When I was five years old, I entered Kindergarten, as is usual. I was a rather shy, insecure five-year-old when I started school. It didn’t take long, however, to discover I was actually pretty smart. I learned to read within the first month of school, and was reading Beverly Cleary’s chapter books - and loving them - by Christmas. I was in an underprivileged school district, which caused me to stand out even more. People began to study me. Grown-ups would come to the school and take pictures of me reading. And I hated that.
In first grade adults started pulling me out of class for testing. They tested my IQ, and everybody whispered. And I hated that. I was pulled repeatedly in first grade and second grade. They place me in a pilot program for the gifted and talented - and continued to test me. And, need I say it again, I HATED all the attention. My heart would sink when the school psychologist entered the room. I did not want to be singled out. I despised talking to strangers. I was scared because they would whisper and plan meetings with my mom. I was forced, against my, will to take reading and math with students who were a grade ahead of me. I was better than them, and they couldn't stand me.
Somebody decided I should skip third grade and go straight to fourth. That was a real treat. Every single one of those fourth graders thought I was a weirdo. Nobody would talk to me, but they talked about me all the time. I could not bring myself to speak in front of the class, and there were times when I agonized, because the teacher would refuse to move on until somebody answered the question correctly. I knew the answer, but would not volunteer, and the rest of the class either did not know, or also refused to answer. I am not sure which, I just knew my classmates would not appreciate my participation. I was shy and tormented.
Then, early in the school year, my family moved. My mom decided, wisely, that I should start my new school in third grade, with my peers. I thank God for that. Life got easier then. There was no more testing, and I was with children who were the same age as me. I developed a certain arrogance, though, and turned into a real brat. School was so easy for me, and other students looked up to me. Even though I still fought my bashful nature, I became a leader in the classroom. I think my teacher was working hard to keep my busy - because I would rush through the work so I could get to my book - and she made it very clear I was not going to spend all day in class reading. In my arrogance, I developed a dislike for people who did not do well in school. I had no tolerance for wrong answers, and no patience to wait for slow readers or those who didn’t understand the math. I would rudely start reading over them, or yell out the answers so we could move on.
There was a class at my elementary school for students with special needs. I called them the “R” word. One of the girls in that class was the same age I was, and her name was Penny. Even though I didn’t know her at all, I couldn’t stand her. One day, on the playground, she approached us to join the game we were playing. I didn’t want her to play, and it made me mad she even asked. I cringe now at the memory. What an arrogant bully I was. I told her that she could not play with us, and if she would try once in a while, she wouldn’t be in the “R” class at school. The hurt expression on her face is burned into my brain. If ever there were words to take back…if only there was a way.
So, I went through school, and was told repeatedly I should become an engineer or a doctor when I grew up. I figured I would follow one of those paths. But life took a different turn, and I became a very young mom without the resources to go to school. I wanted to be the best mother I could be, and school became secondary to that goal. Meanwhile, a large population of deaf people attended my church. One day, there was an announcement that a Sign Language class was being offered by one of the deaf individuals. There was a need for additional interpreters, and the deaf community was hoping some would come out of the class. I was intrigued, and I signed up.
Thus began my education into the life of people with disabilities. And I learned it truly is not a matter of trying or not trying - it is a complex world of barriers and heartache to navigate. When I moved to Michigan several years later, I got a job as an interpreter. It was a job I held for thirteen years, and when it ended, I was counseled to go back to school and do something “more important” with my life. But my heart was with those with special needs, and I continued in that field. And I love it, and I love them.
When Sarah and I founded the Torch, we knew we would be working our full time jobs while running the organization. There has never been any other plan - we don’t think we should get paid to help people in need, so donations to the Torch always go straight back into the Torch. And that mission and plan has been blessed abundantly. But meanwhile, we have wondered and pondered if there was the potential for us to run a business which would not only be our jobs, but which would allow us to give back to our community AND provide another source of funding for us to use to expand and grow the Torch. What a dream!
Then, when we were not expecting it, a possibility presented itself, and we spent several months exploring an option which, at first, seemed like a ready-made opportunity to operate a business run by individuals who had special needs. Our research showed that that opportunity was not really viable as a business, but it led us to a meeting in which we hit upon the idea of using the resources and knowledge we already had - running a commercial kitchen, cooking, ServSafe management training - and marrying them with my training and background in helping individuals with disabilities learn how to work in the food-service industry, and Sarah’s business education and training. The fact that she is a disabled Army Veteran who has struggled in her search for a job, is one more arrow pointing us in this direction. And so, Torch 180 was born.
I marvel this morning as I think about the mean little girl I was, and the heart and passions I have now. I hope someday I have the chance to apologize to Penny.