I went into special education after six short weeks volunteering in an orphanage for the disabled in Tianjin. The man who made my breakfast most every morning didn’t even know there were children behind the walls.
His cart was on a busy corner. Spreading an egg mixture with a ladle. Filling it with green onions. A pseudo-crepe filled with plum sauce. My all-time favorite breakfast. Paired it with hot pineapple Tang, because my boiled water never had time to cool…even on the hour-long bike ride to work. I asked him, “Who lives there?” I already knew the answer. Kids with disabilities ranging from quadraplegia to extra toes. Yes, in a place where you are allowed one child, extra toes are a dealbreaker. He shrugged and gave a ‘no’ in Mandarin.
I was 18. Sheltered. Naive. I saw a sign at a lake that read: “Please do not throw your girl babies in this lake.” I had heard that the One Child Policy was no longer in effect. I wasn’t prepared for it all. Babies and children cast off due to imperfections. We do it here in these beautiful United States, too. When new life is inconvenient to us, we shout it with hashtags.
I quickly ate my breakfast and went in to assist the teachers. I was the oldest of six kids. Years of Sunday School, VBS, babysitting, co-ops, and backyard shenanigans weren’t enough. They wanted help with goals. The teachers were starting IEPs for the orphans. Trying to meet their needs, prepare them for employment, and attempting to keep them from becoming homeless.
I was at a youth hostel in Shanghai the night China won the Olympic bid. I was devastated. I knew what it meant for the people. Before my trip ended, I saw entire neighborhoods being bulldozed in order to make Olympic everything. People wandering around trying to figure out what they were going to do. Houses and apartment buildings in complete shambles. Years before the games. And I didn’t even yet know the impact of the Olympics on sex trafficking. So many drugged children sold to foreigners for puppeteered rape.
I wasn’t even in college yet. And these Chinese teachers were anticipating that I was here to help with IEPs. I didn’t know what they were. I was about to declare my major in elementary education. I had zero classes under my belt. I helped the best I could, until a very special assignment opened up.
A blind child needed someone to keep working on his goals while his therapist was away on furlough. I became a personal aide and visual impairment therapist overnight. And it was only by the grace of God that I accomplished anything with that amazingly sweet boy. I was overwhelmed, undertrained, and I spent my day in prayer just asking God for divine ideas. I spent my fun money at the internet cafe trying to find games and therapy tips. I spent those long school hours trying to implement his goals, but knowing absolutely nothing about educating the blind.
But in a world where something is better than nothing, I kept going. Tripping all over myself. Because I was white, I was either placed on a pedestal that was undeserving or I was seen as the enemy. Both were too much for someone so young. I ended up sick and depressed. I wasn’t used to being incompetent. I didn’t have the skills to deal with it.
Somehow, through all my limitations, God used me to teach one kid. I taught him. And I was never the same. I went to my Missouri college orientation and declared special education. It was a close knit group. Five in my graduating class. I can’t remember how many we started with. Special Education has such a high turnover and drop out rate.
A teacher mentioned in a Freshman class that the One Child Policy was no longer around. I gave a speech on seeing that policy firsthand. Showed the photo of that sign at the lake. Quoted one of our translators, “You need to take your used things to your own trashcan. They check all of ours and it doesn’t line up with our cycles.” Checking pads and tampons. An orphanage filled with ‘imperfect’ kids. Do not even try to tell me the One Child Policy no longer exists.
In other classes, I learned about IEPs. Goals and benchmarks and progress and testing and evaluations. This was what those women wanted from me. I had no idea. They wanted levels and structure. I brought balloons that my translator had traveled 3 hours roundtrip to get. Spending all of his entire week’s pay, just because I mentioned it would be a fun activity. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have mentioned such a novelty.
And the teachers asked how the balloons would help three of the boys with hearing impairments. They wouldn’t help. They were just fun. And the looks of disappointment they donned were ones I had never before seen.
In college, I took classes that would’ve helped. A few years too late. It was like I was doing penance. Or maybe thought I would go back. Take all my notes and perfect assignments and hours of lectures. I would give those teachers what they needed. Special education expertise. Not games I learned from a Red Cross Babysitting Course in Junior High.
And I became a special education teacher. Ready to write and implement IEPs. All the paperwork seemed like a blessing after seeing women so hungry for it. And I remembered all my babies in the therapy rooms and my kiddos in the classrooms and my newborns in the medical building every time I wrote an IEP for one of my junior high students in the Midwest. Not taking for granted that I was able to do it. That I had resources to follow through on it. That I had the internet to give me ideas. And parents to contact when things weren’t working out. A teacher in small-town America with small-town problems. Loving my career. Even during IEP season.
Here I am, 14 years later, happy for the update I received several years ago that special education teachers went there and trained the nationals on how to assess levels, write goals, and implement IEPs. Because IEPs are more than just a stack of paper. They are an opportunity. A chance to change someone’s stars. One benchmark at a time.
And I just attended my first IEP meeting on the other side of the table. Signing as parent/guardian. But that’s a story for a different day…