I have learned so much these past nine months: from passionate, wise and dedicated professors who challenged me every day, and from passionate, empathetic and hilarious classmates who did the same.
A month ago, I began a work placement - a short one, offering a brief glimpse into what it ACTUALLY means to support people with disabilities, once books and tests and grades have been tucked away.
This is where I learned the most important lessons:
I've been doing a placement (work-study thing, for my American readers) for my college program. For the past four weeks, I've spent my day at a "Day Program" for adults with developmental disabilities.
Yesterday afternoon, I said goodbye to these incredible people - some 50 men and women who've taught me so very much about developmental services. About resilience, courage, strength and life.
For the past four weeks, I've had my heart touched and broken, every. single. day, sometimes in the same moment. I cannot describe those I supported here, because it would be a violation of so many things. But I can share the lessons they tucked into my heart - some by speaking, some by not, all by welcoming me into their lives, if only for a little while:
1. The power of a smile - be it wide, shy, beaming or toothless - is beyond measure:
I was nervous, that first day. Terrified, actually, until a woman I'd never met - and who does not speak - gently placed her fingertips on either side of her lips and pushed up, grinning. Understanding, I burst out laughing and stuck out my hand to shake hers in thanks. Instead, she brought my forehead down to her lips, kissed me soundly there and then, without a word, shuffled off.
Imagine the strife we might avoid if this was how we, as a society, offered welcome...
2. We are all of us, the tellers of our own story:
Some people will spill every thought in their head within minutes of meeting someone new. Others keep their stories close and dole them out slowly, carefully, with learned wariness. Some tell the stories of their lives without words.
All of them - indeed all of us - deserve to be heard by a rapt and loving audience. All of us deserve to be heard, even when - perhaps especially when - we are silent.
3. Connection matters:
Sometimes, the most incredible moments are the small, seemingly insignificant ones. Last Wednesday, I took a dance with M, who cannot hear and doesn't speak, but whose eyes held mine intently as we swayed to the music together.
I do not sign, officially, but instead motioned for him to relax his hand in mine and to move my body with gentle pressure on my hip. Something sparked there, in his eyes, as he realized that I was asking him to lead me. I was trusting him to guide me, instead of the other way around and for once brief, brilliant moment...he smiled. Had I not been looking directly at him, I might have missed it. For that glimpse of his heart and that single moment of absolute grace, I am so thankful.
4. Love matters:
Within days of beginning placement, I was gobsmacked to realize that I could tell - from among these strangers - who had been well-loved in this life...and who had not. I have no words to describe how that looks, unloved-ness, except to report that it is common in many devalued groups, not just those who are disabled. Unlovedness is a state of being for many, especially foster children, people who are homeless, the desperately poor, our forgotten elderly...
Of everything I've learned, will learn or will ever otherwise know in this field, in this life, I have seen that love truly matters. It really does change the world - for better and for worse - one person at a time.
How has a stranger offered you a glimpse into their heart...and changed yours?