Emma Fialka-Feldman

Portrait Image

location

Boston, Massachusetts

age

23

born

1989

occupation

Resident in the Boston Teacher Residency Program

interview date

09/26/2012

“I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted other siblings to see that their brother or sister is valued in a school.”

INTRO

When I first talked with Emma, she was in the midst of her training at the Boston Teacher Residency program. She talks with me about growing up with a brother, Micah, who has an “intellectual disability,” how he fought in court for his right to live in a dorm, and  how their life together affected her decision to become an educator.

See also my interviews with her brother, Micah, and mother, Janice Fialka

PROLOGUE

I’m in the very beginning phases of becoming a teacher. I just moved to Boston  in July after spending a year doing service learning, social justice, leadership workshops and international volunteer tours on the U.S. / Mexico border.  I graduated from Mt. Holyoke a year ago with a major in critical social thought.  I also had a licensure in early childhood education.

I was looking at the the role that fear plays in creating policy, particularly on immigration issues and education.  Then I did my capstone paper on how disability will challenge us to redefine humanness if we want to see disability valued in our world, in our society. And that means we have to redefine how we define life, how we define what learning looks like. When I think about my brother’s experience, I think about  how he’s been able to value himself, and what expectations have changed and shifted as a result of that.

I

How much do you think Micah and your being his sister impacted your career choice?

I think 110%. There are two things that really influenced me wanting to go work with kids.  One, I did really well in school.  My mom likes to quote my first grade teacher who said that “school was made for Emma and Emma was made for school.”  I knew how to negotiate that. Most of my friends did not like school and that frustrated me. Not because I wanted them to like school, but because I felt like if we’re going to spend so much time in school, how come what was not working for my friends was working for me?  Why didn’t they have the same rush when they got a paper assignment that I did?  What was different about the school experience for them than for me?

I wanted school to be a place where all kids wanted to be there.  So that was part of it. Then I also saw how inclusion was essential to not only my brother’s experience but to all of his friends’ experience, all of his non-disabled friends.  How much people grew and how our community shifted and how our family was changed by that.  I wanted to help make inclusive classrooms really work.  I knew that they only worked for Micah, in many ways, because my parents fought so hard to make them work well. My brother’s experience of inclusion should not be unique.

Do you have an early memory of becoming aware of his disability as a child?

The only reason I know this story is because my mom shares it with me. I don’t know if I really remember it.  The only time my brother and I ever went to the same school was when I was in first grade, and he was in fifth grade.  Micah always had friends around him during recess.  That would be the only time I’d really see him.  Then second grade, I was in the bathroom with my mom, and I said, “Why does Micah go ah-ah-ah?”  I was getting at, why does he stutter?  And I also was asking, “Why can’t Micah read?”

My mom said she remembers feeling so vulnerable and so scared to answer this question, because it was really the first time I was bringing up this difference I was noticing.  She said, “You know how your grandma uses a cane?  Well, Micah needs supports just like your grandma uses a cane, so he has extra people to help him with reading.”  Then I was like, “Okay.”  I was fine.  My mom was waiting for ten other questions, but that was all I needed at that moment.  There was no labeling, it was just, that was what it was.

I think I’m the luckiest kid to have had the parents I’ve had.  They worked really hard to listen to me. I think when you have your kid tell you they don’t want your brother and the parent just is like, “Okay,”  I think that’s very magical. That they can listen and not put judgment on what I’m saying and not think I’m a bad kid and just think, This is just how Emma’s feeling at this moment.  And I know because my parents have told me, they never knew what our relationship would look like. Now, when my brother and I are back home and we’re interacting and we make fun of our parents and we roll our eyes when they talk, all the things that parents want their kids to do, I think they feel satisfied.  They figured out how to make it work in our family.

Doesn’t mean it was always easy, though. I didn’t like my brother all the time. Particularly in middle school, I wished that he wasn’t disabled. I tried to fix him.  There were a lot of different stages I went through, and I still go through them.  Sometimes he’s still really embarrassing;  I can still get embarrassed that he stutters or takes a longer time to do things.

 So what does that do to the Emma the professional, when Emma the sister starts having that feeling?

I decide I want to be a teacher because I want other siblings to see that their brother or sister is valued in a school.  If there’s one reason why I want to do inclusion, it’s because I want the siblings, the other Emmas to know that their brother or sister has friends, real friends, not just the random buddy programs.

 So it’s not just for the other Micahs.  It’s for the other Emmas, too.  

Right, exactly. In order to incorporate disability as something that’s human, things have to shift in a way that I think is fundamental in how we structure our societies.  How we think about what life looks like.  Life is so tied to how we think of what is human, how you live your life.  Our humanness is also tied to whether you’re able to do well in school, how you learn, and my brother has challenged me to think differently about how people learn.  Again, schools don’t work for everyone, and I’m sure all the people you’ve been talking to know that.  I think disability challenges us to look at what values we put in the school system and what values aren’t in there.

II

Describe the teacher you want to become.

I don’t want to be a teacher that forms kids.  I know that kids will influence me and I’ll influence kids. But I don’t want to make kids into something that they’re not supposed to be or don’t want to be.  But I do want to make more Micahs.

What is a “Micah”?

I want more kids, particularly kids with intellectual disabilities, and kids with more significant disabilities, to know that they’re disabled and are okay with being disabled and know that there’s a history of what it means, there’s a culture and history around disability.  To have incredible supports that let them take risks.  I think that often, disabled kids, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, don’t get to take risks.  We keep them safe because we think that safety is about not taking risks. But Micah has become more safe because his community has grown as a result of his taking risks.

I have two minds working when I’m interacting with Micah.  I see us being siblings and then also the, not obligation, but I know all this history and all of the stuff that’s not right that I am constantly trying to make it right when I’m talking to him.  I’m trying to do all the tips that I’ve learned that give people with disabilities dignity. It’s also the natural way that I interact with my brother, but now I’m analyzing how I’m interacting with him and what forces are affecting my interactions with him.

 Do you worry about him?

My big worry for him is that people don’t challenge him enough.  Through his life, will the people who like Micah, and that he feels very safe with, just keep him at that level and not challenge him?  I worry about that.

 What doesn’t he get about you?

When I came out as gay, that was confusing for him.  Which I think says a lot about the world we live in. Micah being the most open person in the entire world  — anyone who has met Micah knows, he’s the most accepting person.  This internalization about queer being weird and different and not normal is so deep in who we are that even my brother…He’d picked it up, whether he wanted to or not.  It doesn’t say so much about him, it just says so much about this world and who we value and what we value.

It didn’t feel like he respected me.  It wasn’t so much when I came out as gay as when I told him I had a girlfriend.  I didn’t feel like he was, respectful is not the right word, but he wasn’t excited for me.

He needed someone else to tell him that who I liked was okay.  One of his cousins that he really appreciates told him once, like soon after I told him about my girlfriend, he said, Micah, some people like boys and some people like girls, and that’s okay.  Then Micah was okay, he was totally fine with it, and he’s been wonderful.  My girlfriend and him are just magical.  That’s another whole story, when you have a brother with a disability, finding a partner who gets your family and gets him in a way that is important.

I like when people know my brother, listen to him enough to be able to describe him with his disability and, also know he’s not always a nice person.  Like he smiles a lot, but sometimes he’s not always a nice person.  And that’s okay, that’s part of inclusion, that’s part of community.

What was going on for you at the time of his trial for the right to live in a dorm? 

I was very far removed from all of it.  I was away at college. Micah would forward me whatever article that he got written about him.  He gets lots of press.  If you walk into his room, he has every article ever written in the newspaper in a beautiful frame. Anyway, I felt removed from it, but then luckily, when they found out about the ruling, we were all together in Florida.  I was actually with him when the lawyer called.  My parents were out of the hotel room.  He smiles and he tells me.

I was like, “We have to call Mom and Dad, but we don’t tell them the ruling. I don’t want to do it over the phone; I want to see their reaction.”  So Micah calls our parents, and they come up.  He is under the bed so it looks like he’s crying, like he’s sad. [Laughs] We set them up.  They come in and he just gets up right away and he’s like, “I’m moving in.”

And that’s all really nice. If I could pick one moment to be there for, that would be the moment.  And I got to help him move in, which was wonderful and reciprocal and how it should be.  Micah got to move me in; I got to move him in.  It feels fair, it feels right.  I think what was hard and really unsettling was reading comments that people wrote after NPR did a story on him. People had the most disgusting things to say. I’d never heard people say such mean things about Micah.  They didn’t know who he was.  They’re just random people who blog and write comments. I know it was really hard for my mom. My dad just says it’s disgusting and then that’s the end of his analysis of it.

But the beautiful thing that came out of it was, there are people in Micah’s community who dedicated days to responding to every comment.  “Actually,” they’d write, “that’s not right.”  And, “Actually, Micah’s not a unique story.” How cool is it when there’s a bad thing that happens, the community responds by saying, “We’re going to back you up, Micah!”

EPILOGUE

What would you say is the Goliath you’re up against professionally?   

The Goliath I’m up against is that we assume destiny, and we don’t give choices and options and opportunities.  How do we also give value and dignity to other ways of being?  How do we give dignity to all the work that needs to be done in this world? I think I’m up against a value system that values things that I don’t think should be valued, or that have too much emphasis.  Like independence over interdependence. Help is seen as something that’s bad.  Slow as something that’s bad

What do you see as your slingshot?

I think a lot of relationships with people and a lot of listening.

And that’s what you’re doing.

Yeah.  I hope so.

POST-SCRIPT

Emma is now 1st and 2nd grade teacher at Mission Hill School, an inclusive, project-based school in Boston.