The Favorite Pupil
"Pagans believed that their gods were pleased by the progress of the best, by those who could be exceptionally independent. When Jesus spoke about the least, a new concept dawned as to what constitutes a civilized community. With us the test of the worth of a community is not how well the most privileged people make out, but what provision is made for the least, for those who are exceptional in their need for our kindness."
This fragment of a talk given on March 21, 1957, to the Chicago Council on the Mentally Handicapped conveys the human agony of families faced with a child dealing with developmental disabilities.
The commander in chief of our Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Charles Brown, tells a remarkable story about a nine-year-old boy, the son of John Puerifoy, formerly our Ambassador to Greeece. The child’s name was Clinton, and he was a spastic.
“He was a brilliant lad,” recalls Admiral Brown, “and deeply appealing.” Queen Frederika grew fond of the boy while the Puerifoys were stationed in Greece, and often asked him for long visits to the Royal Palace in Athens.
During these visits young Clinton Puerifoy played freely with Queen Frederika’s two children. One day, Prince Constantine said to his little American friend, “My sister and I have been talking about you, and we have decided that you must be the favorite pupil of Jesus.”
“What do you mean?” asked Clinton. “Well,” replied the Prince, “you know how it is. In school the best pupil is always given the hardest problems to solve. God gave you the hardest problem of all, so you must be his favorite pupil.”
With sudden tears in his eyes, the crippled child replied, “I don’t believe you!” That night the Queen sat on the edge of Clint’s bed as she tucked him in. She said, “I heard what the Prince told you today, and I agree with him. I believe you are a favorite pupil of Jesus.” For a moment, two troubled eyes stared back at her. Then Clint said, “I don’t believe it! I won’t believe it unless my Daddy says that he believes it!”
Later, Queen Frederika told Jack Puerifoy the story. The Ambassador shook his head and said, “I can’t tell him I believe that. I cannot believe that a good and just God would do that to my little boy.”
Two thousand years ago another story was written: “And Jesus passing by,” the story begins in St. John’s Gospel, “said a man blind from his birth. And His disciples asked Him: ‘Rabbi, who hath sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus answered: ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ ”
We have no record of the immediate reaction to these words But down the ages many have replied as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov did, “If God’s truth demands the tortured cry of even one innocent child, then God’s truth is not worth the price of admission.’' Others have said that guiltless suffering for adults or children should be ended. “Mercy killing” is the mellifluous phrase used by some; “improvement of the race” is the argument of those who believe in enforced eugenics; efficiency, economy, productivity were the rallying cries of Hitler or Stalin, whose economic and cultural theories eliminated any place for the blind, crippled, aged, or mentally retarded.
But here in America, thank God, the overwhelming majority has not been seduced by these arguments. Instead, we have adopted in substance and in fact the standards, the thinking, and the ideals of the Rabbi of the Gospel.
“The Christian inspiration in dealing with ‘exceptional children,’ “an eminent American clergyman reminds us, “is very different from that of any other civilization. It might be summed up in the proposition that the measure of the degree of a community’s civilization, as Christians understand civilization, is what we may call the ‘test of the least.’”
What provision does a civilization make for its least members? What advantage does it offer for those who are least able to take care of themselves? Jesus said, “For as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”
Pagans believed that their gods were pleased by the progress of the best, by those who could be exceptionally independent. When Jesus spoke about the least, a new concept dawned as to what constitutes a civilized community. With us the test of the worth of a community is not how well the most privileged people make out, but what provision is made for the least, for those who are exceptional in their need for our kindness.
You teachers of the mentally retarded are meeting this test. You have dedicated your lives to the service of the least in mental capacity, the least in physical endowment, the least in years, the least in all things people covet for their children.
In this work, it should be noted, you are serving the cause lf education. You are teachers-teachers in the same manner and tradition as the two greatest teachers of all time, Christ and Socrates. Neither of them taught in a university. Neither of them concentrated on research. Neither of them confined his conversation and action to philosophers or to doctors of education or to men of power.
Socrates taught in the market place of Athens. He taught the ignorant, the unpowerful, often the “least,” if you will, of Athenian citizens. It is typical that he begins his famous questions with the words, “Tell me, Stranger ... “
Christ wasted little time with the doctors of the law or with the Pharisees. He taught the deaf, dumb, blind, and lame; He spoke mostly to the multitudes, not to the elite.
When you devote your time to the mentally retarded, you are selecting the most difficult students to inspire. You are working where the work is hardest, and the compensations sometimes least. But in doing this work you can be sure of the gratitude and thanks of parents, children, and the public. You are giving your lives to make sure that even the least of our children shall enjoy to the maximum of their capacity the full fruits of educated living. More than this no teacher can do.