FALMOUTH — Twenty third-grade students from Falmouth Elementary School paired off for something a little different recently: A staring contest.
For 30 seconds, the students stood in the middle of the classroom and stared deeply at one another while trying to stifle giggles and the urge to look away.
The exercise was part of a lesson to raise awareness about the experiences of people with disabilities and to reduce bullying. The 1 1/2-hour presentation was held in Jean Coppinger’s class on Nov. 6, and was provided by The Cromwell Center, a nonprofit organization that conducts similar lessons throughout southern Maine.
“How did it feel to be stared at?”asked Dede Bennell, a program leader for The Cromwell Center.
Awkward, weird and embarrassing, the students replied.
The Cromwell Center was founded in 2003 by the father of a child with Down syndrome. It takes its name from the late Jeremiah Cromwell, a boy who was institutionalized at The Maine School for the Feeble Minded; he died in 1928 at age 14 of appendicitis and was buried in an unmarked grave for 30 years.
The reasons for Cromwell’s institutionalization are unknown, “but we do know that his life and death were similar to hundreds of thousands of disabled children and adults who were confined to institutions throughout the United States over a 100-year period,” according to the center’s website. “The Cromwell Center is dedicated to the purpose that no person with any kind of disability will ever again experience the profound isolation in life and anonymity at death of Jeremiah Cromwell.”
About 56 million Americans have a disability, the largest minority group in the country.
Susan Greenwood, director of The Cromwell Center, said the lessons are held throughout the school year in York and Cumberland counties, plus some western Maine towns and as far north as Bangor.
The center has developed separate curricula for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, she said. Any younger, and the shorter attention spans create challenges; any older, and problems may have already begun.
“If you haven’t started the work by then,” she said, “it’s a little more difficult.
The Falmouth class was attended by a third-grader with Down syndrome: Olivia, whose mother, Maura McDermott, has 16 years experience as a special education teacher at school districts in Portland, Saco and Florida.
McDermott said her daughter isn’t aware of her disability, but she has been bullied, especially on the school bus. In one incident, one of Olivia’s mittens was taken from her and thrown out a window.
McDermott said she has seen the Cromwell lesson in action as a teacher, and she knows it was worthwhile for her daughter.
“It creates an awareness, and that’s the first step,” she said. “I think there are always going to be kids that are more open to children with disabilities, but I think this gives the children who are not as open a place to start.”
Dede Bennell, a program leader for The Cromwell Center, instructs a third-grade class at Falmouth Elementary School on disabilities awareness in an effort to reduce bullying and foster inclusion.