‘Thought I was the only one’: Mead student, teacher bond over limb difference

MEAD, Wash. – A second-grader at Brentwood Elementary is learning important lessons.

It’s not only about the things eight-year-old Raegan Justesen is learning in a textbook but in life.

Leah Kaplan is an Intervention Specialist at Brentwood Elementary. This is her first year teaching at an elementary school, and she met Raegan at the beginning of the school year.

The bond they share is a bit different than the average teacher-student dynamic. Raegan can’t learn from many other teachers as she can with Kaplan.

“A little sad because I was, like, the only one, or I thought so,” Raegan said. “Once I saw her, I was, ‘yay.'”

One day walking down the hall of Brentwood Elementary, Raegan saw something that made her excited: someone like her.

“She kind of was like, ‘Oh, hey’ and waved her arm. I was like ‘Oh,’ and I was like, so surprised to see a person with no arm. At first, I thought I was the only one,” Raegan said of seeing Kaplan.

Both Kaplan and Raegan are differently-abled, as Kaplan would say. They both were born with one arm.

“I’m very fortunate that I was born with this because I had parents who really encouraged me to embrace my disability. But also, they took to me a lot of events with people with disabilities as well. That was really helpful because I got to see people I could look up to one day and see that, ‘Oh, these people are, they can have a normal job, maybe I can, too,'” Kaplan said, adding that she was adopted at six years old.

Now, Raegan has someone she can look up to in the same way.

Already, Kaplan helped Raegan learn how to tie a shoe and braid her hair with just one arm. However, there are tough questions Kaplan is answering for her others can’t.

“I’ll mention my arm first. I’ll mention the elephant in the room before you can. I’m teaching Reagan that right now. Like, ‘Reagan, you know it’s okay to kind of joke about it. Don’t let someone stare at you.’ Because she was asking me about it,” she said. “I told her, ‘Just stare back, you know. You don’t have to be mean. It’s uncomfortable when someone stares at you, too, and you can also have fun with it. It doesn’t have to be a shameful thing.'”

While Kaplan is not Raegan’s second-grade teacher, she’s only a few doors down from her.

“Ever since then, we always say hi to each other in the hallway. She’s always taking her nub out in the hallway,” Kaplan said.

“I call it a nubbin,” Raegan added, talking about her arm. “I kind of call it nubby sometimes. I think Ms. Kaplan calls it a paw sometimes.”

These two have a special bond; one where Kaplan can help Raegan understand and adjust.

“All of this is new for both of us, but I think it was all meant to be,” Kaplan said. 

In addition to the life lessons, Kaplan also gave Raegan an adaptive bike. Kaplan wants to go to the 2024 Paralympics and is participates in a few sports. She outgrew a bike and planned to throw it away, then she remembered Raegan and ended up giving it to her.

The bike is adapted for someone with one hand, so the shift, gears and brakes are controlled on one side. The handlebars are uneven, too, so that the arm that’s shorter can rest, rather than the rider needing to bend down even further.

“Raegan was just over the moon about the bike. It was really emotional for me because I just was like, this makes me really happy,” Kaplan said.

Both Kaplan and Raegan were interviewed by Good Morning America after their story was found on Kaplan’s Instagram. Since then, Kaplan says they’ve received an outpouring of support and thanks for sharing their story.

In sharing her story, Kaplan hopes it will help others who are differently-abled and struggling.

“I had a really hard time growing up with it for sure. Because I’m also Asian, that, I would say, there were times where I just felt so ugly,” she said. “There were some people who literally said to me, ‘I would date you, but you have one arm.’ That was so hard for me… I just remember dreaming of growing up and, ‘I can’t wait to be a grownup, everyone will stop making fun of me.’ Then, I realized, ‘You know what, who cares… I have a great personality, and I’m going to do something big one day.’ I decided to take that with me in order to survive.”