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Today’s Lesson? Different is OK

December 5, 2018

Fourth-grader Grace Martin tries out Drazin's hearing aid. Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LEOMINSTER -- Fourth-grader Richie Barnaby pressed one end of Sam Drazin’s hearing aid to his forehead Tuesday morning.

“Good morning Richie,” said two Johnny Appleseed Elementary School fourth-grade classes in unison.

Afterward Drazin asked what he noticed.

“It sounded, like, deeper,” Richie said.

The demonstration was a firsthand lesson in “differences,” the focus of a presentation Drazin has given to students around the country.

Drazin, now 31, was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that impacted his hearing and the growth of the bones in his face.

Five years ago he left his job as a third- and fifth-grade teacher in Bradford, Vermont, to speak at schools around the nation.

As a teacher of a student population that was becoming more and more diverse, Drazin said he realized students needed the opportunity and framework to talk about difference.

“The goal is we want students to become the agent of change for inclusivity in their communities,” he said. “And in order to do that we need to first say it’s OK to talk about it. We want you to talk about it.”

Drazin’s visit was funded through a grant from the Leominster Education Foundation secured by fourth-grade teacher Tina Lelli to promote kindness. The grant was also used to purchase all fourth-graders copies of “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio, a book about a boy with the same facial difference as Drazin.

As part of the grant’s initiative, students suggest ways to be kind on morning announcements. According to Lelli, throughout the year students will participate in community initiatives like writing letters to first responders or taking collections for a nursing home.

“I think it’s important, too, for kids to recognize there are people different in this world,” said guidance counselor Katie Gingras. “The younger they accept and realize they have the tools to be able to accept others the more successful they’ll be when they’re in the real world.”

Drazin spoke to the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders before visiting with fourth-grade classes in smaller sessions.

He described growing up with a facial difference, including seven surgeries he underwent as a child and young adult.

The first five used cartilage from his ribs to shape his ears. He was born without an ear canal so he uses a special hearing aid that transforms sounds into vibrations.

Drazin also underwent surgery to reduce the size of his nose and reshape his receded chin. The chin surgery was the most painful of the seven and it required his mouth to be wired shut while he recovered

“After a week of just having milkshakes and blended up ice cream for lunch, for breakfast and for dinner I was getting kind of bored of that,” he said.

Drazin described experimenting with macaroni and cheese or spaghetti and meatballs smoothies.

Socially, he said he was never bullied to his face, but lost a lot of friends around seventh grade.

In the question-and-answer session, students asked him everything from his favorite food to what his younger sister thought about his facial difference. Students also shared anecdotes about their own or siblings’ experiences undergoing surgeries.

Drazin left the students with a message.

“In sharing my story, I hope you think about kindness and being inclusive of everybody,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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