Teacher Stories: Melissa Brady Petrillo, Special Education Teacher at Nutley High School, Grades 9-12

I grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, which I think is one of the most inclusive towns, and throughout  my education in their school system, they always encouraged us to serve others and they really created an inclusive environment. Now I teach students who are on the spectrum. I always say to people as a special education teacher that we need to make our society more inclusive. And that is my main goal as a teacher.

I double-majored in English and Special Education, and while I was doing my thesis, I was thinking of a topic to tie both of my majors together. Then, in one of my English classes, I read an article on how there is a lack of characters portrayed with babies and children in literature. We’re always taught as teachers to have books to serve as mirrors to our readers, so we want to have inclusive and diverse libraries to make sure that all of our students can see themselves in a book. And this article said there’s a lack of literature to portray people with special needs, whether that be characters on the autism spectrum, or characters with physical impairments or hearing impairments. So as a result, I ended up writing my paper about how we have to make sure that the books that do portray characters with different ability levels are inclusive and are accurate, and we need to have more books out there. So, my professor at the time said to me, why don’t you write a children’s book based off your criteria?

I remember a few weeks after I left the program thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t do that!’ but I did it. I ended up writing a book called ‘Sometimes’ which is narrated by a female on the spectrum, and she’s biracial, part of the Asian-American community. And what I did was I had her narrate how she feels throughout the day and let other people understand how she’s feeling and how she communicates that with others. I actually ended up publishing it just this past year during the pandemic, and it’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

I’ve been reaching out to different areas to let them know my book is available. There’s a bookstore in Maplewood called ‘Words’ and they advocate for and employ young adults on the spectrum, so I gave them some copies. And I go to different cafes that employ adults at different ability levels: like I went to a café that’s out in Pennsylvania, and I had a book signing there and I donated some books to their stores and I was able to read the book to people. I’m always focusing on positive mental health, inclusion; we really just have to be empathetic to one another, and I want to inspire that in people with my book.

You can find Melissa Brady Petrillo’s book here.

  • Interview by Gregory Andrus of Portraits of the Jersey Shore.

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