Why I Teach

A Little Girl and a Horse Named Freckles

Karen Sharpe teaches for the moment when she can see the unlikely become possible.

Karen Sharpe
Photography by Rogier van Bakel

I remember the first time I met Eliza. She was navigating, with the assistance of an adult, a set of stairs as a new kindergartner at Mt. Desert Elementary School. Having been her case manager for over three years now, I have many memories of our shared time, but one time stands out. Following an outing that I was not part of, I initiated a math lesson with Eliza. But she wasn’t ready for math. Instead, she had a question for me.

“What your horse’s name, Ms. Sharpe?”

“Eliza, I don’t have a horse.”

But she persisted. “What your horse’s name, Ms. Sharpe?”

Now I was searching my past. I did have a horse once.

“Eliza, I did have a horse when I was a little girl, but I don’t have a horse now.”

She looked at me steadily. “Freckles,” she concluded.

Although I have absolutely no memory of ever telling Eliza about Freckles, I must have told her this story at some point, and she remembered because that’s the kind of person she is. The details of people’s lives are deeply important to her. I later learned from staff who had been part of the outing that, just before getting off the bus to return to school, the group had been talking about people and horses they knew.

Moments like this are why I teach. Moments when students I work with reveal their profound strengths. Moments when I hope that some of my nurturing and nudging have helped them to reach those milestones.

My desire to help those who need a voice arrived early in my life. As a small child, I was always moved by the plight of the smallest and weakest kittens in a litter. Later, at my elementary school, I found that I gravitated toward the marginalized children who watched from the periphery but did not join in the fun on the playground. These were children who needed a voice, an advocate.

I chose a career in education and, although I taught fifth grade for 13 years, the idea of teaching special education began to knock early on. As I encountered struggling students in my classroom, I yearned to have more time to devote to them. What they needed was just the right teaching method and a little more one-on-one time with their teacher.

Motherhood had me taking a break from the classroom, and I tucked away what was becoming a passion for teaching special education. A conversation with a special educator friend later re-ignited that passion, and soon afterward, I got certified as a special education teacher.

I have been fortunate to have Eliza and other young people in my life as they and their families have helped me to answer my own questions about my purpose and brought me to a place of deeper compassion.

To the delight and wonderment of Eliza’s parents, family and friends, Eliza has surpassed her doctors’ predictions. She walks. In fact, she runs and jumps. She talks—and she finds great joy in conversations with others. I am thankful for those teaching moments when the unlikely becomes a possibility. The moment when a little girl insisted that I did, after all, have a horse named Freckles.

Karen Sharpe is a special education teacher at Mt. Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

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