A Gift

Kathy Bates

“To have joy, one must share it. Happiness was born a twin.” - Lord Byron

I began my freshman year at Somersworth High School in 1976. The magnet school was the only public school open to students with disabilities in the general area. Luckily, it was my neighborhood school. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, PL 94-142, had just been passed in 1975, so educating students with disabilities was new to many of my teachers. They didn’t know what to expect and sometimes their nervousness made me uncomfortable. Although it took them a while to treat me like any other student, my high school experience was typical in many ways. My days were filled with things like algebra, biology, American literature, the yearbook, French club, school dances, football, and basketball games. I expected to work hard and be busy in high school. It wasn’t just that I wanted a full high school experience because I had college in mind; I was also just a kid.

Meeting Mr. Labbe was unexpected. I never thought he would ask me if I wanted to go horseback riding. My two brothers played football and basketball, and he was the coach. It turns out Mr. Labbe was full of surprises. During his twenty-year career at Somersworth High School, Ed Labbe had several jobs. He was a teacher, the athletic director, and a coach. He was also the driver’s education instructor for a few years. One day he just came up to me and asked if I wanted to go horseback riding with his daughter, Sheryl. She sat behind me on the horse, and we headed towards the football field. When we got there, the horse got excited and Sheryl made him gallop. I loved it. Having the opportunity to ride out in front of the school on the football field let other students rethink what it meant to be disabled. People would stop me in the hallway and say that I looked like I was having a blast out there. Sheryl and I went horseback riding a few more times that fall. It looked like Mr. Labbe enjoyed watching us have fun.

For the life of me, I don't remember what that horse’s name was, but here’s what I do remember. It was Christmas morning, and my family had just finished opening presents when we heard the faint sound of jingle bells outside. Before I knew what was happening, Mr. Labbe was at the door asking if I wanted to go for a ride. I remember being a little shocked and thankful that I wasn’t in my pjs. I immediately said yes. I was both excited and nervous at the same time because I had never been horseback riding in the snow before.

When I got outside, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The horse had a full rack of antlers tied to his head and jingle bells around his neck. My dad put me on the horse and Mr. Labbe sat behind me. I remember asking him if the antlers were hurting the horse. I was a little bit embarrassed to be riding around on a horse that looked just like Max the dog from The Grinch, and the horse didn’t really look that happy. Mr. Labbe said, “Nah, he’s fine.” So off we went.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I didn’t get to take walks very often in the winter. I enjoyed seeing everything from a higher point of view; it’s amazing how much more you can see from up there. We went all around my neighborhood, even up High Street. The cars were slowing down and people were stopping to watch us—we were quite the sight. Watching the expressions on everyone’s faces made me laugh. This was something I would never forget.

The kindness towards me from Sheryl and her dad made it easier to feel accepted by teachers and students alike. You never know what a simple act of kindness will do.