During recess, Wendy Cote, a second-grader, feeds John Baker a banana, as he cannot feed himself. Later, two second-graders, one on each side, pull John into a circle during their music period. They no longer notice his crippled hands and arms, and pull him gently back and forth to the music, his feet exhibiting the barest shuffle.
John is part of an experiment to see if a select group of the most severely handicapped children (kids in diapers with IQs less than 25 who can't talk and some, like john, partly crippled) can be mainstreamed into regular public school classrooms, not for a couple of minutes each day for such neutral subjects as art or gym, but all day, all week, except for a morning at a YWCA pool in Bangor , 13 miles away.
Federally mandated programs for the handicapped have met resistance in some places, but not in Bradley, which has a population of 1,000. when the program was introduced last year, it was put before a town meeting and approved unanimously. During the meeting, a few residents got up to give personal testimony to the neglect of handicapped people which some felt had been experienced by members of their own families.
The program, admittedly, is expensive, requiring the services of a special-education teacher and an assistant to take charge of the program and to help the staff of the Viola rand School adjust to these special students.
But it shows that even the most severely handicapped children can benefit from exposure to normal children, says Carolee Mountcastle, public school coordinator for the Multiple Handicapped Center of Penobscot Valley, a private school in Bangor enrolling severely handicapped adults and children from the area.
Instead of being the butt of jokes or a distraction, the children have added a new dimension to the education at the school, says Michael Cormier, teaching principal. And as further evidence of the success of the program he notes that there has not been a single parent complaint about the kids' detracting from the education of the other students.
Down the hall from John's second grade classroom, Mary Jane, 14, is sitting with Tracy Trask, an eight-grader who enjoys working and playing with her. They are holding hands and laughing at a joke. Later, Tracy helps Mary Jane place pegs in a board to improve her dexterity. Occasionally she wipes Mary Jane's chin with a towel. no one seems to notice an occasional yelp or other bizarre behavior from Mary Jane, who, according to both the kids and the teachers, is "acting a lot better than when she first came to the class."
Mary Jane has made tremendous progress, says Judith Rosen, a junior high teacher at the school, because she is no longer being "taught to be retarded" by solitary exposure to other retarded children. She is now toilet-trained and can do simple tasks such as feeding herself lunch and opening doors. Instead of hugging or hitting people to show affection, she uses a hand sign which the other kids recognize.
Fourth-grader Tracy notes, "These kids are no different than we are except they are slower."
And Jennifer Petry, another eight-grader: "It gives us a chance to see what other types of people are like and it makes us treat other people better."
Mr. Cormier says his teachers have accepted the new kids enthusiastically, although two or three still feel uncomfortable about having them in their classrooms, so the program is voluntary.
As for himself, he humbly admits to his refusal a year ago to entering the adolescent quarters at the group home in Bangor where some of the handicapped children reside because he was afraid of what he might see.And, proud of the way the students in his school have accepted the four youngsters, he says, "I think they are far ahead of me."