Teaching by example

Instructor: Nicole LeCause shows her pupils - through her lessons and her life - that disability does not have to mean dependence.

January 20, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Muscular dystrophy, a debilitating condition she has had for all of her 33 years, confines Nicole LeCause to a wheelchair she operates with two fingers - the only ones she can move.

She has found a way to live on her own, relying on hired aides to dress and bathe her, to drive her to and from work, while relying on herself for more. Now others are relying on her.

Nicole LeCause is Ms. LeCause at Holabird Middle School in Dundalk, where she is in her first year as a teacher. She works with nine pupils who have severe learning difficulties, teaching them life skills: their numbers and letters, how to brush their teeth and comb their hair, how to order lunch in a fast-food restaurant.

She wants to give them a solid foundation so that some day maybe they, too, can live independently. She doesn't doubt that some will. And she's giving all she has to guarantee it.

"Some of the guys in here I know will be able to drive and get jobs and live on their own," LeCause says. "Others won't."

There's a dazzling mind locked inside that uncooperative body and she has used it to earn three degrees - including a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and special education. The one-time art major has also used it to paint wild, surrealistic scenes - with her limp arm propped up on pillows and a paintbrush duct-taped to a dowel.

The life of a first-year teacher is a dizzying whirl of planning and teaching, planning and teaching - even if daily life is relatively simple. There's mastering the curriculum, writing each day's lesson plans, working on her "B game" - that bag of tricks waiting in the wings for when a day's lesson falls apart. For LeCause, little is simple.

Born without the use of her arms and legs, she has never known life any other way. She and her parents - her father raced horses and her mother was a restaurant hostess - lived in Freehold, N.J., where LeCause started out in kindergarten in the regular public school, just like her neighbors.

Her mother made sure she lived like the other little girls. She went to slumber parties, where her mother would come to help put her to bed. She went camping. When her friends turned 16, LeCause's mother taught them to drive her customized van so they could all hang out together around town. After LeCause graduated from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., she and friends drove cross-country to follow the Grateful Dead, sleeping in that van for two months.

Before LeCause decided to go back to school to earn a teaching degree, she worked for a center for independent living. The agency taught physically and mentally disabled people how to live in the world outside their nursing homes. She was struck by how afraid the clients were, how they lacked basic coping skills. She decided that as a schoolteacher she could help stem the fears at an early age and teach young people what she knows about independence.

She figured she would probably be teaching pupils like she was - bright but wheelchair-bound.

Instead she was offered this job. She says she worried at first. Could she handle kids who were much more mobile than she, who had serious needs and would require one-on-one attention?

"I could teach a child how to deal with being in a wheelchair," she says, speaking through a headset microphone that amplifies her soft voice. "I wasn't sure how I was going to be able to teach them to comb their hair or brush their teeth when I have people who do that for me. It really has worked out a lot better than I ever thought."

The kids help so much, she says.

During the first week of school, the class baked a cake. LeCause had to talk them through the process - but couldn't do any of it for them, as teachers are often tempted to do.

"When they were done, they were really proud because they really did bake the cake by themselves," she says.

"I would definitely take this class over any other class because they try harder than most kids."

Alicia G. Palmer is the special-education mentor teacher for schools in southeastern Baltimore County. On a recent afternoon, she observes LeCause's teaching, then offers the same advice she does to all her first-year charges.

"I think she demonstrates to the students how your disability doesn't have to be a disability," Palmer says. "It's not a big deal. She's just like any other teacher to them."

She is a living example of what the pupils can grow up to be, says Betsy Lanier, the teacher's assistant in LeCause's room.

"As they get older, they'll go back and remember everything they saw her do," Lanier says. "She's got a lot of determination and she has a lot of challenges she overcomes. I just love it. I think it's great she does it."

LeCause was determined to prove wrong those people who told her she shouldn't trouble herself with such a difficult career choice, who said she couldn't do it.

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