This essay was sent to us by Anna Bors. We loved it!
“Sean, Sean go up there, you won first place! You got the blue ribbon!!” his classmates shouted. At first Sean wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. He looked up at the judges and with a puzzled tilt to his head, a wide, round eyes, he said, “Won, won, a blue ribbon. I got a blue ribbon, I did?” That was followed by a sudden jump and he ran toward the judges with a bright, big smile on his face as he was pinned with his beautiful blue ribbon. The first he had ever won in his young life!
A scene that is repeated so often, at a County Fair one could suppose, and it always reminds us of how special these moments can be to a child, but for Sean it opened a special page in his life book, and ours, that those of us who have been his teachers and classmates hope he never forgets.
Each year at our school, our students who have spent twelve weeks studying about farming and agriculture hold a County Fair so we can invite all the student’s in the school and show them what we have learned. We have big exhibits, and simulated milking parlors, weaving and planting displays too, but the biggest event is our Food Judging Contest. Each student has to prepare and present a food they have made from “scratch” to be judged in the hopes of receiving a coveted first, second or third place ribbon to take home.
Our school is located in Sicily, Italy and it is a little unusual because the students are all children of American Military Servicemen and women serving overseas. Many children, though born of American parents have never lived in America, seen a farm or been to a real county fair, so teaching them about such an important aspect of our culture is a big event for us! In this particular year (2008) the fact that Sean won the blue ribbon for his great food entry was even more special because he has autism, in fact Asbergers Autism. He lives in a world that very difficult to reach. He was often on the fringe of the classroom activities because eventhough he is very bright, there was seldom a way to transfer what he knew to the outside world. Always accepted and included in the learning going on, he would spend hours on end drawing little pictures of familiar beasties or perseverating on one thought that he would repeat over and over again. Loved and cared for though seldom understood fully by his classmates, he occasionally reached outside his world for a few minutes, only to slip back to a silent space that only he understood.
Sean’s parents were so thrilled about the food judging contest. They thought it was an excellent opportunity for him to work at a project not only with them at home but to participate with his classmates on a “level playing field”. The judges weren’t privy to any of the entry participants names as all students were assigned a number in their category so the “sympathy vote” wasn’t a factor in the highly charged contest either, and it made the final outcome all the more exciting for Sean’s classmates too!
When Sean won that big, beautiful blue ribbon, he actually smiled and was excited! It was so nice to see him feel proud and for the first time, all of us who lived with Sean every day in the classroom realized, that he “felt” joy, just as all of us did, and he was able to show it to us, which was something we almost never saw. It was humbling and wonderful because it opened our silent world. The one, we thought we had to follow out of our ignorance of his disability. Just one blue ribbon changed all of us forever and it changed the way we looked at Sean and other children like him too. As for Sean, he wore his ribbon all that day at the fair and when his parents came to the fair, all Sean’s classmates ran to them wanting to be the first to tell them, “Sean won the Blue Ribbon”! Sean was happily running his booth at the fair on tractors and took it all in stride, putting various attachments onto the tractors while another student explained what each attachment did. Sean’s parent just beamed with pride and gave Sean a big hug.
As Sean’s teacher, I learned from that experience that all the great teaching in the world, sometimes isn’t enough to make a child joyful about learning. Sometimes, it just takes one small thing that means a lot. That one blue ribbon, changed many people lives on fair day and the joy that it brought to Sean, “fair and square”, showed all of us what real learning was all about!