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By Susan Sharpe Hedge

Inclusion is not for the faint of heart. As teachers know, involving a behaviorally or academically challenged child in regular classroom activities can be a source of frustration. But one child, whom I will call Karen, showed her classmates and me that the benefits of inclusion can be priceless.

Larger for her age, Karen's lack of refined gross motor skills made it difficult for her to keep up physically with her second-grade classmates. She could say eight letters of the alphabet consecutively and had mastered only the most basic math concepts. As a result, she spent half her school day in the resource room, for individualized instruction in reading, math, language, and social skills. While in my classroom, her inability to keep up with her peers often manifested itself in loud, attention-seeking behavior.

But Karen had a wealth of special knowledge that she was eager to share, particularly in science and social studies. Her parents had early on made sure to promote her innate interest in these subjects. They read stories to her about faraway places and, in their travels, allowed their daughter to have experiences unfamiliar to many of her classmates. She had seen her father fend off a rattlesnake. She had engaged in a snowball fight on a mountaintop in June and absorbed firsthand lessons on geography. She shared her vivid memories with her classmates.

During a science lesson on solar energy, Karen informed us that even in the cold of winter the sun's rays give off enough heat to warm a room, provided there are lots of windows. The other children protested, but Karen was quick to remind them that they could still get a sunburn during the winter. On another occasion we watched a filmstrip about prehistoric fossils. One of the frames showed a trilobite, an ancient sea creature with a segmented body. When Karen spotted the fossil, she instantly exclaimed, "It looks like me!" as she dramatically emphasized the shape of her own rib cage. Out of my 30 students, only Karen had perceived this similarity. The class, fascinated, began to search books for other likenesses of themselves.

Despite her academic handicaps and disturbing behaviors, Karen opened the eyes and minds of her classmates to new and exciting knowledge about their world. They, in turn, felt enormous satisfaction when they were able to teach her something for the first time. Indeed, I know that without Karen, all of us would have learned less that year.

She reminded us of her unique role one day on the playground. While other children jumped rope, Karen often could not keep up. But, she stated with pride that day, "I can help twirl the rope, even if I can't jump." These words are forever engraved in my mind. Karen helped twirl our rope, and our lives were enriched throughout that wonderful year by her presence.

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