In grade 3, Jennifer was the prettiest girl in the class. She showed a level of maturity and intelligence far beyond her years. Some boys liked to tease her (as they do at that age) because they secretly thought she was ‘all right’! But six months into the school year, the teasing changed dramatically from playful to spiteful. As a virus attacked her brain Jennifer went from the cute, pretty, centre of attention to a nobody—rejected because of her large size, slurred speech and drooling mouth.
I had just completed a stint in a remote school in country Victoria and was only a few weeks into my new appointment at Jennifer’s school. I had no idea how significant this time would be. Apart from beginning my journey with the Lord, I would learn so much from this young girl about how to embrace life.
Three weeks into the new school year, the principal took me aside and asked if I would be willing to take Jennifer into my class. I was surprised to learn that the other grade 3/4 teacher had requested Jennifer be moved so he could focus on the ‘brighter’ children.
Jennifer transferred into my class, and over the course of the year, I saw the most remarkable changes transform her demeanour and ability. While Jennifer didn’t regain her physical beauty, an inner beauty beamed from her sparkling eyes as she gained acceptance and self-esteem. Her reading became understandable; her ability to hold her pencil steadied allowing her to form words; and she made a grand effort, supported by the other girls in the class, to groom herself.
My wife Cornelia often says jokingly about her divergent way of thinking, “I’m sorry I’m so different. I’ll try to be the same!” The point is we don’t have to be the same as we’re all created as unique individuals in God’s likeness.
Jennifer’s transformation added a new unique character and personality to the class. I remember the first time I had to discipline her. “YES!” I said to myself. It was a significant step in making Jennifer feel loved and respected and, most importantly, comfortable enough to mess up.
Jennifer taught me to focus on the person rather than the disability. If I look at individuals and highlight their potential rather than their struggles, they will blossom in their own unique way.
Throughout the Bible, we read of Jesus relating to people with considerable afflictions: the paralytics, demon possessed, blind and lepers, to name a few. They were those no one wanted, yet they were those to whom Jesus showed His love and His power.
One day, Jesus made a special visit to the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem to spend time with disabled people. He approached one man and asked about his situation…
‘Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”’ (John 5:4–7)
When Jesus was finished with the paralyzed man he was able to get up and walk into the pool on his own—the best result!
The question that both of these stories raises for us is whether we are willing to help that person with special needs? Or, to use the verse, are we ready to help someone into the pool? Would you have been willing to help Jennifer get through the year?
While Jennifer began the school year unwanted, it wasn’t long before her classmates compassionately helped her through all her trials in grade 4. What an impact she made on them! And on me, as I watched the ‘ugly duckling’ develop into a beautiful swan.