During those years, the average class size for a grade school teacher was 32-35 kids, with no teacher’s aides, rare parent volunteers (except for field trips and room mothers who threw the holiday parties) and no medications or special accommodations for ADHD or learning disabilities. I’m not sure how middle aged menopausal teachers coped with a room full of sometimes noisy unruly kids, but somehow they managed to teach in spite of the challenges. Adding in children with mental and physical handicaps without additional adult help must have been the final straw.
So the more capable kids got recruited to mentor the kids with disabilities. It was a way to keep smart kids busy who out of boredom might otherwise find themselves engaging in disruptive entertainment. It helped the teacher by creating a buddy system for the special needs kids who might need help with class work or who might have difficulty getting around.
I was assigned to Michael. He was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head, and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go. He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly as his thick orthopedic shoes with braces would trip him up. His hands were intermittently in a crab like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing. He drooled continuously so perpetually carried a Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers.
His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said. He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. He was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class and I was always impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about the tough road that had been dealt him. He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.
He wanted, more than anything, for the other boys to like him. He wanted to run like them, and throw a ball, and kick and wrestle in the dirt. But they gave Michael and his continuous string of spit wide berth, calling him “spas” and “retard”. So he was stuck with me at recess. I would make sure he safely got to the playground and back and didn’t get knocked over. He liked to just sit on the grass and watch the rest of the kids run and play. I rarely stayed beside him, but kept my eye out for him as he clapped and laughed at the boys’ games. He loved a good joke and his little body would shudder as he roared his appreciation.
There were many times when I resented being Michael’s buddy, emotionally crippled as I was in my prepubertal need to be popular and acceptable to my peers. I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and my friends teased me about him being my boyfriend. Even Michael figured he was my boyfriend and would blush bright red when he heard the teasing but still gave me flowery valentines with crooked lettering telling me how much he loved me.
I never ended up ditching him even though I wanted to. Every day when he’d arrive at school he’d call out my name in his loud indecipherable voice, as if I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility. Somehow I couldn't turn away from that call. He depended on me and I was his only friend, willing to be drooled on and willing to hold his kinked up spasmy hands as he balanced on his toes while walking.
Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once, not even when he fell down hard. When he got angry or frustrated, he’d get very quiet, but his muscles would tense up so much he would go into even greater spasms, sometimes literally jerking out of his chair from the force.
After two years, the social experiment was over and the school segregated the disabled kids back to special therapeutic classrooms and though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he'd written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant to be a free citizen. His speech was one of the top three award winners that year. I was so proud of how he'd done and how understandable his speaking voice had become.
I’ve thought of him frequently
over the years as I went on to medical school, knowing that my
initial training in compassionate care came as I sat by his
side, learning to understand his voice and his heart. I didn’t
appreciate it then as I do now, but he taught me far more than I
ever taught him: patience, perseverance and respect for the
journey rather than the destination. He taught me life isn't
always fair so you make the best of what you are given.
Michael, wherever you are, you did that for me. And in my own imperfect crippled way, I did love you too.