Years ago while working at a camp for adults with disabilities, I remember sitting at a picnic table on a sunny, summer day and having a pleasant conversation with a middle-aged camper named Joe. This camp was designed to provide rest and recreation for campers, but there was no set agenda. As counselors we were trained to slow down and to cater activities to the interests of the campers. This was their vacation, and we were there to serve them.
Joe spoke very slowly and struggled to string his words together. His experience in life was that few had time to listen, often assuming that he had nothing of value to say. For those who waited long enough to “listen,” it was not uncommon for them to fill in their own words in order to hurry the conversation along. That day, Joe had a captive audience and he had much to say. Before too long I learned that Joe had an amazing sense of humor. His witty jokes and stories were worth every minute.
Several years later, I remember walking down the hallway of a school to find a young man sitting cross-legged on the floor with a huge smile on his face. His teachers were working to get him “back on schedule,” but John, didn’t appear interested in his schedule. When I sat next to him on the floor, John looked at me and then turned his gaze toward the ring on my hand. While looking intently at my hand, he laughed the kind of laugh that’s contagious. We could have interpreted this behavior as avoidance and ignored his behavior in an effort to get him “back on schedule.” But, in this case, I have to say that it was worth letting go of our agenda to connect with John in this way. John, a young man with autism, doesn’t speak in words, but he has much to say.
In remembering these moments, I wonder how often I have missed out because of an urgency to move ahead. I wonder how many people I have failed to listen to in order to achieve some goal or to accomplish my own agenda.
Special education can be driven by a sense of urgency. While our efforts to help students to gain new skills and to progress toward a future goal is absolutely important, sometimes we need to slow down and take time to listen.