“Working for Free”

When I was a junior in high school, I decided to volunteer for Helen Gordon, pictured above, in her innovative nursery school. Located just a few blocks from my high school, the school was an easy walk away. I had been reading child development books, particularly Bruno Bettelheim, and was interested in children with special needs.

Helen was doing a first in Portland in 1963, she was mixing neurotypical kids in the same classroom with autistic and intellectually limited children. Prior to this, the kids had been separated on the theory that they couldn’t progress together, but needed separate classrooms. The classroom was a delight for me, and I went there two afternoons a week to help out in any way needed.

Looking back, I realize that volunteering was my own idea, and not done for any ulterior motive. Now I hear that high school students volunteer to “build their resume” for college applications. There was no such pressure when I was in high school, and my volunteer work was done for me.

The oddest moment when I was helping out came one afternoon. The school had an observation room behind a one way mirror at one end of the classroom. That day the conversation in the room was too loud. One little boy, already struggling with the distinction between reality and fantasy, told me “the mirror is talking.” I didn’t know what to say.


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