By Beth Donze
As St. Clement of Rome sixth grader Esteban Duchesne read the story of “The Missing Crayon,” you could have heard a pin drop.
Esteban’s audience – St. Michael Special Lower School students Will Davis and Mateo Plaza-Gibson – were captivated by the saga of a rainbow’s search for its missing colors. In the end, the rainbow was made whole again. The little listeners pointed out and named each hue.
“I thought they would just look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s another book about colors,’ but apparently not. They were excited about the book!” said Esteban, who illustrated and co-wrote the story with his St. Clement classmates Matthew Brooks and Evan Helffrich.
On Feb. 22 and 23, St. Clement’s sixth graders sprawled across St. Michael’s playground to share original stories they had written, illustrated and bound into books with their new St. Michael buddies.
The visitors from Metairie quickly discovered a vibrant and friendly campus brimming with students’ work in academics and the arts.
“When I look at kids with differences, I usually think they won’t really talk, but she talks to us, she’s really sweet, and she communicates very well,” said Emma Nygren of Mylan Oro, her St. Michael buddy.
Emma and her classmate, Hannah De La Cerda, noticed that Mylan especially enjoyed the colorful illustrations in their co-authored book about the adventures of a squirrel named Nutterbutter and a part-dragon, part-horse named Pepper.
“I met my friends’ buddies and they’re really sweet and they like to talk – you just have to give them a chance.” Emma said, admitting that until spending time at St. Michael, she had been nervous about even looking at children with special needs out of a fear of “hurting their feelings.” “They understand concepts, but it just takes them a little longer,” Emma said. “They’re really nice once you get to know them.”
Earlier in the day, Ann Higgins, St. Michael’s assistant principal, led the visitors on a campus tour to dispel misconceptions about the school and its students. Higgins showed the sixth graders St. Michael’s music room and art studio, equipped with a kiln and pottery wheel. The visitors were impressed to learn that vegetables from St. Michael’s garden were used in cooking classes in the school’s well-appointed culinary arts center. On the day of their visit, the St. Michael students were making macaroni and cheese from scratch.
Higgins said that in addition to learning how to cook and follow recipes, her students were also learning history: This year, culinary arts teacher Tim Laurence is linking a food to each U.S. president. Macaroni and cheese was connected with Thomas Jefferson, who toured Italy in 1787.
“The cooking classes – I 100 percent loved that! I don’t know many schools that have a kitchen like that for their students to learn in,” marveled visiting sixth grader Sophia Gutierrez.
The St. Clement students ooh-ed and ah-ed as they walked down hallways studded with students’ work and other fun features, such as an in-wall fish tank and 3-D art displays on pioneer life inspired by St. Michael students’ study of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The visitors learned that their St. Michael counterparts also received the “Scholastic News” magazine.
“I want you to notice the artwork on the walls; I want you to notice the classroom setting – how it’s the same as your school,” Higgins said, guiding the visitors into a computer lab decorated with Lenten crosses.
“We’re learning about the Olympics now, just as you’re learning about the Olympics,” Higgins said, describing a recent lesson in which St. Michael students sorted “winter” and “summer” sporting events.
Higgins prepared the visitors for potential communication hurdles they might encounter in the book-sharing sessions to come.
“Some have speech (deficits) or no speech at all, but all of our students have receptive listening skills, which means they know how to hear and they know what you’re saying,” Higgins told them.
Higgins also reminded the St. Clement students that like everyone, St. Michael students have “good days and bad days.” She asked the sixth graders to be patient if they ever encountered a special-needs child or teen having a public meltdown; sometimes, it only takes a slight change in a child’s routine to trigger a loud reaction.
“What you need to do as a Catholic person is to step back and say a prayer (for the family), because maybe that child can’t make that transition,” Higgins said. “Sometimes, our brains are wired differently, but we have the best advantage because we believe in Jesus, right? So that gives us that extra love, that extra patience to look at a situation differently. Instead of judging, we pray!”
Before going to the playground to share their books, the sixth graders got acquainted with their buddies with some fun P.E. time in the gym. In the process, they discovered simple pleasures like riding adult-size tricycles, twirling ribbons and pitching brightly colored pieces of gauze into the air.
Sixth grader Matthew Brooks enjoyed playing basketball with his buddy.
“They were doing great – dribbling, throwing, shooting and making it,” Matthew said. “I’m just glad I got to be here today.”
St. Clement’s sixth graders have visited St. Michael annually since 2013, aided by a service-learning grant from the Joe and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation.
“The St. Clement kids come in very wide-eyed, but when they leave they’re very comfortable; it’s like they’re leaving a friend,” Higgins said.
“Our kids embrace everybody – a friend is a friend, and a playmate is a playmate,” Higgins added. “The biggest transformation is in the students that come into St. Michael’s for the first time or that have never been in contact with someone with special needs before. It’s a win-win on both sides.”