It was an average day at Harrisburg Elementary School. As P.E. teacher Lauren Watts watched her 60 students rotate through jump rope stations in the gym, she passed a ball back and forth with 8-year-old Jorgy Emerson.
Confined to a wheelchair, Emerson couldn’t participate in the activities – or so he thought.
When he told Watts he wanted to jump rope like the others kids, she said, “Let’s do it, let’s make it happen.”
“I have another kid at the school that isn’t able to turn the rope. So, I have him stand in front of me and he jumps when I jump,” Watts said. So she thought, “I can do the same thing with Jorgy in this wheelchair.”
She found a long jump rope and stood behind Emerson’s wheelchair. Leaning slightly forward, she pressed the handle bars beneath her ribs. And pushing some of her weight onto the wheelchair, she shuffled forward, turning the rope as she went.
“He wanted to go really fast and with 60 kids in the gym I couldn’t go fast,” Watts said.
So they took it to the hallway, where they went back and forth as Emerson yelled, “go faster!”
“It felt like magic,” he said.
Emerson has spastic cerebral palsy, so when his mother, Heather Penn, saw a Facebook video post of her son jumping rope for the first time, she smiled with excitement.
“A lot of times it’s hard to find people who will make an effort to include him in stuff like that,” Penn said. “It takes somebody special to be able to do that – to try and figure it out.”
With equal parts compassion and innovation, that’s what Watts did. Although she teaches about 55 students at a time, six classes per day – her goal is to impact every student.
Before switching to physical education, Watts, who played soccer for Winthrop University, majored in early childhood education. But she didn’t just want to interact with the same set of 25 students every day.
“I wanted to impact a greater number of kids,” she said.
And with her sports history, physical education was a natural fit.
“I want to impact and make a difference on all of my kids, no matter their disability, no matter who they are,” Watts said. “They’re all my students and I treat them all the same. Yes, for some, I really have to think of ways to really make them feel included and make sure they get to do what every other student does.”
She’s loved Jorgy since the first day she met him. She calls him her “ray of sunshine,” because he’s always happy, he likes to sing to her and he talks to her all of the time.
“I just have taken a special interest in him and in all my students here, it’s not just one over the other – he just has a special place in my heart,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I could do this for him.”
Now that Emerson’s jumped rope, his next goal is to become a movie actor, preferably in the “The Lion King.”
When asked what he’d say to other kids like himself, he said, “I would say, just because you’re different and in a wheelchair, you can still do other things.”
Stephanie Jadrnicek: firstname.lastname@example.org