I met Ryan my first day as a scared permanent substitute in a classroom for moderately impaired students. I had no idea what to expect. The principal assured me it would be a great fit, that I "had what it took" to be a great teacher for these special guys. I was a bundle of nerves, not knowing what to expect. The buses arrived, the kids walked in, and my life and heart were changed forever.
Ryan came in with his backpack full of his "precious cargo" and looked at me over his glasses. "Watch him, he's a runner and he doesn't talk too much," the aide told me. But I could tell there was so much more going on behind those big glasses than what anyone could imagine. Over the next few weeks I chased Ryan through the hallways, stopped at every water fountain in the school, and learned how to unlock a bathroom stall from the outside without crawling on the floor. He was really putting me through the paces, but I found myself loving every minute of it. I would go home and recount my adventures to my family and have them rolling with laughter. I had truly found what I was meant to be doing with my life, and it was in part due to Ryan and his daily challenges.
Over the next few years, Ryan and I discovered many things together: a common love of music and theatre that helped Ryan come to life and start speaking out in class, the value of being silly for 30 seconds to get 30 minutes of work, the importance of the pizza line at lunch. One of the best days of my teaching career happened when Ryan started spontaneously reading aloud in class. We called his mom, we read to the principal, we read to the librarian, we cried tears of joy. It was something his mom was told he would never do. Before I knew it, I was once again enrolled in school, pursuing my Master's in Special Education. Ryan traveled three hours cheer me on at my graduation ceremony. Then came the bittersweet day of Ryan's graduation. Walking Ryan across the stage to receive his diploma was one of the best, yet hardest moments of my life. I was so proud of him for what he had accomplished, yet so sad that he would not be bringing his special joy daily into my classroom.
Today Ryan is still a part of my life. He continues to inspire me to take on new challenges, try my hardest, and not let anything stand in my way. We travel together, work in the theatre, and he is now testing for his black belt in karate! Living life through Ryan's eyes has greatly enriched my life, and I will forever be grateful to him for helping me see beyond the surface and into the heart of everyone I meet.