For what seemed like an eternity, but was barely a minute, Shannon Grady’s third-graders at Small School in South Portland had to pair up and stare at each other. There was a lot of fidgeting and giggling and glancing around.
Kelly Corbin asked how it felt – to be stared at and to stare at someone else.
When someone is staring at them?
Funny (uh-oh, not ha ha)
When they’re doing the staring?
What if a stranger is staring at them?
And what if they were in the grocery store and noticed a man with a twisted leg and crutches? Would they want to stare? Or at least steal a glance?
The kids agreed that the man probably felt the same way they did about being stared at.
What would they do if the man caught them staring?
How many times did we hear as kids, or have told our own kids, not to stare because it isn’t polite? With this simple exercise, these kids began to understand that it’s about more than being rude. It’s about understanding how awful it feels to be stared at. A lesson in empathy.
Corbin is one of a half-dozen program leaders who travel to elementary schools throughout Maine, trying to “change attitudes” about people with disabilities.
They do so on behalf of The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness, an organization founded in 2004 by Jamie Kaplan and Irv Shapell. On its website its states that “over 53,000 students have heard our message that all differences are entitled to respect and that our similarities far outweigh our differences.”
The center bears the name of Jeremiah Cromwell, who died of appendicitis in 1928 at the age of 16. At the time, he was a resident of the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, which most Mainers know as Pineland.
No one claimed Jeremiah’s body and, as the story goes, he was buried on school grounds, his grave “marked only by a small cement cylinder stamped with his patient ID number.”
Thirty years later, in the late 1950s, the cement cylinder was replaced with a gravestone bearing his name Jeremiah Cromwell.
According to a press release issued when The Cromwell Center first opened, “The center is dedicated to the mission that people with developmental and other disabilities will never again experience such profound isolation in life and anonymity at death.”
Back in Grady’s classroom, Corbin and the students talk about the word “disability” and what it means.
“It means you can’t do something – not because you never tried, though.”
“It’s harder to do things.”
“You could be hurt and it can’t get fixed.”
“Maybe your legs don’t work.”
“You have trouble sounding out words.”
“Maybe you try to read letters and numbers and they move around and make no sense.”
“My aunt has a problem with her eyes. She’s almost blind, but she skied in the Special Olympics.”
“I know a little girl whose dad can’t hear. They speak in sign language.”
“A disability makes you feel different.”
When Corbin held up a book she was going to read aloud – “My Friend Has Autism” – one of the students got excited and exclaimed, “Autism is my disability!”
She explained to her classmates that sometimes she blurts things out. She can’t always help it. And sometimes she cries and gets angry.
Later, when Corbin asked what made each of them different from other people, the same student didn’t say autism, she said (proudly), “I’m double jointed!”
To help drive home the point about differences, Corbin divided the kids into small groups, gave each group a lemon and instructed them to “get to know it.”
Then she gathered up the lemons and asked a representative of each group to identify which was theirs. No one hesitated.
“How did you know?” she asked. “They all look the same.”
“We had to figure out what made our lemon different,” answered a student.
At the end of her presentation, Corbin left the students with bookmarks, a letter to share with their families, and a poster and a book for their classroom.
Hopefully, she also left them with an understanding that everyone is different or unique – with or without a disability, everyone has things they can and cannot do, and everyone deserves respect.