The auditorium fell silent as Mrs. ‘R’, the cosmetology teacher, stood before us to share some of the history of the Everyone is Beautiful Fashion Show we were attending. It was a story that most of us had never heard. The story was filled with the horrific nightmares parents who love their disabled children fear. And, it was filled with LOVE – yes, LOVE – and all that is good in humanity.
The story was about Connie, an ESE student at PCHS over 20 years ago. I don’t know much about her history before she became a student at PCHS. I hope that she knew kindness and compassion – but I doubt these things existed in her world before.
Connie was mentally disabled and bounced around the system for years. She had been neglected, physically and sexually abused by family members and those responsible to care for her. Abandoned by a society that placed little value on her life, she was left to care for herself.
Mike’s Teacher, Ms. Denham has been teaching at PCHS for over 25 years. When she first encountered Connie, Ms. Denham was at the beginning stages of her marvelous career. What she lacked in experience, she made up for with compassion.
Connie arrived to Ms. Denham’s class filthy. Her clothes were dirty and the smells of sexual assault permeated her body. Horrified, Ms. Denham documented Connie’s abuse and filed ALL the complaints available to her. As she told me this story, Ms. Denham commented, “I wasn’t as outspoken then as I am now. I did what I could.” As a young teacher, her hands were tied beyond the ‘formal system’ that was failing Connie.
Connie was a high school student with short hair that was rarely wash. She frequently suffered from head lice. Since students with head lice are not permitted in school, Connie would be sent home. Fearing for her safety at home, Ms. Denham would clean Connie, and comb her hair every morning after she arrived to school. As Ms. Denham told me the story, her eyes wandered to a corner of her classroom. I could picture her caring for this child with the same compassion she shows my son today. I thought to myself, “what an amazing career this woman has had. I can only imagine what she has seen and accomplished.”
When Ms. Denham filed complaints to address her concerns about Connie’s hygiene and head lice, those responsible for her care responded – Connie arrived to school with her head shaved.
Horrified by their actions, Ms. Denham took over full responsibility for Connie’s hair. She showed her the love and care that her life deserved.
Connie eventually moved on, but the seed of compassion for her remained. Eventually, a program was developed. A partnership between the cosmetology and ESE teachers. A partnership made possible ONLY by their desire to do MORE and to do it BETTER!
Over the years, the program has grown and flourished. Every Wednesday, the ESE students are brought to the cosmetology department for a ‘Spa Day’. They get their hair, makeup, and nails done by other high school students. They’re valued, pampered, and treated with dignity. The Cosmetology students are gaining life experiences that will prepare them for a disabled client or perhaps, a disabled child of their own someday. Friendships are formed and they’re learning acceptance.
The lessons being taught by Mrs. ‘R’ stretch beyond the realm of cosmetology – she is teaching HER students about humanity.
Nobody knows where Connie is today. There have been positive changes made in our society and I hope that she is safe and valued.
As a mother, and as a member of society, I honor Connie’s life because she mattered. HER pain and HER struggles have enriched the lives of THOUSANDS of students – both disabled and typical. A child, once discarded by cruelty, has accomplished more in her legacy than most.
Connie, I honor you and your contribution to my son’s life.
The story will continue…