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‘He was extraordinary.’ How a Columbus student embraced his new classmate with Down Syndrome

Sometimes the best thing teachers can do is give their students opportunities to be extraordinary. Not every student is going to perform heart surgery or write a best seller, but every single student has the capability of doing the extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary involves matters of the heart.

Of course, teachers would love for every student to become the latest and greatest contributor to mankind, but that’s a wicked wish that will unfortunately never come true. Teachers do believe, however, that all students can become kind human beings. Learning content and making good scores on state tests certainly drive the lesson planning for our students, but developing human decency into our children is the very root of why we do what we do. When we are left with what really matters to us about our jobs, teachers want to be an integral part of changing our communities, and we do this through instilling into our students a moral compass or a heart of giving or an attitude of kindness.

When we retire and grow old in our rocking chairs thinking back over our long and fruitful careers in education, we will not remember the awesome lessons we planned or the cool activities we did with our students. We won’t recall the challenging tests we created or reminisce about the many mugs we got at Christmas. Sure, these are all important aspects of our profession, but they will not cause our hearts to sing on the front porch of retirement.

What we will remember are the times when students surprised us with extraordinary lessons of human kindness. In an education world where so much discussion centers on bullying, teenage depression and teen suicide, we stop and take notice when a student steps outside the realm of curriculum and displays extraordinary decency and acceptance.

So we should notice a student in Karissa Branch’s class at Aaron Cohn Middle School.

Mrs. Branch teaches mostly accelerated learners, the high-achievers, the ones who seek out academic challenges and push themselves to overcome them. Her class was clicking along fairly homogeneously until one day a new student was introduced into the mix.

It’s middle school. You typically don’t want to upset the apple cart in a middle school classroom because you never know how middle schoolers will react. That’s why elementary and high school teachers see middle school teachers as the most divinely ordained among teachers. They volunteer, even choose to teach pre-teens stuck between childhood and adulthood, raging with hormones, and existing in the land of unpredictability.

There was no way to guess how her students would react to having a new student, but Mrs. Branch knew her kids. More importantly, she knew their hearts. She knew she had modeled for them acceptance and sincerity. She knew they had learned kindness and patience from her, so she knew of all the classes at Aaron Cohn to welcome a new student, her class would be ready.

Because this new student had Down syndrome.

Stop and take notice: an accelerated class of middle schoolers asked to accept a new student, a new student with Down syndrome. Mrs. Branch saw that small detail as just an opportunity for her students to become extraordinary. And they did. They welcomed the new student into the classroom with full hearts and open arms.

One student stood out, though. He was the popular kid – the highly athletic, handsome, destined-to-be-prom-king-one-day kind of kid. Ordinarily, one might have expected him to be the reluctant one, but on the contrary. He quickly made it his mission to befriend his new classmate, and the two formed an inseparable bond that would dispel any doubts that a 13-year-old can be extraordinary.

If you ask her, Mrs. Branch will tell you how inspiring that year was for her and her students, and not because of any health science lesson she taught. That was a great year because she and her students had the opportunity to see unconditional acceptance unfold before their eyes. They took a chance and offered someone different from them kindness, patience, and openness.

At an age when being different is scary, a 13-year-old boy became a model for his teacher and his peers. Ordinarily, kids might have balked or laughed or sneered. But not this time. Not this boy. He was extraordinary.

So, perhaps we can be a bit more extraordinary today. When we see someone different from us, perhaps we can model a 13-year-old boy and meet difference with open arms. Then, when we take a seat in those rocking chairs of our old age, we can spend a good, long time recalling the extraordinary moments of our lives.

Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at