Today’s post is written by my friend, Emalie. She is a great storyteller and teacher. I’ve learned much from her; she was by my side when I walked through some dark days.
Through the Eyes of a Child or What Constitutes Trouble
I’ve always been a talented eavesdropper.
I gleaned so much information while driving my children and grandchildren around. I listened to the details of the day given to one another in the back seat on the way home from school or church.
From kindergarten on, Elizabeth often spoke affectionately of her lunch companions. The cast of characters was quite stable. Anna, Hannah, Joe, Brody, and Charlie. They shared many pleasant lunches together, rarely in trouble, and often perplexed by adults around them. They shared a healthy respect and fear of the lunchroom supervisor, our neighbor, Mrs. Wooly, who brought you the things you forgot to pick up when you went through the line, although, with some mild scolding for most offenses. Stern scolding for other sins. She kept straws and napkins in her apron pocket, so that wasn’t much of a problem. Milk, however. Don’t forget your milk.
I had known a couple of Elizabeth’s friends’ families. The others were known to me only by her daily reports. At PTA meetings and on musical performance nights, I looked forward to putting names and faces together, and to meeting families.
On the night of the second grade musical program, I was eager to hear Elizabeth sing in a trio and to meet more of her friends and their families. The second graders filed in to the risers with practiced perfection. We all spotted our own, and they spotted us in the audience. Low key waving is permitted to acknowledge that we see you, and that we are present for the concert. We belong to each other.
After the group appeared to be set to begin, there was a pause. During the hush, two teachers emerged from the wings, with one little boy, smaller than most of the others. Each teacher was holding one hand firmly. They aimed for a safe contained spot with three chairs, three steps from the wings on the stage. Their charge had other ideas. He strained and prevailed in dragging his minders to the far side of the stage, whereupon he sat down on the floor of the stage between the already frazzled teachers. These safeguarding teachers glanced tentatively at the music teacher. She smiled and raised her baton to begin. The rest of us might have been caught up in this little drama. But the second graders never took their eyes off of their director. And their director was calling them to attention. The two teachers released his hands, and the program launched.
I was intrigued with this little fellow. I wondered who he might be. What kind of class was he in? He clapped, more or less in time to the music. The children rendered a rousing chorus of “Polly Wolly Doodle,” during which, he removed a shoe, and held it in his lap, examining its innards. The children finished the first song to wild applause. The music teacher lightly rapped the podium to prepare for the second number. In the two seconds of silence, our little hero threw his shoe into the audience. The audience gasped, but not one child on the stage blinked. His teachers exchanged glances. He returned to smiling and clapping. “Oh, Lil’ Liza, Lil’ Liza Jane!” Beautiful. The music teacher never flinched.
During the next number, “This Old Man,” our protagonist saw his chance, and he seized it. Quick as lightning, he was up and into the third row of the risers with two frantic teachers trying to reach through the other second graders without knocking them off the risers. In the audience, we couldn’t see him, but we knew exactly where he was, because as he wove through the choir, his friends would move ever so slightly, up, right, left, or down, to let him by, all the time keeping their eyes on the director, and singing with gusto. His teachers decided to wait for their chance, one standing ready at each end of the risers, poised for an opportunity to nab him as he neared the end of a row. We could see he was wise to their efforts weaving through the middle of the assembled children.
The music teacher directed the singers with great enthusiasm, and they were completely in her thrall. At the last note, one of the teachers, dove into the third row, grabbed him, and emerged with him in both hands, her coiffeur now quite wild and free. In an instant her partner was at her side, and they began gently, but firmly guiding their charge, attempting an exit stage left. The music teacher rushed over to intervene. There was a hushed conversation among the three teachers where everyone clearly relaxed and during which he took is original assigned chair, as if that was all he ever wanted to do. His teachers smiled, weary, but visibly relieved, shaking their heads. They returned to their original assigned seats on each side of him. The music teacher returned to the podium and signaled for the next number.
The recent fugitive was in a trio, and they were to perform next. When it was his group’s turn to come forward, his two fellow performers collected him from his chair and walked forward to the microphone with him. He was calm and relaxed. His responsibility during this number was to lead us in clapping on cue. We were delighted to comply. After their triumphant performance, his companions walked him back to his chair between his two teachers, where he sat, gracefully appreciative of the applause.
After the performance, we were eating at Shoney’s to celebrate the rave reviews and Elizabeth’s trio’s brilliant rendition of, “I’m An Old Cow Hand.” I asked her about the evening.
“Who was the little guy having so much trouble?”
“Who, Jimmy? Jimmy had his shirt buttoned funny.”
“No, I know Jimmy. This was a little guy, and he was really having trouble.”
“Martin? Martin has laryngitis.”
“No, I know Martin. Who was the little boy who threw his shoe into the audience?”
Long puzzled look.
“That was Charlie, but Charlie wasn’t having any trouble tonight.”
I was astonished. In all my eavesdropping, I had heard Charlie’s name almost every day. I had never, in all the stories of lunch and the playground and the classroom, ever formed a picture of a child with a disability. Not once.
But I began to pay closer attention. I continued to hear about spills, straws, tilted lunch trays, and Mrs. Wooly’s more or less patient interventions. I still didn’t hear a word that made anyone sound like their difficulties stood out from the crowd.
One day, I was half listening to the lunchroom diary when I heard Elizabeth say, “Charlie is just mental.”
“Elizabeth, what did you say about Charlie?”
“I said he’s mental.”
“Mental?” I was choked. “Why would you say that?”
“Yeah. Charlie doesn’t like cheese. Don’t you think that’s mental?”
“Ah. I see.”
So the unusual thing about Elizabeth’s friend, Charlie, is that he doesn’t like cheese.”