Mothers of special needs children quickly learn that teachers, therapists, doctors, and a host of caregivers serve as life lines on whom they rely as much as their own limbs – at times even more.
By Eileen Flood O’Connor
Mothers of special needs children quickly learn that teachers, therapists, doctors, and a host of caregivers serve as life lines on whom they rely as much as their own limbs – at times even more. As you entrust your children to these individuals, you come to understand and appreciate them as an extension of yourself. And you can’t help but be amazed by their work to answer an innate call to make life a little less challenging for kids saddled with a lifetime of challenges.
In my twelve years navigating the special needs world with my daughter Erin, however, I have discovered a few who go so far above and beyond what you expect, that it takes your breath away and you count your blessings every time you and your child are in their presence. For Erin and our family, Midland teacher Alli Fish has been one of these exceptional people.
During her three years with Erin, Alli’s creativity, dedication and efforts to understand and reach each of her students consistently left me awestruck. Erin, who has a genetic condition causing cognitive, language and motor impairments, while often endearing, can be a challenge to say the least. Yet, with unsurpassed patience Alli struggled to address difficult behaviors and learning challenges and reported even the most seemingly minor progression with unbound joy and exuberance. I know every classroom mom felt the same – that this teacher’s dedication and passion for her very special students knew no bounds.
Though Erin “graduated” from Midland last spring, she did not leave Alli behind. References to “Ms. Fish,” remain a part of our daily and weekly conversations and her days with Alli are still recounted and recalled with smiles, often accompanied by a fair amount of jumping and clapping – Erin’s signature expression of immense joy.
This all serves as precursor to a phone call I received last week from Alli’s boyfriend. I had never met Gary and only knew him as “Gary, the boyfriend.” I knew they had been dating for about a year, but the one time Alli spoke to me about him I knew from the way she lit up that this was something notable – and serious.
While I was thrilled to see her so happy, an unusual, yet distinctly identifiable instinct of maternal suspicion took hold as I wondered if Gary were really good enough for her. Was he really worthy of our “Ms. Fish?” I suddenly understood what moms the world over experience when they are faced with the prospect of entrusting their daughters to another – to have and to hold and to love. Is anyone ever good enough really? Knee-jerk response: NO WAY!
Does this Gary really understand her brilliance, kindness, how exceptional she really is?
And then last week I got the call from Gary, who said that on Friday night he was going to ask Alli to marry him. “Hmph, are you really?” I thought to myself, but then remembered that he had called to tell me, which was definitely not protocol. So I let down the guard and listened to him explain that the first year he was dating Alli he felt like he was also dating Erin, and her classmates. He saw every picture, read every write-up, he knew of the setbacks, the meltdowns, the shared smiles, and small victories. He had listened to her brainstorm about lesson plans and behavior plans, and struggle over what approach worked and which didn’t. He said that he knew that these kids meant the world to Alli and he wanted to know if there was any way I could have Erin send a short message or video clip which he could incorporate into his proposal.
Through tears, I said yes.
Darn was he worthy.
What more could a mom, or anyone want for someone they love – but a person who understands and appreciates and honors their daughter (or daughter’s teacher) by understanding, appreciating, and honoring who she is and what she values.
So on an evening in late January, before asking Alli to marry him, Gary played a short video of Erin reciting in her sing-song voice this brief message:
“Hi Alli. I love you. I want you to be happy. So does Gary. Say yes. Yes. Yes!”
Gary later told me that some of his friends thought this was an ‘odd’ plan and didn’t ‘get it,’ but he knew for Alli “to see one of her students communicate would mean more to her than a room full of roses.”
And he was right.
Alli said yes.