Third-Graders Teach Tolerance

This teacher was worried about explaining her crutches to her class, but the  third-graders taught her a lesson in acceptance. 

The day I met the third-grade class I would be working with for six weeks, I was nervous. I sank down into my chair, and tried not to make too much of a clatter as I set my crutches down beside me. I felt like the elephant in the room, not only because I was a newcomer in a classroom where the routines were already established but because I am visibly disabled.

What if they ask about my crutches?  What is an age-appropriate explanation?  Do I tell them it’s called cerebral palsy?  I rehearsed the explanation in my head over and over as I waited for the students to finish their assignment and gather on the rug. One by one, they presented me with homemade welcome cards and fired questions at me in a way only children and their wonderful lack of tact can pull off. I anxiously waited for the moment when somebody would look up and notice the elephant—but it never came. Finally, one student raised his hand and asked me what the hardest thing I ever had to do was. I recognized an opportunity to bring my disability out into the open.

“Well,” I began, a bit unsure. “For me, it was going away to college. You’ve noticed my crutches, right?” Heads nodded all around. “I use those to help me walk because my brain doesn’t communicate with my muscles as well as yours do. Sometimes I fall on my face, and it’s no big deal. But it was hard for me going away to college because I didn’t have my mommy and daddy to help me do things anymore. I had to do it all on my own.” My students let this sink in for a moment, then another hand shot up.

“What does it feel like to be you and walk with your crutches?” I was taken aback. I had never expected such an insightful question from a third-grader. “I’ve always been this way, and I can’t imagine living in another body any more than you can, ” I told them truthfully. They seemed satisfied with that answer, and the discussion was finished. I began to realize that my disability was only an elephant in my eyes—not in theirs.

In the weeks that followed, it sank in more and more that the students didn’t care whether my legs worked or not. Moreover, they made allowances and adjustments for me almost automatically. When I had recess duty, girls would crowd around my usual spot on the bench and clamor for me to keep count as they jumped rope—something they knew I could do sitting down. During read aloud, my chair would be pushed into place before I could even get across the room. One afternoon, feeling rushed, I didn’t have time to pull my chair over by the door to say goodbye to the students as they left. Within minutes, I heard a tiny voice: “Miss Liebowitz, there’s something behind you.” I turned around and there were two girls, wearing grins that could light up the universe, holding my chair and waiting for me to sit down. Even on my very last day, a group of students were playing catch during “Fun Friday” time. “Miss Liebowitz, do you want to play?  You don’t even have to get up.” They made sure to specify that I could play sitting down. They brought their game to me and made it accessible for me without a second thought—something most of my professors have never done.

The quiet acceptance and respect that this ragtag group of eight and nine year olds demonstrated is simply amazing. To any professor, teacher or average person who is wondering how to show a disabled person that you accept them—take a page from these third-graders’ book. Their actions are something we should all seek to emulate.  You don’t need a doctoral degree to show respect—or to earn mine. To these 20 third-graders, I wasn’t any less of a teacher or a person because of my disability. I was simply “Miss Liebowitz”—crutches and all.

Liebowitz is a college student with several differing abilities majoring in special and elementary education in Pennsylvania. 

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More