Editor’s Note: This story was one of the first Teachers of NJ stories we ever ran on the Teachers’ Lounge. It was one of our most popular incarnations of the story, but since it’s over one year old, and we have a whole new audience, we figured we’d share this with everyone once again. Enjoy!
NJ Teachers’ Lounge is excited to bring NJ teachers a new monthly series in 2017 that will celebrate the stories of 12 NJ educators: their joys, their struggles, their personal reflections on what it is to be a teacher. To bring you these portraits, we’ve partnered with photojournalist, Gregory Andrus, creator of the social media series, Portraits of the Jersey Shore. We hope that you enjoy these “Portraits of the Jersey Teacher.” Enjoy!
“Going overseas to Iraq was definitely the biggest challenge in my life. I learned quickly that life is fragile. We are really fortunate to be living in this country. You see a different aspect of life that you don’t see on a daily basis, and you become really appreciative because we are really fortunate to live in America. I saw a lot of bad things in Iraq that made me grateful to be back home.
“One of my favorite moments over there was on my last deployment. Outside of Fallujah, I saw this boy who was a little unusual compared to the other kids. I never saw special needs people in Iraq, and I always wondered what they did with them. I called him over to me, because I had a hunch he had Down Syndrome, because my brother has it. He came over, and one of the characteristics of Down Syndrome, because they have an extra chromosome, is that the person will only have one crease in their hand—it’s called the Simian Crease. So I grabbed his hand, and I saw the Simian Crease, and I was like, ‘Get out of town!’ And it was one of the best days that I had while I was over in Iraq. And I picked him up, and I got a picture with him, and that is one of my favorite pictures of all time.
“My parents always joke that I am the reason we have a Down Syndrome child. She tells me how when I was little, we were in Mass, and I was friends with a boy who had Down Syndrome. I said, ‘Mom, I want a brother just like him!’ Because I was an only child for the longest time. And my mom was like, ‘Ant, no, you don’t.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I do!’ So sure enough I must have prayed for a brother with Down Syndrome, and my mom got pregnant. They didn’t do any tests for Down Syndrome back then, and after complications during labor, my brother was born. I was in first grade at the time. One day when I got home from school after she had my brother, my mom and my aunt were sitting there crying. And I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they told me my brother had Down Syndrome, and I was like, ‘That’s great!’ He has had a really strong presence in my life, and he even has had an impact on what I do for a living now. He has really helped shape the future of my life.
“It’s funny how everything comes full circle, from wanting a brother with Down Syndrome, to meeting a kid with Down Syndrome overseas, and how it all connects now. Now I am a Special Education teacher at Matawan High School. I have one student with Down Syndrome, and four students with autism. They are awesome. Seeing how being in Iraq could be really crummy, and how you see things that no one should have to see or do, now I am able to come into work everyday, and I get greeted with these smiles, these young kids that look up to me. Some of them can’t express it, others can. But you know what, when you are having a crummy day, you are just grateful to be there, because they are helping you and you are helping them and their families out. I love working with the Special Ed population and making a difference.”