A terrified kid with a disability taught me two of my life’s most important lessons, even though he was the student and I was his teacher.
I was hired as a remedial tutor for kids with learning problems when I met the boy who’d come to mean so much to me. My bosses had discovered I had a knack for working with kids termed “difficult” cases. The ones no one thought would succeed, no matter how much discipline, care, attention, or elbow grease applied.
Autistic, handicapped, emotionally scarred
The ones often labeled autistic, handicapped, or emotionally scarred. I think I loved those kids because I was labeled as such in school, too. Though my label “gifted, weird nerd” was different, it damaged me still. Inside the class I succeded. Outside, life was hell. I could never connect with other kids. I was a social outcast, the unpopular, uncool, “brainiac girl,” in hand-me-downs who never got invited to birthday parties.
The kids even coined a phrase after me that meant a kid did something especially uncool or nerdy. It was known as, “pulling a Harvey.” The day I first overheard it tossed around in the schoolyard I wanted to crawl inside myself and die.
Fast forward to grown-up me in my first real job as a remedial tutor at a school for “special” kids. I was assigned to tutor a new kid named Stephen and read his giant file. Everyone (at least according to his file) said in their own way the kid was unteachable — and had a crazy mother. Apparently, she swore her son could speak, even though experts labeled him mute. Hence the “crazy,” label. Some experts recommended she get help, not her kid. Even the kid’s father had his doubts because he’d never heard his son, who was now 14, speak. Could this woman be abusing her son so much he refused to speak, I wondered? After I’d read her notes and letters in the file I thought no way. She sounded articulate, loving, but very stubborn and determined, qualities I admired in any woman. For despite years of being talked down to, judged, and ridiculed, this woman never wavered. Her son could speak, she swore.
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care? Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
The kid had been subjected to a frightening variety of medications and treatments, I thought. And he’d received a hodgepodge of labels and diagnoses. They began when the was a two-year-old “late talker,” was labeled autistic because he would not look at the examining psychologist.
Scribbler of nonsense squiggles
The day I was to meet my new student, the principal told me to expect Stephen to sit, cower and shudder, avoid eye contact and scribble nonsense squiggles. For about three weeks, he did what the file and principal said he would. So, I got permission to call his mother to meet for coffee.
I consider myself a bit of an expert on mothers called crazy. My own mom was wonderful, loving, and succeeded at many things in life. But she also lived with lifelong mental illness. Sometimes it got so bad, I had to sign her into what she called “the nuthouse.” In the end, her will for sanity always prevailed.
At the coffee shop, Stephen’s steely-eyed and elegant mom waited for me in a corner booth. It was the first week of October and I was struck by how her classy ensemble mirrored the flashes of red, orange, and yellow in the park across the street without looking the least bit “flashy.”
After about five minutes, I saw muted hope in her eyes when she realized she sat across from a person who thought she may be telling the truth about her kid. I asked about his routines, his loves, and his fears. She knew them all, as most mothers do.
Moved By a Love of Baseball
More than anything, she told me, her son loved baseball. It “moved” him, whether on TV or at a game. His baseball card collection was huge, she said, and he loved old-timers. Posters of pitchers, batters, all baseball stars, covered his bedroom walls. Either the woman was an exceptional fraud, or she was truthful, I thought. I decided I believed her.
In the next session with Stephen, I talked about baseball. He sat in the corner in the remedial tutoring room and cowered and rocked in his chair, while I pitched a few comments about batting averages. I wasn’t certain, but I could have sworn after I dropped a pencil and leaned down to get it, I caught a smirk on his face and he looked my way and rolled his eyes.
The next time together, I told him I played shortstop when I was about his age in a girl’s softball league. He smirked then. This time I was certain.
“Don’t smirk at me, some girls are better than boys at baseball,” I said.
Eye contact: the first step
For the first time, we made eye contact. He looked testy, but still, he didn’t speak. However, he did draw a crude picture of a baseball diamond with a stick-figure girl near the shortstop position, frowning.
When I next met him a new baseball cap was perched on my head. I’d also borrowed a baseball from my brother that Stephen examined. By the end of our session, Stephen had spelled out in primitive, shaky script, B-A-L-L. The tutorial rooms were long and narrow, about three by nine feet. At our next meeting we played catch.
Still, he did not talk. By then I knew this kid understood much more than the 68 indicated by his IQ score. Then I had a brainstorm. I grabbed Stephen by the shoulders, marched him to one end of the room, went back to the other end, and leaned over.
“Hey batter, batter,” I yelled. “Talk to me or you’re ow-u-owt!”
He grinned. Next, I yelled even louder, “Hello, Stephen. Strike one!”
He cupped his hands and yelled back, “Hello, teacher!” I could understand him but he had a hell of a speech impediment. Within a few weeks, he read baseball words off of flashcards. He brought his baseball cards in and talk about the statistics on them. I nodded. he made sense, I knew. I understood nothing. In time, I grew to love that kid but the next year, I left teaching to go back to university.
At term’s end, his mother gave me a book of Robert’s Browning poetry for a goodbye present, folded to the page with the poem, Andrea del Sarto. In bright blue, she’d underlined the words, “Speak as they please, what does the mountain care? Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
I did not see Stephen until about 10 years later while working as a journalist on my way back to file a story. He was on a downtown bus, coming home from a Blue Jays game. A group of young men about his age surrounded him and they talked, laughed, and kibitzed.
They did not look like your average kids, and I suspected he was still in some kind of program. I wish I could say his speech was clear, but it was hard to understand him. His friends did and obviously liked their loud and boisterous pal.
As I got off the bus, I turned for a last look. Stephen had seen me and waved as I heard him yell, “Bye, teacher.” My eyes teared up at the transformation. I’d played a small role on Stephen’s team, but his amazing mom had been the heavy hitter. And, of course, the star player was the boy, now a man, who still loved baseball.
The lessons Stephen taught me have stayed with me all my life. One is most times, people live up or down to expectations of them. The other? Labels stick, but if you peel them back, you’ll often they hide the truth about whomever or whatever they’re stuck to.