Yesterday was my first day of subbing as a paraprofessional in a class of four autistic children ages eleven and twelve. I took the job because it runs through the end of the semester, a week from now, and I have yet to hear anything concrete from all the things I have floating up in the air. When I arrived, for a moment, I thought they were sending me to assist with the alternative kids, the assholes, that can't keep their mouths shut long enough to hear the conductor saying, "Train leaving for Loserville! Boarding begins in 5 minutes!" I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best, at least this way I could simply, "keep it real".
Instead, I walked into a room with pictures taped on every surface. Pictures of what goes in the cabinets, pictures which tell you to close the bathroom door, arrows that were moved to show where the students were, and so on. The classroom included two large rooms and a kitchen. I wasn't sure what to think, until I looked at one of the little boys who wouldn't stop clapping his hands. I had never wanted to do special ed, not because of the special, but because I'm not qualified to deal with children that have special needs, hell, I'm not really qualified to teach anything but creative writing, and that's for people that pay to be there, but I since I was only assisting I thought, "Okay, I can do this."
The kids themselves look normal upon first glance, but little ticks give them away if you're in their presence for longer than a few minutes. Three of the boys don't talk, non-verbal, one Nicholas, is the most severe and he simply stares at upside down books and turns his head as you talk to him.
Yesterday though, I thought, "I can do this." I took in all the signs on the wall that said things like "Sensory", and "Rest Area" and made it through the day. It's only till next Wednesday I thought. Today, though, today was different. I played with Hector, non-verbal. We played in a make shift sand box filled with red sand and tiny Tonka cars that he simply shook off and shoved to the side. Instead he stuck his hand in the sand and when he saw the grains running out of my hand he placed his hand underneath and stared at me. The sand was cool to the touch, the way sand is, for him it seemed to be especially great. When I rubbed my hand on top of his so he could feel the grainy touch, the teacher looked up surprised, "Wow, Hector, you're letting her touch your fingers." He simply went back to what he was doing and I tried not to get too happy. I will only know Hector for a week.
For lunch we take the boys to the cafeteria earlier than the others kids, and I sit with Nicholas and one of the other boys. I talk to them, I want to believe they know what I'm saying, "Mmmm you guys are having spaghetti for lunch. Do you like spaghetti Nicholas?" He looks at me with light brown eyes against brown skin, they are striking against his dark lashes, he hasn't looked at me before, and I'm surprised by the knowing expression they hold, wise. We stare at each other and he smiles abruptly showing me his adolescent crooked teeth and he reaches up and smooths my hair down, twice. I wait, not knowing what to do, and as abruptly as he smiled it's gone and he's back to staring at the thing I can't see. I swallow the small lump that was in my throat, the lump put there by the gentleness of this little boy. I will only know Nicholas for a week.
It is the end of the day and I'm tired, but I feel happy. Hector let me touch his hands and Nicholas smiled and smoothed my hair. For these boys, this is good, amazing, considering they have only known me two days. It's hit or miss, and I seem to have made a hit. As we walk them to the bus, the other paraprofessional says, "Don't you wonder what's going to happen to them?" I couldn't answer. Instead I waved, walked back to the classroom and grabbed my bag. I waved at her and went to sign out. Then I quickly walked to my car, past the kids yelling and playing and flirting, past the girl with pink lip gloss asking a boy to sign her yearbook, to my car, and began to cry.