Last week I flew to Sacramento to honor my father and speak at his retirement party. Dad’s worked in special education for 38 years, and I admire him so much and the work he has done on behalf of special needs learners in his school district and in the state of California.
Following is my speech to a room full of his colleagues:
“Hello. My name is Karen Yates, and I’m John’s youngest daughter. I live in Southern California so I haven’t had the opportunity to meet most of you, but I’m glad to be here tonight to honor my dad and his 38 years of service in special education.
I feel serious pressure to make this speech hilariously funny, but I’m afraid it’s going to be rather sentimental.
Today I could talk with you about the many facets of my father. We could poke fun at his spider diagrams and charts on napkins, graph paper, and yellow tablets, his incessant mhmms and head nods, his obsession with sunflower seeds and Lake Almanor, his deliberate and slow approach to decision making. But I thought tonight the best thing I could share is how my father modeled and taught me compassion.
How do you teach compassion? Is compassion something you can teach through a textbook or a lecture? Is it a part of your DNA—you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Can compassion be cultivated in any person, and how exactly do you go about cultivating compassion in the hearts of others?
I’m directing this question to a room full of educators so maybe the answer is more clear to you. But as a parent of three children myself, I feel the weight of this question on my own shoulders. Who teaches our children compassion? And how do you teach it in a way that a child learns it, absorbs it, and shares it with our world?
I’ve come to believe that all of us have a bit of compassion in us from the very beginning. I see it in my 5 year old daughter when she worries about the ladybug in our backyard. I witness it when my 2 year old pats me on the shoulder after I stub my toe. I see my 7 year old worry about friends getting left out of playdates and birthday parties.
The degree to which compassion grows, however, seems contingent upon our environment and our exposure to putting it into practice. If we are never modeled how to show compassion to others, it will fade in us. And if we are not in environments where we are forced to reach outside ourselves and live out that compassion, we can forget, and maybe become so uncomfortable with it that we avoid being put in situations where we might have to abundantly apply it.
I wanted to share this evening three examples from my childhood of when my dad modeled compassion, and when his example forced me out of my comfort zone so that I could grow in my own compassion. And I hope that these lessons are not only honoring to my pop, but that they inspire you too, as your children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews are observing your actions each day, and are learning from you just as much by what you DO, as they are by what you say.
When I was in the 5th or 6th grade, my dad taught the special education class at our church. With about 15 young people in the class, I watched him engage with students in wheelchairs, with varying abilities of function, some who couldn’t speak, a few who would have loud outbursts, some who had down syndrome and cp. And as a kid, I felt uncomfortable with the room full of difference. I didn’t know how to interact with them. I didn’t know what to say. So I stood at the back of the room and I watched.
I saw him give physical touch with a high five and a pat on the shoulder. I saw him engage. I saw him bend over at their level and talk to them like ordinary people. He smiled a lot. We sang songs. I watched him interact with parents who picked up their kids after class. I saw him treat these special students with dignity and honor.
This Sunday school class, I believe, was the first of many experiences that I can recall where I became less and less uncomfortable around people who were different than me. In that class I sang songs with the kids. I bounced balls back and forth with them. I pushed wheelchairs. I was copying my dad’s model, and I found out difference isn’t nearly as intimidating or scary as I thought. This was a time of cultivating compassion in my own life.
Another example my dad set for us was his friendship with a colleague who had two hearing impaired children. My parents would have dinners outside of work with these friends, and my sister and I would play alongside their son and daughter who were deaf. It didn’t concern me how we would play, and my parents matter of factly prepared us, mentioning that conversation might be difficult, but that these kids were normal kids, just like me, and we would have fun together. By his confidence, and by choosing to expose my sister and I to hearing impaired children, I discovered smiling and gesturing might be just as vital to communication as the words you choose. I sat with my friends watching movies with subtitles. We listened to music with our hands on speakers feeling the vibrations. We played board games. We swam together; we ate ice cream. I even learned a little ASL.
We can choose to avoid difference, or we can engage in it. We can choose to expose our children to special needs learners, or we can shield them from it. It was modeled to me how to be compassionate and engage in what others might find unpredictable or awkward. And I now pass on that example to my own children.
Finally, the last example I have is my dad’s friendship with a disabled married couple. Both husband and wife were a little older than my parents, and they were both in wheelchairs. The husband, I believe, had CP. He spoke with a slur that was hard to understand, and he struggled with the use of his arms. His wife suffered from a muscular disorder. The Ash’s lived in an apartment near our home growing up, and while they somehow managed most day to day tasks successfully, they occasionally needed manpower. My dad would help. I recall driving with him to the Ash’s home, and watching my dad lift boxes for them. He moved some furniture. He inspected their van for repairs and oil leaks. They were so grateful, and this is one of those examples that nobody in the world, other than me and my mom, probably knew my dad was doing, but it didn’t matter. He helped because they needed it. He helped because it was the right thing to do. He helped because, probably, if he were in their shoes, he would have wanted the same courtesy.
Something notable about the Ash family is that these were not peers of mine. These weren’t kids needing help. These were my dad’s peers whom he was helping. Of these three examples, I was actually most uncomfortable around the Ashes, not because of their disability but simply because they were grown-ups and I didn’t have a clue what to talk with them about.
But my dad chatted with them like he would any of his other friends—there was no difference at all. And I watched that. Compassion is not pity. It’s a give and take that we share with one another: we accept it; we offer it; we help when we can, because we care for our neighbor and we care for our friend.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
We are passing down our ways, our compassion, our life lessons, from one generation to another. How do we teach compassion? We model it.
I am grateful I have a father who taught me compassion with more than his words, but also by his deeds. I’m grateful that in my younger years my parents exposed me to environments where I was forced to engage in difference. But I’m especially grateful for the life lessons of compassion that I can now share with my own children—the generational impact my dad’s career in special education has made on me and consequently, on my own children.
I invite you to consider who is watching you and who is learning from your example, whether it’s a young teacher, an enthusiastic and naive colleague, a student, or perhaps your own child—what are you passing from one generation to another?
I am so proud to be John Sayler’s daughter. He’s a great pop and a good man. Congratulations, dad, on your retirement!”