Becoming a “Lighthouse” This week I had the privilege of attending a Special Education Eligibility Hearing for a student for whom I’m a Guardian ad Litem. I drove a fair distance to an unfamiliar school; there I was welcomed and made to feel included. Eleven of us gathered around a conference table to explore how best to support this student. An innocent victim of a tragic accident, this student has very specific needs for services to support vision and hearing. I have attended hearings like these as a teacher, but my perspective at this hearing felt so different. As a teacher, I might have worried about how to manage the required accommodations, but as a guardian I worked to be sure those accommodations would be made available. My first teaching job in 1970 preceded any kind of special education for students like this. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, wasn’t signed into law until late 1975.The EHA guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country. It has been renamed and amended since then, but the purpose remains: to guarantee an appropriate education for every student, at no cost to parents, in the least restrictive environment, with an “Individualized Education Program” that identifies each student’s individual needs and how they will be met. Our group included the DCFS Caseworker, the foster mother, and eight staff members, including teachers, the school psychologist, the vision support specialist, the speech therapist, the social worker, and the chair of Special Education. As I listened to these committed, compassionate adults develop an action plan, I thought about what would have happened to this student in the early days of my teaching, before 94-142. My student would have faced untold struggles and been unlikely to achieve a fulfilled and independent adult life, yet this is a resilient youth whose struggles were caused by others and who deserves assistance to achieve success in school and build a full life. When I was still teaching, I enjoyed collaborating with our Special Education Department. I worked with special ed English classes on creative writing, I helped them produce a newsletter as well as a performance where they read their work to family members, and I co-taught an American Literature inclusion class for juniors with six to eight special education joining other students to be team-taught by the special ed department chair and me. I thought I was a supportive enough advocate, but this week’s hearing strengthened my resolve. Providing special resources and accommodations like extra time on tests or different kinds of printed materials certainly is a burden on already overloaded schools and teachers. But it’s necessary and right, and I remain in awe of a team like this that is not only making it happen, but that also works on how to make it acceptable for a student like mine who desperately wants not to be seen as different. That would have been epiphany enough for this week – smile – but yesterday reinforced it when I got to hear Steve Pemberton speak. Pemberton wrote A Chance in the World, his personal memoir of being raised in a series of abusive foster homes and what helped him find his way to a fulfilling adult life. His follow-up book, The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World, shows how ordinary people can become “human lighthouses” for those in situations like those of his childhood. Yesterday Pemberton spoke about the three lighthouses who changed the trajectory of his life; then he encouraged us to continue to be lighthouses for others. His talk, delivered with humor and without a trace of self-pity, inspired me to recommit to my guardian work. It made me want to share his perspective with the people who sat around that table, each and every one of whom is a lighthouse. Last night I had a wonderful call with the foster mother of my student, and I explained to her why she is a lighthouse. When I finish the book, I’ll pass it on to her – she’s earned it! And I will continue to push myself to be a lighthouse for the youths in my cases. Every child deserves a fair chance, and we all can make a difference.