Yesterday afternoon, after returning from a perfectly beautiful Easter picnic up at Purdue with my husband and children, I received a rather cryptic group text from some former colleagues that delivered the sad news of the death of a woman with whom I worked at Fall Creek Valley Middle School here in Indianapolis. As with all news of this type, for me, at least, there’s a period of mental digestion, and then the memories begin to play back in my mind like the retrospective part of a movie that you know is going to make you cry at the end.
And the memories I have of Dottie Doxtator are some of the best memories I have of being a teacher.
Dottie was an instructional assistant for many severely disabled children at Fall Creek Valley, so I really began to know Dottie well when I had one of her former students in my regular English/language arts class. I say she was Dottie’s student, because quite honestly, had it not been for Dottie, this student—we’ll call her ‘Mary’—would not have been able to do anything. Mary was so severely disabled that she could not speak, was non-ambulatory, and could only move some of her body parts in reaction to whatever outside stimulus happened to, well, stimulate her.
I have to admit, shamefully, that I had my doubts about having Mary in my class (as if my doubts would have had any bearing on the stipulation in her IEP that mandated that she be educated in regular education classes—that’s P.L. 94142 for all of you unfamiliar with the ‘Least Restrictive Environment’ law). Mary appeared to me to have very little grasp of the world around her, but, as you will soon learn, I was rather handily schooled about what Mary could do by none other than Mary herself.
It was the time of year when my English/language arts classes were reading the play The Diary of Anne Frank. Dear Dottie had the idea that she could program the lines of one of the characters into a Dynavox machine (sort of like a tape recorder) that Mary could activate with her hand when it was the character’s turn to speak.
All of this was Dottie’s idea. I was skeptical. After all, it would be Dottie’s voice reading the character Margot’s lines, it would be Dottie prompting Mary to hit the big red button on the Dynavox to activate the recorded voice, and it would invariably be Dottie who lifted Mary’s hand to pound the Dynavox’ big red button when it was ‘Margot’s’ turn to speak. But I had an inkling that Dottie knew what she was doing, and I was curious how this would all turn out, so I agreed. I now wonder who I thought I was to have demonstrated such hubris.
On the day of Mary’s stage debut, I assigned the speaking parts in that day’s reading of the play to various students, and when I assigned the part of ‘Margot’ to Mary, none of the students reacted to Mary’s imminent participation. Most of them had come to class either tired or already bored, never appearing curious about how this was all going to happen, but then again, eighth graders have perfected the attitude of blasé-ness, so I wasn’t at all surprised.
Once it was Mary’s turn to “read” her lines, though, all of that changed. The students in the class and I watched in fascination as Mary’s face began to contort, her mouth twisting into the semblance of a smile as she began wildly gesticulating while Dottie very gently guided her hand toward the big red button. The pre-programmed lines flowed from the device, and Mary became, in that instance, a participant in the class, a bona fide member of the eighth grade of Fall Creek Valley Middle School and demonstrated her happiness by loudly rendering whatever sounds her once dormant voice had previously held. The other students in the class had already picked their heads up off their desks, realized what had just happened, and commenced to cheering, clapping loudly, whistling, woo-hoo-ing, then scraped back their chairs and gave their classmate Mary a standing ovation worthy of a rock star. Some even approached her wheelchair and lifted up her hand to give her a high five.
Mary had amazed and mesmerized them, and she knew it. In that instant, Mary became the teacher. It was as if she had said to all of us, “See? See what I can do?” Her face bore the look of smug satisfaction, and the vision of her smile is an indelible memory forever etched into my mind.
Naturally, I lost it. To say that I cried is rather an understatement; I sobbed, bawled my eyes out, and to this day, when I remember Dottie’s gentle persistence, her devotion to Mary, and her determination to allow Mary to become a part of that tenuous, contentious, loud-mouthed, hormone-ravaged, beautiful, and hilarious collection of eighth grade kids, I start to cry again.
Dottie left this world yesterday along with her son Scotty, who was also, like many of the students Dottie cared for at Fall Creek Valley, cognitively disabled. She talked about Scotty often to me and to others, always prefacing her conversation with “My Scotty.” Her devotion to him was unparalleled, but then again that is not surprising. When God chose Dottie to be Scotty’s mother, He knew what He was doing.
Sadly, after I left Fall Creek Valley, I lost touch with Dottie, but I will never forget her. She remains one of the most influential people of my life because she, along with Mary, taught me that everything is possible when kindness, faith, and love are applied to a seemingly impossible situation.
Well done, good and faithful servant. Heaven’s rewards await you and Scotty.