“I just want to give these parents something I never had – to help them in a way I was never helped…”

“…It’s why I do what I do, every day.”

It was a Friday evening in April, and I had just arrived at Mortensen Elementary in Littleton.

Normally, when a teacher enters the school after-hours, she finds it eerily silent. A building brimming with light and laughter can seem awfully lonely when the source of its joy leaves.

A school without children is like a planet without a sun.

This night, however, was different. There were a still a few stars hanging around – shining brightly and warming my heart.

There were four of them in my gym: twelve-year-old boys sprawled out on a hefty mat we usually reserved for the high jump. A movie was projected on the large screen, and they were snugly tucked into their sleeping bags, riveted with the animation in front of them.

I catapulted myself onto the mat between them, knowing that they would tolerate the obnoxious behavior because I was familiar.

“HEY GUYS!”

“Hi, Mrs. Deich,” they replied, one at a time – some with more enthusiasm than others. I got sideways smiles and shy glances, which I knew to take as a compliment.

I made the rounds, tousling hair and giving hugs, letting my heart rest in their goodness.

It was an important evening, all right: a coming-of-age event that most of us fondly remember:

The first sleepover.

But this one was different, for a couple reasons.

Number one, it was a sleepover at the school – in the gym – with the giant screen and projector and everything.  How cool is that?

And secondly, it was a sleepover specifically for our students with Autism.

These boys had earned the celebration. They’d been at our school for six years, and had been with each other even longer, having gone to preschool together, too. In all those years, they’d learned all of the things that most of us had to learn in school, with communication skills and various therapies thrown in as well.

Their growth was remarkable. When I first came, they rarely spoke or interacted with others, and they were mostly nonverbal. Now, they recounted stories, greeted teachers, and joked with their classmates.

And they won over hearts.

I left the mat and headed over to Hannah and Dottie, the SPED teachers at our school who spearheaded our ASD program. I gave them both hugs and asked how the boys were doing.

“Great!” they answered, beaming in their direction.

Once again, I told them how amazing it was that they were doing this for these boys, and for their parents, too. I couldn’t get over the fact that they were giving up their weekend to give them a taste of normal, at the precise level of uncomfortable newness they could handle.

Dottie nodded.  “I’m so glad we could do it. I’ve brought my son, Johnny, tonight, too.  Want to meet him?”

My smile broadened.  “You bet I do.”

I approached Johnny, a twenty-something man with dark hair and intelligent eyes framed with glasses. I did it a little too quickly and directly, however, and he jumped.  I paused, but just for a beat. Dottie had told me that he was on the spectrum.

“Hi, Johnny,” I said, holding out a hand.

Again, I was a little too gung-ho, and he shied away from me.

Dottie cut in.  “Johnny, this is Mrs. Deich. Why don’t you say ‘hi’?”

He made eye contact for a moment.  “Hi,” he said, shyly offering his hand.

He coughed as I took it, and I remembered he had cystic fibrosis, too.

“Hi, Johnny,” I replied, quieter this time.  He relaxed a little.  “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”

His gaze flew back to his iPad.

I smiled, quietly wondering what project he was working on, and jumped up to continue my conversation with Dottie. I’d been talking to her often lately, probably hoping in the deepest corners of my brain that some of her amazingness would rub off on me through osmosis.

“So who’s at home with your daughter?” I asked her.  Jillian was in her twenties, too.  She had severe cerebral palsy and required 24/7 care.

“My husband,” she answered brightly.  “I’m hoping Johnny and I can stay here awhile,” she continued. “I didn’t bring any oxygen with me tonight and it’s making him nervous, so we might end up having to go home.”

I nodded, understanding, but not.

Not really.

Because even though I admire her greatly, I don’t know what it’s like to be Dottie.

You see, Dottie is not your everyday teacher.  She’s not your everyday mom.  She’s not your everyday woman.

Dottie is someone we should all aspire to be.

Dottie, with her oldest:  her daughter with cerebral palsy who cannot move without aid.

Dottie, with her middle child living in Nebraska. He’s mostly healthy and lives independently, but he also suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Dottie, with her youngest, Johnny, who has both cystic fibrosis and autism. His CF had recently landed him in the hospital for weeks, and his spectrum-based need for routine and order had been shaken.

Dottie, with her strength and resolve, as she recounted her youngest being taken from his kindergarten class and locked in a closet, even put in a trash can.

Dottie, with her utmost beauty and grace, as she stood in front of me at that sleepover and told me that she forgave the woman who did it.

“It took a long time to forgive her,” she said matter-of-factly. “But I did.”

I felt the tears begin to build behind my eyes just thinking about someone doing that to a child, but I didn’t want to embarrass her with them.

“How did you forgive her?” I asked.  “I mean, how could you forgive someone who did that to your baby?”

I shook my head in awe.

“And how do you continue to do it, every day? How do you take care of your two special needs kids at home, and come to our school and take care of these kids? How do you do it nonstop, without a break?” I motioned to the smiling boys behind me, then clutched my hands at my heart.

She paused.

“We were always behind with my kids, Amanda,” she replied.  “We knew they needed help, but the help always came too little, and too late.”

She pursed her lips, as if searching for the right words.

“I just want to give these parents something I never had – to help them in a way I was never helped…”

“…It’s why I do what I do, every day.”

***

I left the gym shortly thereafter, but unsurprisingly, I was unable to shake what Dottie had said.

Driving home, I flicked on my wipers. It’d started to rain – spit, more like it – and, ignoring the staccato squeaking sound of rubber on glass, I recalled the first few days I’d spent at the school, almost six years ago.

I had told everyone – my family, my friends, my old colleagues – that Mortensen was different.

“I think it starts with our ASD program,” I had concluded afterwards.  “It makes everyone nicer, more compassionate. The teachers here work as a team, and the students take care of even the most vulnerable hearts.”

But as I drove through those small drops of rain and towards my home, towards my own sleeping children, I realized that the strength of our school doesn’t just lie in the program.

It lies in the leaders behind it.

Leaders like Dottie, who show faith and grace and goodness at every opportunity for an underserved population.

***

Sometimes in the morning, I rush into school, meeting her at the front door as the bell rings.

My tardiness is usually because of poor time management.

Hers is because she has to use all her strength to lift her daughter from her bed. She has to get her bathed and dressed and ready and out the door to her tall van- the one that had been created with someone with special needs in mind. Then Dottie drops her off at her adult day camp. She checks in with her son who has autism and CF and makes sure he has his emotional and health needs met.

But as we both rush across the parking lot, we pause for a moment, Dottie and I.

And I, with my poor time management, tell her, “Good morning.”

And she, simply radiant, says, “Yes it is.”

We enter into that special building.

And I realize that special places and special moments…

They’re all created because of special people.

Special people like Dottie, who will never once say her life is hard, but who will run herself ragged to make sure others get the help they need.