I was born with what the doctors labeled Cerebral Palsy. I wore leg braces. I was, for a while, in special ed. I had adults assume my limp defined me, that my leg braces were everything. I can say first hand, that despite the most apparent thing about someone with a disability is their disability, it is hardly the thing that should define us.
I began working with special needs kids in middle school. The bus took us once a week to their school and I cherished that time more than anything. When I was 21, I worked at an after school program while in college. There, I met Tony and worked with him for 2 years. Needless to say, he made a huge impact on me, and this essay is largely about what he taught me during our time together.
A year after finishing college, I worked in a group home. After graduate school I returned to working with special needs kids in a middle school for 3 years before having to leave to for a teaching job. I have fond memories of each job and the amazing kids we helped out. Tony is one of the strongest memories and one of the kindest souls one could ever meet. This was many years ago now and now, as a professor, I am no longer working in after school programs and group homes. But the joys and challenges of working with specially-abled children is as vivid now as it was then.
Tony got off the small yellow bus with the biggest smile. He pointed at his clearly crooked hair cut to show us how darn crooked it was and how hilarious it looked. Tony was 15 and mostly non-verbal but as expressive and caring a soul as one will be lucky to meet in this life. His smile lit up any day. He loved to watch us on our lunch break and would point excitedly at a sandwich or bowl of ramen and ask Mayo? We would smile and say not today to which he would nod and say one last time Mayooo! He would smile and walk off to an activity or to rest as he had been born with many complications including knee issues that forced him to sit frequently.
Sometimes listening is a kind of speaking
There were days when Tony got frustrated. New hires had to be reminded to be patient and to let him rest, and, perhaps most importantly, that mayonnaise did not need to be inserted into his jello snack.
One challenging day I came to work, weighed down with thoughts of my mom gravely ill with complications from her long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. The stress got rough when the afternoon was nearing its end and some of the kids were not getting along while we played basketball and board games. As I sat watching the basketball game on a break, a sweet non-verbal boy named Jose, who was Tony’s best friend, walked past and placed his headphones on my ears and his walkman my hand. It was a sweet ballad in Spanish and he grinned slightly as he walked on. Tony looked at me and shook my hand. The moment was incredible. Jose saw something in my tension and gave a perfect gift. Tony read it too and had the most serious and caring look as he shook my hand.
All communication is not made up of words and voices. We were there for each other.
Tony often helped other kids when they were not having a good day. Jose did as well. Tony loved to see a photo or map and ask, You go there? He would beam when there was a story behind it. He even helped others when his body was acting up and his legs were not wanting to walk much that day.
Jose could say the perfect thing with music or a helping hand when others needed help. Tony and Jose were teachers in many ways. This was undeniable.
It was so hard when the job downsized and it was time to move on. On my last day, Tony showed me his favorite basketball player’s card and a tree that I never noticed that had a limb that looked like a finger pointing skyward. I put mayo in my soup that day.
Years later I worked at a group home. There, a boy named Matt always carried a small net from a fish tank to collect leaves when he went on walks. Matt was mostly non-verbal but told his aide that he knew the moon rested when the sun took over and that it likely napped in bushes in the warmth of the day. Matt wanted to catch the moon. He had his net ready and swore he would be the moon’s friend. He said he would feed the moon milk and let it sleep until it was time for its shift.
I mostly worked with Chris though. Chris, who at 15, loved to make storyboards with us for films he imagined. He was a challenge for many as he bristled at sound or movements happening in other rooms and would get upset. We made art together between his chores and reading time. It calmed him down and he thoughtfully waved goodbye to us at the end of each day.
I worked for several more years with an autistic middle school class. I was a teaching assistant (TA) to an amazing teacher with a Masters in Art History and one in Teaching special needs courses. I had one student then that had a thing for folding his classwork corners into origami. He told me one day, between his classes, how he had an idea for a 3d TV and how we should inject diseases to develop immunity. He was 13. We are still in touch and his family is dear to me. He now is a student at Cal State Northridge and makes music.
One day, his class was on a special field trip to go bowling. A man came up to me and shook my hand. He smiled and said no words. It was Tony. He smiled and proudly showed me his bus pass. Eight years had passed and he was now in an adult program that was out bowling that day at the other end of the bowling alley. He shook my hand one more time and another familiar face from the basketball days waved to me. Time kind of stopped for a moment, as it does sometimes, a moment that was just too rich in detail and clarity.
Teaching is about helping, a selfless caring for others no matter if it is college or basketball tips on layups. There does not need always to be a lot of words (I say this as an English Professor). It is more about seeing individuals, working with who they are, sensing, in moments, what they are experiencing and what they may need. Pedagogy can be as dense or as light as understanding a smiling face asking about mayo in your beef soup.
Jeremy Hight is a professor of English and Creative Writing and is proud to have a text and image work in the Whitney Museum. He writes prose, poetry and critical theory and lives with his loving wife Lisa in Los Angeles. He worked with special needs children for 20 years and loved just about every minute of it.