Pioneers of Change: How Two Mothers are Making a Difference

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Out of the enormous tragedy that is Sandy Hook, rays of light are shining forth. Scarlett Lewis is the mother of Jesse Lewis, a six year old victim of the massacre. Moved by the words “Nurturing, Healing, Love” that her son wrote on a blackboard days before his death, she has created the the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. The Foundation’s stated mission is to “create awareness in our children and our communities that we can choose love over anger, gratitude over entitlement, and forgiveness and compassion over bitterness. Our goal is to create a more peaceful and loving world through planting these seeds of wisdom.”

Working from the premise that schools need to teach compassion as well as academics, the Choose Love Foundation has an an extensive curriculum designed to empower children to move from a place of victimization and anger to one of love and compassion. Guidance is available for educators in how to create more loving, responsive educational environments and teach children to care for themselves and one another. The foundation also conducts workshops and gives presentations, inviting school systems to join in their movement.

I contacted Scarlett, expressing that nowhere is the need for change more glaring than in the special education classrooms of our nation. A paradigm shift away from control/punishment to empathy/compassion is needed to stem the tide of stigmatized, isolated children left unable to regulate their roiling emotions. While she certainly agreed, her organization focuses upon universal principles, not specific to children with special needs and their educators.

My reference for amazing work being done that is specific to special needs is my own sons’ involvement with TOP, or Theatre of Possibility. The brainchild of Seattle playwright Lauren Marshall, an autism mother herself, TOP invites students both neurotypical and with special needs to explore their creativity and positively engage their emotions through drama. Based upon The Theatre of the Oppressed work by Brazilian Augusto Baol, the premise is that one can’t change the oppressor, but one can change how they react to oppression. Once a scene is created, actors step in and explore alternative choices that would alter the outcome of the drama. This really helps the autistic mind become more flexible and not automatically come to a point of fight or flight in moments of stress.

Last year a troupe from within the main class formed and performed at a workshop for special education teachers in Seattle. The performers were charged with the task of showing teachers what it’s like to be autistic in a mainstream classroom. They wrote their own skit about an autism spectrum girl struggling to include herself in a conversation amongst her peers. It doesn’t go well and she loses it and runs out of the room. Teachers were then invited to step in to the scene and voice what was going through the teacher’s head such as, “I’m not trained for this!,” “Why can’t we just do the work?” and “When’s my next coffee break?” Then they came up with alternatives to solving the explosive situation such as sending the girl to a guidance counselor or checking in with students to get a reading on their emotional state prior to starting work.  Sending the girl away was seen as not really addressing the classroom dynamic. Checking in with students proved most transformative. A concluding suggestion was to enlist neurotypical students to become allies of their classmates with autism.

The teachers were impressed by the creativity and cohesiveness of the TOP troupe, and moved by their perspective of what it’s like to try to fit in with neurotypical kids. This was a powerful way to reach educators without being didactic nor risking them becoming defensive about their teaching skills.

The key to Lauren’s success with TOP is that she is able to create an emotionally safe space for her students. In turn, Scarlett Lewis is fundamentally addressing that same need for emotional well-being to replace angry, threatened feelings. When the massacre at Sandy Hook happened, I referenced Adam Lanza as another individual with special needs who had fallen through the cracks into an abyss of destruction. I have profound admiration and respect for Scarlett Lewis channeling her unfathomable grief into a movement to change the world. Here in Seattle, Lauren Marshall remains one of my heroes. I’m deeply heartened by efforts on both a micro and macrocosmic level to bring more nurturing, healing and love to our troubled world.