Sally Pederson

Educators: More than a Miracle (ISU College of Education Commencement Address) - May 9, 1999

Sally Pederson
May 09, 2003— Ames, Iowa
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Thank you for honoring me by asking me to be your commencement speaker.

Surely it would come as a surprise to some of my former professors who had me as a student here thirty years ago.

Of course since then, I've sat through my share of commencement speeches and even given a few.

So, I know what a good speech should be... intelligent, insightful, inspiring - and brief.

I am pretty sure I can do one out of four.

This is probably THE MOST important graduation ceremony you will ever attend. And why shouldn't it be.

But, I confess that this is the SECOND most important graduation ceremony that I will be attending this year.

The MOST important graduation takes place on May 31st in Des Moines. That is the day that my son Ronald graduates from Roosevelt High School. And it is not an event that my husband and I have taken for granted.

You see, Ronald has autism. When he was first diagnosed 17 years ago, my husband and I embarked on a nationwide pilgrimage to find a cure. What we really were looking for was a miracle.

Our pilgrimage took us to the Albert Einstein Institute in New York City, where a world-famous pediatric neurologist, Isabel Rapin, performed a lengthy examination of our three year old. She sent us home and asked to see Ronald again in a year.

During that year, Ronald attended his first school, a preschool program in the Des Moines Public Schools.

Twelve months later, we journeyed back to the Albert Einstein Institute and Dr. Rapin examined Ronald again. She was astonished.

She asked: "What have you done with this child? He has made incredible progress."

And we answered: "He's been in a public school program and we've followed through with what the teachers taught us."

And then she made a remarkable statement (and remember, this is one of the most famous pediatric neurologists in the world.) She said, (quote) "You pay attention to the educators; they know a lot

more about these children than we do. " (unquote) .

It was Ronald's early childhood teachers in his public preschool, patiently working with him, celebrating his special qualities and urging him-and us -- to keep trying day after day that turned out to be our beacons of hope. It was educators who turned out to know more than the medical experts about helping Ronald.

So my husband and I stopped looking for the magic cure, because we had found our miracle. It was, as Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz, right in our own back yard.

Let me tell you about some of those miracle workers in our son's life.

There was Georgia Woodward the early childhood special education teacher who came to our house when Ronald was only 2 years old to help teach play skills and basic communication through simple sign language. I was so desperate for help that I considered her a saint.

There was Twyla Wanek the preschool teacher who used hand puppets and songs to coax Ronald to make eye contact and use his first words.

There was Brentz Oliphant the first grade teacher who taught Ronald the alphabet and the names of colors.

There was Mary Pat Ross who used Ronald's obsession with airplanes and cuckoo clocks to teach math and reading skills.

There was Tim Tutt the 3rd grade teacher who later was Ronald's mentor in church confirmation class.

There was John Morgan the 5th grade band teacher who encouraged Ronald's musical interests.

There was Diane Stephanie the reading specialist who tried dozens of strategies, never giving up - and Ronald finally became a successful reader.

There was Mrs. Flesch who nurtured Ronald's aptitude for keyboarding and computers.

There was Coach McQuerry who made him a full member of the track team and pushed him to do his best at every meet.

There were the band directors Treg Marcellus and Joe Rich who enhanced Ronald's high school years immeasurably through pep band, concert band, and marching band, giving him the thrill of musical performance.

There have been scores of other educators who have been part of Ronald's life. Each and every one of these teachers has made a difference and I wish I had time to name them all. These men and women are my heroes and heroines and their names are etched on my heart's hall of fame.

Ronald is now 19 years old. Next fall, he will go to Des Moines Area Community College. He is a success story because dedicated teachers didn't sell him short.

Although my son has special needs, I've come to realize that every child has special needs. It has been teachers, dedicated, caring and persistent, who have brought out the best in Ronald and who strive to bring out the best in all children, from challenged to gifted.

There are many ways that children are challenged in life and the classroom. A mental disability like autism is only one.

Certainly, you are familiar with children who have learning disabilities, other mental and physical disabilities, and you know about the challenges faced by non-English speaking students or other minorities.

But I would be shirking my responsibilities if I didn't mention one particular group of students who need your help and support in and out of the classroom - one group who continues to be ridiculed and ostracized by classmates and can still legally be discriminated against in our society.

These are students who are gay or lesbian - or whom others may simply assume to be gay or lesbian. Homophobia - the fear and hatred of homosexuals is alive and well in our schools. And every year kids are teased, tormented, harassed and beaten by fellow students because they are different.

Schools must be a safe environment for every child, and teachers must act to model and enforce respect for the rights and the value of all students.

This is as important for the gay teenager as for the as for the Spanish speaking immigrant, or the student with Down syndrome.

Our public education system is what undergirds our democracy and our democracy depends on the protection of the rights of minorities.

In this noble profession to which you have been called, you as teachers, hold the very key to the future of democracy.

And your role is as vital to democracy as that of any soldier or politician.

Iowa State University has a great reputation for educating fine teachers. And, I expect you will uphold that tradition. But, I am hoping for something more.

I am hoping you will each go out into the world to perform miracles--one student at time.

Thank you for choosing to serve as teachers.