Until a week ago, all of my substitute teaching assignments were at junior and senior high schools. I had avoided going to elementary schools because I questioned whether I could do that. You know, being surrounded by all those little kids. But last Friday, I took a job as a substitute for an aide in what was billed as a first grade class. I figured that would be a safe introduction to the elementary school classroom.
When I arrived at the school, I was asked to ride a bus that would pick up students. The driver, Carol, a typical elementary school bus driver if there ever was one, informed me that we would be picking up some special needs kids, including a little boy named Riley who is diabetic (and who looked very much like the boy pictured above).
Along the way to our first pick-up, Carol and I chatted. I told her that this was my first time subbing at an elementary school. She naturally assumed that I was a teacher. As these things typically go, however, it eventually came out that I used to be an attorney, that I had lost my job in the Great Recession, and that I was now substitute teaching. I forced myself to say these things and to be positive, not ashamed, about them. It felt good, and it was another one of those experiences when I realized how much I had identified myself as a lawyer, and how much value and self-respect I had invested in that identity.
It didn't occur to me at the time (but it later became apparent) that Carol would then take this juicy piece of gossip (about me being a lawyer) back to the school secretary, who would then tell others, etc. This became apparent later in the day when the teacher for whom I was an aide came up to me during a quiet moment in the classroom and said, "So, the secretary says you're new at this kind of thing."
When Carol picked up our first student, Riley, a third grader, I could see that he was also Down's. (Good grief, I just remembered the name we used to call children like him back in the dark ages when I was a child: "mongoloid." What an awful word!) But Riley quickly captured my heart. He asked my name and I told him, "Joseph." He smiled and said, "Jospheth, that's a nice name." He then proceeded to call me "Jospheth" for the rest of the trip, telling me all about his toys, his house, his family, his favorite subjects, etc., etc.
We picked up several other children and headed back to the school where I learned that I was going to sub for an aide in a special needs class of 1st and 2nd graders. It was an amazing few hours. I learned about Carol, a little girl who used to be scared to death of pine cones. She would not go to a park or anywhere else where there could be pine cones. But her teacher had worked with her throughout the year, and now Carol *loves* pine cones. In fact, she now collects them. The morning I was there, her teacher had brought her a couple of new ones to add to her collection.
Then there was little Landon, a cute little blonde-haired boy with a buzz cut. For some reason, he took a liking to me. By the time I took the kids out to recess after their lunch, he was coming up to me periodically and hugging me. Then, when the bell rang, he ran up to me and took my hand as we walked back to the school. I had to be careful about these things. We have been instructed not to do "frontal" hugs, but "side hugs," and any physical contact is to be avoided. Of course, you can't explain that to a little boy with special needs who was obviously starved for affection. I had earlier heard him talk about his mom's "friend," and imagined that his father was not part of his life.
Another little boy that captured my heart was Lance. It became apparent during the course of the class that the teacher and the other aide didn't really like him; or so it seemed to me. But he exuded innocence. My heart went out to him and a couple of the other boys who got into serious major trouble after the noon recess when another boy, Charley, tattled on them.
Charley was an exuberant boy, bigger than the others, and obviously a favorite of the teacher. That day, he was wearing a pair of warm-up pants that were about 4 sizes too big for him. As he was playing out on the playground, his pants kept falling down and you could clearly see his red underwear most of the time. I had already noticed that Charley was a bit of a tattle-tale, and I was dismayed when, as soon as recess was over, he ran up to his teacher and told her that three of the other boys had pulled down his pants. She freaked. Both Lance and Landon incurred her wrath. I wanted to say something, but felt that wasn't my place and that I would embarrass the teacher after she had already lost it.
Later in the afternoon, Lance was made to sit by himself to finish the homework he was supposed to have done. He kept sitting there, staring into space, then down at his paper, his forehead resting on his hand, saying in a plaintive voice, "I need somebody to help me." He said it over and over again. I asked the teacher whether I should help him. She replied that he could do it on his own. Meanwhile, Lance continued his mournful "I need someone to help me."
The day was finished off with all of the kids sitting at a table and playing with the teacher's snails. All except Lance, that is. Finally, he was able to come sit with the others. He said he needed some lettuce to feed his snails. All the other kids had been given a piece of lettuce. But before the teacher could give him some, Charley said that Lance's snails could eat some of his lettuce. Lance was so grateful, and Charley announced that Lance was his friend.
The final touching moment came as I was standing outside with the kids, getting ready to board the bus. Lance came up to Charley and gave him a hug and said, "Thank you for sharing your lettuce with me." How beautiful was that?