When a Teacher Made an Unexpected Gift for My Son With Down Syndrome


As I dropped off my son at school this morning, his teacher pulled me aside. “He only knows six colors.”

My son wriggled out of my grasp as I struggled simultaneously to straighten his glasses, rub this morning’s smoothie from his face and add up the colors of the rainbow. I looked back at her, tacked on black, white and brown to my running total, and responded, “He actually knows at least 10 or 11.”

“En Español,” his teacher replied. “He only knows six en Español.”

Now she had my full attention.

I stood up straight and gave her a dubious look, “What do you mean? He knows his colors in Spanish?”

“Oh, yes! Of course, he does!” She went on. “He not only knows his colores, but he can count to cinco — sometimes diez if he’s willing.”

At that, she lifted him up for a demonstration. “Oo-no, doh, tray, qua-ro, see-no!” he said with glee.

All at once, a familiar sensation surged through my body. A feeling of intense pride and joy commingled with validation (all lightly sprinkled with the guilt of my incredulity).

It’s not that I doubted his ability. I know my boy is sharp as a tack — he knows his numbers, shapes, colors, animals and more. It’s that he just turned 3 a few days ago. And the concept of a foreign language was introduced only last month. And he just happens to have Down syndrome.

As I processed this new information and secretly chided myself for not speaking more Spanish at home, his teacher said she had something just for him. She went to her desk and returned with a laminated folder that contained twelve crayon cutouts and the corresponding Spanish translation. It was titled, “Colores en Español.”

Brooke Conley.3-001

She then held out a stack of perfectly matching laminated cutouts, each trimmed precisely and uniformly and held together with a silver paper clip.

“This is for you to keep,” she said. “He’s very good at matching and loves learning new words en Español. I thought he could practice at home. He is smart and it is good for him. Sometimes he doesn’t want to do the work, but when you push him, he will show you what he knows.”

I thanked her profusely and kissed my boy goodbye. I clutched the folder to my chest and made it to the car before the tears came.

How could this woman possibly understand that the aide she had created for my son was actually a gift in disguise? To the outsider, it was simply a flimsy manila folder that contained a few laminated crayon cutouts. But to me it was an archive, overflowing with belief, equality and encouragement.

It wasn’t just the fact she had spent her personal time meticulously crafting an activity tailored to my son’s interest in all things rainbow. It wasn’t the neatly cut lines or the steadily scripted words or the fact that there were a dozen children in her class and she had made this offering only to one.

It was because other than my husband and me, no one has ever had such direct and blatant expectations for him. Through her contribution, I realized she instinctively and completely understands my son is not defined by any diagnosis or therapeutic buzzword or illness.

In one simple gesture, she counteracted all of the labels he has been strapped with in the past. She didn’t take the time to make this gift for my son because he’s delayed or cognitively impaired or special. She made it because he’s smart and curious and full of promise. She made it because he sometimes needs to be reined in a bit, not because he has Down syndrome, but because he’s a busy, mischievous, typical 3-year old. She made it because she believes in this particular blue-eyed, blonde-haired little boy who likes to count and color — in any language.

Sometimes, I encourage my son to show off his skills. I beam with pride as he conveys what he knows through slightly garbled words and a flourish of his little fingers. Until today, I thought putting him on display was a form of education and outreach — proof to those who dare to question his worth. “See here? This child is truly more alike than different.”

But now I understand my blandishments for what they really are: desperate pleas for the world to see my son as I do — unique, brilliant and capable.

Today, his teacher unknowingly answered my supplication in the form of a manila folder.

A folder that said, “I see you.”

Te veo.

“And you are loved.”

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