In February of 2012, Bill and I went north to work on a story at the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown, ND. We were going to be following their director of assistive technology, Mark Coppin, and one of his star students, Sady Paulson.
We had met Mark before at a couple events, but until we got there I had no idea what the extent of his work entailed. Mark is a rockstar teacher. He has presented to the United Nations on accessing abilities and President Obama named him one of 10 “Champions of Change” in 2013. Mark has traveled the world presenting and spreading the message of equal access for all.
The Anne Carlsen Center itself is an impressive place. It is a non-profit organization that provides support and services to individuals in North Dakota with developmental disabilities and delays. As Mark soon taught us, at the Anne Carlsen Center it’s not just about accessibility, it's about “accessing abilities” and helping the children they serve reach their full potentials.
The work done there is inspiring. Through Mark, we met a wide variety of incredible children.
We met Brandon, a child on the autism spectrum who had never been able to communicate until the iPad and an app gave him the tools he needed to say what he was thinking. We met Alex, who had an entire half of his brain removed and was re-learning how to walk and talk. Then we met Sady.
Sady has cerebral palsy and can’t speak or control her limbs, but her disability has done nothing to slow her down. Through Mark, the Anne Carlsen Center and her own gumption, she has accessed her abilities. She is incredibly funny and sarcastic, and also happens to be a supremely talented video editor. She was featured in and edited this accessibility ad for Apple:
During her time at the Anne Carlsen Center she worked extensively with Mark. He helped set up a scanning system on her chair, connecting left and right buttons to commands on her computer, allowing her to type, communicate and edit in Final Cut Pro.
Watching her work is incredible, inspiring and exhausting. Since she has no control over her hands, Mark connected her buttons to her head rest. To control her computer, she moves her head left or right, depending on what she wants to do. It’s physical work.
While at the Anne Carlsen Center, we also met a group of incredible and dedicated teachers. Teachers who clearly love their students. They have the patience and empathy to work with each child individually to find the solution that best fits their personal needs.
As we left North Dakota, I remember calling my mom - overwhelmed by the love I felt at the Anne Carlsen Center - to tell her that if either my brother or I ever had a special needs child, we were all moving to North Dakota.
Being there made me appreciate my mind and body. It also made me think about the many amazing teachers I have been lucky enough to have in my life.
The first teacher I remember is Ms. Maziak, or “Maziak Craziak” as we called her. She was one of my preschool teachers, and she taught me that learning was both creative and fun. She also taught me how to spell my name correctly. I spelled it L-A-U-P-A. She corrected it to L-A-U-R-A (in my defense, P and R look awfully similar to a 5-year-old).
Then there was Mrs. Underwood, my kindergarten teacher and the first of many amazing educators I would encounter during my 12 years in the St. John’s County Public School System. It was in her class I had my first lesson on racism and bigotry. One day, just before recess, my best friend, Brandis, got called a word I had never heard before and had no context for its meaning. All I knew was Brandis was upset and instead of going out to recess which is what I wanted to do, Mrs. Underwood was explaining to the class that we are all equal, that inside our hearts pump the same blood, and that there were certain words that would not be tolerated in her classroom.
A couple years later I found myself in Mrs. Skelton’s 3rd grade class. Mrs. Skelton instilled in me a lifelong love of reading. She also helped a 9-year-old tomboy make girlfriends by creating “new seat assignments,” which happened to put me at a table of girls. Looking back, Mrs. Skelton’s “new seat assignments” was really just “new seat assignment.” I was the only student she moved. I’m glad she did. Two of the girls that were at that table are still close friends.
After a few awkward years of middle school, I escaped to Nease High School where Aletha Wilkerson Dresback was the International Baccalaureate Coordinator and my guidance counselor. Aletha saved my life. I had three friends die my junior year and I was heading down a destructive path. I don’t know how much she knew of my life outside of school, but she somehow sensed I needed space and freedom to grieve, and she let me. If I needed to sit in her office with a friend instead of going to Spanish class, she let me. If I needed to complain about English instead of going to English, she let me (to a point). I was a good student and she knew that. She gave me the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions, and for that I am forever grateful.
There were countless others - other teachers, coaches and administrators. People like Mr. Biondolino, Coach Marquart, Mr. Hotson and Señora Weaver. I could go on, but it would take a while.
Maybe I've been lucky to have had so many great teachers in my formal education, but I don't think I'm alone. Like many people across the nation, I would not be where I am today without the hard work of the dedicated public servants we call teachers.
To all the educators out there - whether you work with special needs students at a place like the Anne Carlsen Center or an elementary school in one of America’s cities, suburbs or small towns - thank you. The world would fall apart without your commitment, and your work does not go unnoticed.