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A New Year of Learning

BACK to SCHOOL Article 2

To celebrate the new school year here are some of my favorite posts.
Article 1:

Why Do We Go to School?

Article 2:

A New Year of Learning

This is one of my favorite stories–an updated article from when Aaron was 8 years old and Tommy 6. Enjoy!

Kids in a Box

It was the weekend before school began and Cincinnati was sweltering from a week of 90 plus temperatures with over 50% humidity.

And partially because most of our neighbors don’t have air conditioning, and partially because we enjoy each other’s company, all the moms were sitting on the porch steps waiting for the street lights to signal the time for baths, bedtime and the end of summer.

Several of the children were busy with final rehearsal for the “Ralph Avenue” version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Erin was the wicked queen, Allison the prince charming and the younger children Eric, Patrick, Tricia, and my son Tommy were assorted other characters.

The kids ran in and out of the yards wearing their winter caps with the tassels dropping over, trying to look like dwarfs.

After a while, the large cardboard box from Allison’s new stove changed from being used for the stage scenery for dwarfs to a cool hideout for cowboys.

Patrick’s mother was telling us a newspaper reporter stopped by her house to do an interview with “a new kindergartner.” It would be a three part series on Patrick’s impressions before school began, during in January, and a third article after in June.

The poor reporter had a time of it because every time she asked Patrick (5 yrs.) about the imminent kindergarten experience, Eric (6 years and a kindergarten veteran) would give his answer, including a heated discussion about, “Who would be picked for the cookie passer?”

It was so much fun to be watching the kids and hanging out with other mothers but the beginning of school is very traumatic for me because of our continuing problems with the special education school program for my son.

Aaron has the label of autism and severe intellectual disabilities. A new year signals the beginning of another year of battle for inclusion.

But maybe because it was too hot and maybe because I was surrounded by friends, I continued to sip my ice tea and enjoy the normal conversation of my neighbors.

Patrick said his favorite football team was the Jets. His brother Michael, age 3, noting the adults’ interest, announced his favorite team was “the helicopters.” Jets—helicopters, why not?

Tricia’s soccer team won every game last year with a very gentle and knowledgeable coach. This year they won their first game but the new coach yelled and screamed and was upsetting the team and their parents. The parents wondered if victory was worth the price?

Moments that make parenting fun

Tommy went for his school physical and when the nurse asked him to urinate into a cup he burst into tears.

I pointed to the counter and its rows of labeled cups and told him everyone—even grownups–had to do this.

Sobbing he said, “Okay—but I won’t drink it.”

Later he asked, “Mom, why do they need a toilet in there is everyone pees in a cup?”

My friends and I exchanged sale prices on jeans and problem solved about the best backpacks and gym shoes with shoelaces that didn’t need to be tied.

We laughed, reminisced about summer and shared the thunderstorm warnings.

Eric’s Mom passed out popsicles.

All this time Aaron was walking up and down following the crowd of “dwarfs” as they flitted from yard to yard. He didn’t get a lot of direct attention, yet he was part of the group. For a time they all put on football helmets and Aaron went over, knocked on them to hear the funny sounds and everyone giggled. Aaron got quite excited and even though he is tactily very defensive he allowed them to place the helmet on his head, for a minute anyway.

Tommy brought out his golf clubs and soon Eric and everyone tried a few swings hitting a large flowered ball. Once Aaron was too close and thoughtfully Patrick took his arm and helped him get out of the way and Eric adapted and shortened his swing.

Then the crowd was back down the street again. This time Aaron waited for the abandoned golf club. He bent over and balanced perfectly picking the club out of the grass. He began in his own way to hit the big plastic ball around the yard. Then he too lost interest and headed back down the street to find the other children.

Four years ago, the same day we moved into our home, a group of people on the other side of town filed a lawsuit to protect their neighborhood from the “danger’ of a proposed group home for people who were labeled mentally retarded. I remember my worry of meeting our new neighbors and their reactions. What would be their concerns, fears? Would they allow us into their community?

There have been awkward moments when Aaron would do something inappropriately. But then “normal” “regular” young children have their good and bad moments like the rest of mankind.

Now Aaron was just Aaron and each neighbor had worries about jobs, children, families—the usual. We were a part of their neighborhood, their community.

As the sky darkened and the parents began to gather up the toys, football helmets, golf clubs and the talk again turned toward getting the children to bed so they would be fresh for the first day of school, I couldn’t help but think of how children and adults learn.

We use our creativity for Snow White costumes and playing with discarded boxes. We use our problem solving skills to find sale priced jeans to stretch our budgets. We use skill development including repetitive drill and practice for playing soccer and for picking up golf clubs out of the grass. We build on our experiences and associations whether they are jets and helicopters, cups and drinking, or how we feel about people who are different than we are. We also learn from people, some of whom are rough coaches, some parents, some newspaper writers, and some—neighbors.

School may begin tomorrow but in our neighborhood a whole lot of learning happened tonight. And perhaps, just perhaps—because Eric and Pat and Tommy will grow up with their incidental learning, experiences, associations and relationships with Aaron, the years of battles for belonging, full inclusion and citizenship will be shortened and our war for acceptance will be won.

Sometimes the make-believe lessons of Snow White overlap with the real world lessons of our family. After all, wasn’t Snow White the one who sang: “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish for will come true.”

Keep believing, keep dreaming and a Happy School Year to All.


Has our dream of inclusion for all kids come true? Certainly more children now have the opportunity. Aaron, Neil Roncker, Jenni Wetzel, Julie McMahon–they were the first kids in the doors of the public schools in Greater Cincinnati. I believe with all my heart they touched the lives of their peers who are now grown and sending their own children off to school.

And some of these young parents became the doctors, teachers, bus drivers and parents of kids with special needs. Our lives really are all part of each other, all part of the circle of life. I hope this new generation feels better prepared. I hope the schools their children attend are also better prepared. I hope our communities are more welcoming to those who have differences.

What dreams are we still wishing for? What lessons are we still learning?


Please leave a comment so we can celebrate this new year of learning.
What are you thinking about as the school year begins?

Keep climbing–onward and upward.

All the best,


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29 Responses to “A New Year of Learning”

  • I found this post pretty interesting, especially the part about people thinking a group home would be “dangerous.” Growing up with a girl in my class of 100 people, who has down syndrome, we all got used to some of the awkward tendencies that occur when in class together. I became pretty good friends with Brennan, she joined the swim team with me. So I guess it’s hard to understand why people would assume that, maybe just because they aren’t used to it. But that’s no reason to take the actions that they did.

  • Sally Beiting says:

    I think the dream of conclusion is always an ongoing battle. There will always be bullies and uneducated people who simply don’t understand. I think it has significantly gotten better in terms on inclusion though. As long as people are moving in the right direction! Slow and steady wins the race!

  • Ian Watts says:

    I am glad to hear this story, I really like the dream of inclusion part. It’s good to see progress in such a struggle as this.

  • Megan Treft says:

    Really interesting post! I don’t think our dream of inclusion for all kids has come true, but we are getting closer and closer! I also agree that Aaron, Neil Roncker, Jenni Wetzel, Julie McMahonI touched the lives of their peers who are now grown and sending their own children off to school.
    Megan Treft recently posted..Teachers| Segregation or Inclusion?

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      That’s a happy thought Megan. I do think they have touched the lives of their peers. Every so often we’ll run into someone and they will share that now they are an OT or a Speech therapist, or one young man is a Doctor (maybe not so young any more). They tell us Aaron influenced their life. One young woman who was Aaron’s community facilitator brought us cookies at Christmas for several years. The circle of life continues–and hopefully Aaron and Tommy played an important part of that.

      I’ll bet you touched others lives too. It’s part of living.

  • Victoria Seitz says:

    This is truly amazing and I shared this with my coworkers ! Everyone deserves an equal chance at life no matter the differences. I am different in many ways than my younger sister but that does not mean that I can not do something that she can do, even if she can do it better than me. No matter the age, gender, disability, or no disability, and many more EVERYONE deserves a chance!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      This is one of my favorite memories. Aaron, Tommy and the whole group of neighborhood kids getting ready for school. And, they are the future. Thanks Victoria for seeing the beauty and lesson.

  • Randy Haas says:

    You know, you think that at least now in days that well we as human beings have gotten past all of our differences or at least have been able to give each other a equal chance at life. But you see that everyone does not have a fair shot at life, but we as decent people need to look past any difference be it physical or mental, aren’t we all just humans?

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  • Shannon Cochran says:

    This is a great blog!
    As for if our dream of inclusion has become true, I believe that we are still working towards that goal. While inclusion into the classroom has been greatly increased, I still think that inclusion into our minds has not fully been as welcomed. Many are open to giving students with disabilities more opportunities, but, unfortunately, some still view these students as not being a “whole” person. I believe to entirely meet the goals of inclusion, we must pursue a paradigm shift for everybody and focus on the personalities and amazing individualities of students with disabilities.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Shannon, we need a paradigm shift for everyone’s attitudes and to look at the “whole” person. To be a true inclusive society we need to see the talents, gifts and strengths of ALL people–people with disabilities are just one of those groups.

  • That story about Tommy is very funny! I used to hate the first day too. So traumatic – wondering how the teacher would work out this year, whether we would find ourselves on a program again this year. On and on. Thankfully those days are over for us now but I can imagine how it must have been for you, the tension as the day got closer, the stretching out of the last days of summer. And the gritted determination you had to muster to achieve your goals over the coming months and weeks. And the meetings, oh the meetings…
    Alison Golden recently posted..10 Foods To Remove From Your Diet To Regain Your Health

  • You made me laugh twice–and cry, too. That’s a bargain. My kids have just left for their first day (my daughter’s first full-length day) and our experience from the last day of summer was much more rushed. I wonder if that’s part of the problem–the world is moving faster and there are so many more distractions that pull us away from simply observing the wonder of our children AND our communities–each other–that we have to literally stop and force ourselves to bring that high-speed blur into focus.

    I remember when reading one of the Harry Potter books, there was a rhyme about the four houses, and I remember reading something to the effect of “And Helga Hufflepuff said, ‘I’ll take them all’…” in regards to the types of students in the Hufflepuff house, and at that point, I remember thinking “keep your Gryffindors…put me in with the badgers.” The value of a diverse education far surpasses any test scores.
    Athena Grayson recently posted..Worldbuilding Wednesday: Keep Things Moving

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Now I love Helga. I don’t remember that particular comment, but she would be the mother of inclusion.

      The world is moving too fast. I hope you are writing down your kids stories and your thoughts because you have amazing fun kids and you will forget.

      Have a great school year and Athena, tell us more about your family–you just get it.

  • Patti Hackett says:

    Gosh this was a great story…could almost feel that Cincy humidity….Mary you bring up incidental learning and creativity…Hmm..thinking about the dynamic, when we are searching for ways to solve problems, lower gas prices, sale on needed items, we put the effort on solving the problem…Why doesn’ this happen when families on behalf of this minor children ask for services in school that are perhaps new and innovative? Where is the education team, that responds by saying- “sure let’s try it” vs “we will have to get back with you after we research this.”..

    It has been 32 years since my son started kindergarten and I too joined the ranks of why not inclusion? Hard work, knowledge of the law, and never giving up made the difference he was included from K to college….

    I am saddened to meet families today whose children are now in the ed system and are fighting the same battles we did so long ago? I know change takes time, but – how many generations?

    Your blog keeps the message, the purposed of persistence alive…it does work out in the end AND sure would be a whole lot easier if the decision makers were sitting on the front porch, sipping iced tea and supporting creative solutions that allow children to thrive!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Patti, this is why I love you. Your comment is almost better than my post.

      I don’t understand it either. Why does it take generations of parents who have to keep fighting the same fight when we KNOW inclusion works. Our generation just knew it was a moral right. but now there is a generation of research and professionals who can help. So, why are the schools being lazy. Don’t know.

      I do know we lost a tremendous amount of momentum with the No Child Left Behind–which left our children completely thrown out in the streets. When teachers get fired for low test scores, they are not going to risk taking a student in their class who is different.

      Your son Glenn was amazing. He broke so many barriers because he was smart, sweet, and had such a great personality. We can only hope there are many more Glenns out there, with parents like you who just keep breaking down the doors with “Can we try.”

  • Jayne Nagy says:

    I loved reading this blog. The part about Tommy and his first experience peeing in a cup is hilarious! I also, loved the connection you made with inclusion and Snow White. I really do believe if we keep on pushing and believing for inlcusion our dreams will come true!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I embarrass Tommy by retelling this story as often as possible:)

      Thanks for your comments Jayne. Poke around, I think you will enjoy some of the other stories and feel free to share some of your own.

      We have to keep believing… think I need a fairy tale fix about now.

  • Joseph Traut says:

    That’s kinda amazing stuff. It’s weird how sometimes random Internet surfing can get me in places like this, where really cool things can be found. I’ll be back ;).

  • Gotchya point, kinda brilliant work you’ve done here ;).

  • Mary – when my daughter was told to pee in a cup for the first time, she also got hysterical and refused to do it. I’m not sure why, exactly – I think she thought they were invading her privacy. I’ll have to ask her if she remembers.

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