Thursday, June 17, 2010

`They Understand All Too Well'

I’m in class for the final three hours and fifteen minutes of the school year today. We’ll be vacuuming and disinfecting our special-education room, ridding the refrigerator of forgotten lunches, stripping posters from the walls and stowing toys and electronic gear in cupboards for the summer. This is the work performed by teachers and staff out of the presence of students, who probably don’t even suspect it has to be done. My schoolday memories remain vivid so I feel like a playgoer chosen to stand backstage and watch the artifice dismantled.

Wednesday was the final day for the kids at our high school. The girl I’ve worked with for four months, who turned nineteen on Tuesday, I won’t see again until late in August when school resumes. She was giddy and bouncy all day, prompting teachers who don’t know her to say, “Isn’t she happy! What a happy girl!” but we know laughter means she’s due for another seizure, perhaps as early as this morning. It’s difficult to watch portents of devastating neural explosions mistaken for happiness, and I don’t even try to explain.

My last sight of my student was in her seat on the school bus. I had fastened her harness and buckled her safety belt, rubbed her head, squeezed her shoulder and hoped for the best. I turned while stepping down to the sidewalk and saw she had lowered her head to her chest. She was crying softly and I walked up the hill and back to my car.

“Unfortunately, children do not always want to understand, though sometimes, when one would prefer that they didn’t, they understand all too well.”

A long time ago I copied into a notebook a sentence from one of the fairy tale-like stories, “The Problem Child,” William Maxwell published in The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing (1966).

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