LAST MARCH my eldest daughter’s prep school class had a year-end culminating activity where each student got to read a passage from a story they had written and illustrated together. There were the inevitable variations in the children’s reading: some raced through their passage, others were most paced. Some were ebullient, others almost sedate.
One boy seemed to have a bit of stage fright, and just didn’t want to read, which was fine as far as the teachers were concerned. They asked him to go back to his classmates and the next student read her passage. And so it went, the audience swept up by the readings, but keeping an almost respectful silence.
Then the boy who had passed on the reading came back, and read. He did this slowly, occasionally pausing, but he was able to finish all his lines. There was a moment of silence, then everyone broke out in applause.
I looked at my own daughter, who was also applauding together with her classmates. I felt a surge of emotion, realizing that she and I had been on a long journey, and had now found our place, privileged to be part of a school that does not just tolerate, but celebrates, diversity.
Filipinos sometimes boast about having studied in, or sending their children to, an “exclusive” school. That means a private school, usually Catholic, with high tuition, and limited only to males, or females. Many have additional unspoken rules of exclusion, as I learned only too painfully when I was looking for a preschool for my eldest daughter about four years back.
I had found a preschool with excellent facilities and amiable teachers, and was ready to fill out application forms. But as I discussed admission requirements with the director, I came to a dead-end. They could not take my daughter because their preschool did not admit or, put another way, they exclude children who are raised by a single (meaning unmarried) parent, children of separated or divorced parents, and adopted children. The directress explained that they want their students to come from “regular” families and my daughter did not fit because of two of the exclusion criteria. (I’m invoking privacy here and will not mention which ones.)
Initially, I didn’t quite know how to respond, almost trying to take the situation with some humor. I am used to being seen as different, even called “abnormal” by my own parents, but “irregular” was a totally different term, making me think of garments sold at discounted prices in ukay-ukay outlets. Discards. Rejects.
The preschool directress was a kind woman and offered to take up my case with their board of trustees for reconsideration. But I realized all too quickly that if they made an exception and took in my daughter, she would always be the odd person out. Children quickly internalize the biases and prejudices of their parents and can be incredibly cruel to schoolmates who are labeled different—or irregular.
Wiser from that encounter, in succeeding preschools I would preempt the school owners and ask them what their policies were about “irregular” children. All my children ended up going to a preschool whose director seemed almost surprised that I would even ask. “We have no problems with who the parents are,” she said, “even children with two daddies or two mommies.”
The school that had rejected my daughter was part of the Opus Dei’s Paref chain and while I do not like their policies about “irregular” children, I have to give them credit for being open about it. Over the years, I have heard sad stories from other “irregular” parents about schools—Catholic, Protestant, secular—that take in “irregular” children, but have faculty who discriminate against those students.
I have learned, too, that the division between “traditional” and “progressive” schools can be artificial when it comes to admitting still another group of children: those with learning difficulties, for example, autism.
We usually presume it’s progressive (or alternative) schools that are the more liberal, admitting “irregular” children and special children. There are many types of learning difficulties, including autism, which is actually a wide spectrum. Many special kids, including those with autism, can study in regular schools as long as the school has supportive staff who have received some training in special education.
Sadly, some so-called progressive schools have become obsessed about getting their graduates to be top achievers, making it into UP or other top universities. Which means they will not take children with learning disabilities because this might “disrupt” their classes, or “tarnish” their reputation as schools of academic excellence. (The words in quotes are those actually used by some of the faculty, according to parents of special children who were rejected from those schools.)
Fortunately, there are schools, both progressive and traditional, that even have a quota for children with learning difficulties. It isn’t a matter of political correctness here but of the schools recognizing that out there in the real world, we have people with learning difficulties in our families and neighborhoods. For the special children, there are also benefits from studying in a regular school in terms of learning to interact socially with other children. For the parents, having a child in a regular school also means large savings because special schools can be even more expensive than the most exclusive private schools.
My daughter’s school accepts both “irregular” and special children, but the faculty did not have to brief parents, or the children, about this and everyone just “slides” into the situation almost intuitively. My daughter talks about all her classmates without referring to anyone as “special.” The spontaneous applause for that child at the culminating ceremony, who may not even have a learning difficulty but is just simply shy, was the parents’ and children’s way of saying, “You decided to come back and read and we want to acknowledge that effort.” In contrast, I remember how in my own childhood, teachers and students would make fun of students who were shy, who stuttered, who were slower than others or who were just different (effeminate, for example).
I will say here that if schools want to be exclusionary, then let them be. They end up depriving their students of opportunities to discover more about life, and about people.
They would have learned, for example, of multiple intelligences, perhaps from a classmate with autism who might have been slower with reading but who would breeze through math, or excel in arts and music. They would have learned more about patience and cooperation, about advancing together—walang iwanan in Filipino.
Someday, too, when the time is right, my children’s schoolmates will learn that there are many different kinds of families, and that “regular” families stand to learn as well from so-called “broken” and “irregular” families, about courage, strength and love given many times over.
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