Reviewed by Tomi Alo
A touching memoir that delves into the highs and lows of caring for young children with disabilities
Darlene Kwarta, a retired special education teacher, candidly delves into her personal journey of working with children who have special needs in Once There Was a Child.
As a kid, Kwarta was considered a loner, someone who never quite fit in. But after meeting and connecting with her deaf neighbor, Kwarta sees the light in her life—a dedication to caring for others who are considered outcasts in society. Soon, we’re following along on her journey toward teaching students with disabilities in junior high.
It’s refreshing to feel all of the potential and the goodness Kwarta feels in each of the children she teaches. She shares a deep connection with these kids, and you can feel it in the prose. But after the death of one of the students she used to teach, the burden of the job starts to weigh a little too heavily on her heart.
This memoir allows you to take a walk in Kwarta’s shoes and experience a world some consider difficult. The memoir does well to shed light on how disabled kids live their lives and how bright the world can be when you see it just a little differently.
We get to meet some of these kids and see how special they really are. Kids like Jacob, who can point to anywhere on the map and draw directions to a place despite never being there, and Kat, who remembers everything about a time before her. These are children with dreams, fears, joys, and aspirations who are deserving of love and affection.
Caring for individuals with special needs can be challenging though too. Once There Was A Child touches on some of these challenges in a classroom and shows how profound an impact a caring teacher can have on the children they care for. I am thinking specifically of a few memorable scenes where regular school drills end with tears and fear or when a simple outdoor trip, despite tons of preparation, still ends up a disaster.
Even when she faces setbacks, Kwarta’s commitment to her students is palpable. She always goes above and beyond to care for and create opportunities for her students to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Her dedication to these kids reflects the broader theme of the memoir: the importance of empathy and resilience. Because through special education teachers’ empathy and resilience, these young kids have a safe environment where they can thrive.
The book does tend to repeat itself from time to time, which ends up being the primary reason I couldn’t always engage fully with it. At times it feels like it’s stalling, sharing scenes and paragraphs with similar purpose as the others before them.
Nevertheless, Once There Was A Child is an enlightening book that provides valuable insight into the lives of disabled children and the educators who support them.
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