Written by Jenn Fleming, AmeriCorps member proudly serving on the Lamar Advertising team at Democracy Prep.
It’s essentially an accident.
As we move inside “The Lair” - our school’s thematically appropriate name for the cafeteria - the middle school campus director pulls me aside.
“Fleming,” she says while looking the invigorating kind of stressed. It’s Day Two of Prep Academy. Our newest Dragons have arrived two weeks before the official start of term so they can start picking up on Democracy Prep’s (DP) particular brand of culture.
“Fleming,” she says, “Can you go sit by Sam*? He needs a little help.” Something must have shown on my face because she is quick to add, “There’s nothing wrong, he just needs a friend right now.”
I like that life is like this sometimes. We don’t always know when something important is about to happen.
Sam is a scholar with an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Specifically, he is autistic, which we didn’t know on that first day. Early on he was particularly sensitive to loud noises - we chant often at DP - and any hint that someone in authority is mad at him. Democracy Prep is a new school that is still figuring out how best to support every kind of scholar. This year the fifth grade has more scholars with accommodations in a single grade level than they have ever had with over 20% receiving daily pullouts. As a rule, DP values whole group time; the biggest consequence one experiences at this school is being sent away from the team. And Sam is a highly valued member of this team.
I could go into great detail about all the measures that we, the adults, have taken to make Sam feels safe - it’s an extensive list of some failures, but mostly successes. Or I could recount my own personal experiences with Sam, but suffice it to say that neither of us cries much during school now. For the purposes of this entry, however, I would rather mention Sam's true community: his teammates and peers.
We send love at DP. Imagine horizontal jazz hands, which are meant to express support or congratulations or a general sense of care. As a team, 2029 (the fifth grade) is known for sending love.
I have not seen a single person in the Team of 2029 ever show anything approaching unkindness to Sam. From the beginning, he has been welcome, with no suggestion that he should have been treated with anything less. Based on the conversation, I have reason to believe he has not always experienced this. In the beginning, he was particularly plagued with feelings of not belonging. As he has begun to feel safer in this space, Sam has started participating more. He reads out loud, he takes chances, he gets overwhelmed less. Things that were impossible at the beginning of the year - things like consistently transitioning to the next class -happen automatically now. Community, I find, begins with a welcome.
“And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., July 13, 1966
*Student's name has been changed to protect their privacy.