Feature Teacher Article in "The Element"

Issue 1, Volume 4, October, 2009

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Karen Tompkins

Name: Karen Tompkins
School: Century Secondary
Specialty: Grade 9 English
Teaching Experience: 20 years
Attended School: F.J. Brennan H.S.
University: University of Windsor
Favorite Saying: “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another." —
Desmond Tutu

Karen Tompkins is in her first year teaching at Century Secondary School. It’s a different kind of placement
for her after spending most of her career at Essex District High School. Among the changes is a switch from teaching Drama to Grade 9 English.

But Karen understands different. “Different is just different. It’s not better or worse,” she says. It’s also the title of her second book, a wonderfully illustrated and poingant children’s book
inspired by a question from her daughter.

Shoo Bear demonstrates how people are different in all sort of ways Karen’s daughter Erin lives with Joubert Syndrome, a rare brain malformation characterized by the absence or underdevelopment of the area of the brain that controls balance and coordination. After school one day she asked her mom, “Why did God make me different?”

Karen has no issue with making her response so public. “I’m a teacher. Writing is just an extension of the lesson.”
Different is Just Different is Karen’s second publication. She also wrote Purple Stew or My Kid’s Got What? which is a collection of stories from and about people with Joubert
Syndrome. Greater acceptance for everybody is what Karen hopes will be the legacy of her latest book.

“Especially for people with invisible differences,” she says.

Different is Just Different is
published by Walkerville Publishing.
Artist Karen Morand is responsible for all the illustrations. For more information visit

Article in The Windsor Star

January 26, 2010

Link to The Windsor Star Article HERE

Disabled daughter inspires children's book

By Marty Gervais, The Windsor Star
Article Photo

Erin is almost 17. She doesn't have any friends. At school, she sits in the cafeteria on her own and eats her lunch.

It isn't that she keeps to herself. Not purposely anyway. She'd like to have friends. She'd like to hang out, have someone telephone her at night, and gab and laugh and cry with, someone who might stop by to see her, someone to share her life.

In a way, it's fine.

Erin comes home after school, telephones her father and lets him know she's there and she's safe.

It's not that she's anti-social. It's not that she goes out of her way to avoid people. That's not Erin. It's just the way things are.

Erin, currently in Essex high school's STEPS program (Skills To Enhance Personal Success), is different.

She has Joubert syndrome, a rare genetic disorder affecting the area of the brain that controls balance and co-ordination. She is a girl with learning disabilities and autistic-like qualities that make social interaction difficult.

But in saying Erin is different, her mother, Karen Tompkins, insists, "Different is just different. It's not good or bad. It is what it is."

That, and a remark Erin made to her mother at eight years old, is what resulted in the illustrated children's book Different Is Just Different, published by Walkerville Press.

What happened nearly nine years ago was that out of the blue, Erin asked, "Why did God make me different?"

For nine years, Tompkins, a Century high school teacher, has struggled with that innocent question.

It brings her back to the day her daughter was born: "She entered the world and was perfect."

In Tompkins' mind, nothing has changed. Erin may be afflicted with this syndrome, and it has been trying, but the glow of that first moment when her daughter was placed on her stomach in the delivery room, the baby "sang a cute little 'ah' with her first exhale."

By the morning after her birth, however, she discovered there was a problem with Erin's breathing, and over the next few days, with the complications that began to arise, her mind swarmed with the worry that perhaps her daughter might not live.

Thus began the journey in discovering the syndrome that Erin has.

The harsh truth still remains with Tompkins that while Erin may be a child of "special needs," every child has their own peculiar identity, their own way of coping and their own way of dealing with the world.

Erin is all of that. And she opened her mother's eyes to that truth. But it took some time for that to sink in.

At first, Tompkins grieved that this was "the child that wasn't."

Erin wasn't "the ideal" that she carried for nine months in the womb.

What Tompkins came to accept was that "children are their own people.

"Even in the womb, they move when they want to, not when it is convenient for you."

It took time and all the doubts and concerns that plagued her made her question if she could cope with a child of special needs.

At one point, Tompkins confessed, "I didn't do anything to deserve Erin, no matter if I thought she was a gift or a punishment."

It took time. It took patience. It took opening her eyes to see what a gift this girl was.

For years, Tompkins rolled that question around in her mind, the question about Erin being different.

"When she asked me that, I hugged her and cried. I didn't know how to fix it."

Tompkins feels badly for her daughter, but the truth is she really has no social life, other than what takes place in their home. Beyond that, she has no friends.

"No one invites her over and she doesn't get any birthday invitations," Tompkins said.

In a way, it's sad, but what helps Erin is daily routine. She clings to it for survival, and by the end of the day, she is ready for bed.

Tompkins wrote this book to draw attention to people like Erin. She was its inspiration. She is the voice behind the message. And the message is clear: Be open to differences and accept them.

As one writer says on the book's back cover, Tompkins' story will be a "springboard to spark conversation among young children about hidden differences within us all."

It's about time.

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