My first real tryst with children considered “special needs”, ranging a wide spectrum of challenged and gifted was this poem by Emily Pearl Kingsley while studying in Canada. I thank my instructor (more like professional mentor), Pam Bondett, for sharing this with me before we got down to doing some work for those with “special needs”. I was given to work with the gifted students and had to design accelerated learning programme.
While it evoked empathy in me, I was always unsure how the parents of “special needs” children would feel about this poem. Prudently, I have shared this some such parents over the past two years and received mixed reactions from them. On one hand, a parent whose teenage son was diagnosed with PDD, strongly disapproved of such simplification. On the other hand was a dear friend, Anja, both of whose children are in gifted programmes at school. She read the poem with her lenses, and lamented at the lack of acknowledgment that parents like her get. She had to be a gifted parent, at all times, to keep up with needs of her gifted children, stretch herself more than other parents and sometimes felt that she was burning at both ends.
Incidentally, a lot of places like Reggio Emilia, are replacing the words, “special needs“ with “special rights“ reflecting not merely of change of nomenclature but mindset and outlook bringing about major shifts in their policies and programme for children.
Welcome to Holland
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy.
You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans.
The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice.
You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives.
You pack your bags and off you go.
Several hours later, the plane lands.
The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease.
It’s just a different place.
So you must go out and buy a new guidebook.
And you must learn a whole new language.
And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place.
It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy
But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips,
Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there.
And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away… because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But… if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.
Emily Pearl Kingsley