotional wreck. I sat perched on the edge of my seat and waited for the axe to fall. My director told me the woman who had visited my room earlier was a potential parent to the school and was concerned about how her daughter would function in a regular classroom. Her little girl was born with a birth defect that required she wear leg braces from the knees down. The child was ambulatory but walked very slowly with a lopsided gait. She would need to be carried out to the yard and back to the classroom. Her balance was poor, and she had a tendency to topple over if she was jostled, even slightly. We would need to remind the other children to be careful when walking near her so they wouldn’t accidentally cause her to fall.

The director asked me how I felt about her becoming a member of my group. I was speechless. Here I was wondering if I could possibly survive a school year with fifteen of the liveliest four-year-olds in North America, and now I was being asked to take on a child with special needs? I replied that I would accept the child on a trial basis.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep. I tossed and turned until morning, then drove to work with my stomach in knots. We were all gathered on the carpet for our morning circle when the door opened and the woman walked in carrying her daughter. She introduced herself as Kelly’s mommy and she gingerly sat her daughter down on the edge of the carpet. Most of the children knew Kelly from synagogue and greeted her with warm, affectionate hugs. I looked at Kelly and she looked at me. “Welcome to our room, Kelly. We are so excited that you will be a member of our group.”

The first day went really well; Kelly only fell over twice. After several days of carrying her to and from the yard, I thought, Why not encourage her to walk down the hallway a little by herself? I asked Kelly if she would like to try it, and she became very excited. The next day I sent the class out to the yard with my two assistants, and Kelly began her first journey down the hallway. She walked all the way to the next classroom, a total of ten feet. We were both thrilled! But my assistants were aghast that I was encouraging this poor child to walk. They pleaded with me to carry her outside and seat her on the bench so she could watch the other children run and play. “It would be so much easier,” they murmured. But Kelly was persistent and eager to give it her best shot.

And so we began the strenuous task of walking daily down the hall. I winced when Kelly teetered precariously too far to the right, but she just giggled and told me not to worry, she was perfectly fine. I began to cherish our quiet moments alone in the hallway, my arms outstretched to help her regain her balance. Kelly always grinned and told me she had never felt better.

Each day Kelly and I continued our slow walk down the corridor. I charted her progress with little pencil marks on the wall. Every few days the pencil marks got farther and farther apart. Kelly’s classmates started to notice and began cheering for her as she plodded along. After several weeks, Kelly made it all the way to the yard! She positively glowed as the children congratulated her with gentle pats on the back and warm hugs. My assistants were astonished and prepared a special snack in honor of Kelly’s tremendous accomplishment.
Weeks passed and Kelly continued to walk out to the yard every single day. We rarely carried her as she became more independent.
One week in mid-December, Kelly was absent for several days. When I called her home I was told she was in Manhattan getting her annual checkup with her doctors. On Monday morning, when her mom brought her back to school, she inquired if I had been doing anything differently with Kelly. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Then came the dreaded question: “Have you been forcing Kelly to walk?”

I was dumbfounded. Maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged Kelly to walk to the yard every day. Maybe I had caused permanent damage to her weakened legs. Maybe Kelly would need to be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

I very softly told Kelly’s mom that I had encouraged her to walk outside to the yard by herself. I explained that she seemed to enjoy walking independently. The mother gently lifted Kelly’s dress to show me that Kelly’s knee braces had been replaced with ankle braces.
“Her legs have gotten more exercise in the past few months than in the past four years of her life.” She looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything you have done for my daughter.”

I hugged her. “Having Kelly as a member of my group has been a privilege.”

Seventeen years later, I still think back to the first time Kelly made it down the long hallway. Whenever I have a bad day teaching and life seems too overwhelming, I think of Kelly and her exuberant smile as she painstakingly walked down that hallway. She taught me that no obstacle in life is too big to overcome. You just need to keep working at it-one step at a time.
Seema Renee Gersten

Encouraging Kelly. Reprinted by permission of Seema Renee Gersten. ©1999 Seema Renee Gersten