Special school honors vets

Published 10:01 am Tuesday, May 19, 2015

It was the most moving Memorial Day ceremony I’ve ever attended.

The event took place at the ACLD Tillotson School in Pittsburgh, a special-needs school with a private academic license approved yearly by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The brain is a complicated thing, you see. Even the slightest deviation in normal brain function can interrupt an individual’s ability to receive, process and communicate information.

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According to the National Institutes of Health, one out of seven Americans has Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) — a complex cluster of neurobiological deficits that can severely inhibit the ability to process information.

Interestingly, some of the world’s most inventive people have learning disabilities. Einstein had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Thomas Edison suffered severe ADHD. His third-grade teacher kicked him out of school for being “inattentive, fidgety and slow.”

Tillotson students run the gamut, from children with normal to high IQs who have difficulty learning to read, to some with moderate to severe autism, to others with a host of other learning disabilities. Some go on to college. Others succeed in the trades. Some are taught to maximize basic skills, so they can become productive, self-sufficient citizens.

All of the students require exceptional patience and care. That is delivered in abundance by Tillotson’s teachers and administrators, which was evident when I attended the Memorial Day event.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Kristine Sacco, the Tillotson art teacher who organized the event, is my sister. She said the students have been learning about Memorial Day in social studies. To help them better understand the meaning of service, the school initiated a door-decorating contest — then agreed to take the concept a step further by inviting veterans to visit the students.

Three veterans attended the event: Air Force Capt. Patricia Atkinson, who served for six years following the Vietnam War and is now a paraprofessional at Tillotson; Air Force Reserve Maj. Deborah Gorencic, who served for 23 years and participated in the 1993 Iraq War; and my father, Army Pfc. Thomas Purcell, a military policeman who served for two years after the Korean War.

The veterans were given a tour of the school as students lined both sides of the hallway, waving flags. They proudly displayed their carefully crafted Memorial Day decorations that adorned the doors and walls.

As the veterans were led to the dais, one group of students walked onto the stage. Each took turns explaining how Memorial Day differs from other holidays — that its purpose is to remember those who died in active military service.

As the first student group exited, a second took the stage. Students took turns reciting “The Unknown Soldier” by Roger Robicheau: “You need not ever know my name, this unknown soldier seeks no fame…”

The three veterans took turns describing their service from the podium. One described her experiences as a nurse in the military, where she assisted wounded soldiers returning from battle.

One described how, during the Vietnam War, before she had served, her unit was responsible for evacuating people during the fall of Saigon. She described one tragedy in which a plane filled with babies crashed, killing most everyone on board. Her words were greeted with dead silence.

My father explained what it was like to be a military policeman in Germany in the 1950s — what it was like to be drafted.

The students had spirited, insightful questions for the veterans. The question-and-answer session went on for some time.

At the conclusion of the event, the students presented the veterans with certificates thanking them for their service, then gave them hearty applause.

Learning may be more challenging for these kids than others, but they intuitively understand the meaning of Memorial Day better than most.

They understand that the wonderful school that is helping them blossom and prepare for life is a direct beneficiary of the freedom and prosperity made possible by the many veterans who sacrificed for their country.

As I sat by my 81-year-old dad after the event, one young girl walked up to him and shook his hand.

“Thank you for your service, sir,” she said to him. I got choked up by the respect she gave him.

That’s why this was most moving Memorial Day ceremony I have ever attended.

(ACLD Tillotson School was founded in 1972 by special-education pioneer Katherine Dean Tillotson. Learn more at acldtillotsonschool.org.)


Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. Send comments to Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.