You and I
Author's note: Dedication J., I see your eyes everywhere I go, a pair of startling stars blinking... Show full author's note »
YouIt wasn’t until halfway through first period that I was introduced to the other class–there was in all actuality one single large class. However, the class was divided into two separate ones, including the “higher functioning” and the “lower functioning.” When I was working with Braden I’d been in the “higher functioning” one. These words tasted sick on my tongue; the words that claimed one student to be essentially “more” or “less” capable than another. Yes, I realized that some students were clearly more functional than others, but each was an individual with different needs. Maybe I was judging inappropriately, or perhaps my feelings were directed by my distaste for labels. I knew the effects of labels all too well: Nerd. Geek. Loser. Labels hurt–whether or not they served a purpose, such as in designating teaching methods for students.
After drilling Braden to write his name several times, Mrs. McGuire had said, “Casey, you have helped us, especially Braden, plenty today. Why don’t you visit the other room and see if they need some assistance?”
“Of course,” I’d answered. Turning to Braden, I’d said, “You did great, Braden! I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Bye!” he’d exclaimed, and I’d nearly tripped over my chair at his response. A cacophony of sound had then filled the room as the students around me shouted their good-byes and asked that I see them the next day. I’d felt a smile tug at my lips playfully as I nodded at my new friends.
The “lower functioning” classroom had several students as well, though not nearly as many as the other class. Several students were standing over a series of desks that had been pushed together to form a huge rectangular table. No one was looking at me; the students seemed to be absorbed by something on the table. As I quietly stepped forward, I found my eyes meeting a huge puzzle with palm-sized pieces, which seemed to be forming a series of colourful dinosaurs.
One boy, in particular, seemed to be enjoying the game as he shoved in one piece after another with anticipation of the finished product. I moved closer to get a better look and caught sight of his face. The boy had a small head with tiny ears and blue eyes that slanted upwards behind round glasses, which I saw him push up the bridge of his flat nose. I struggled mentally to place his features–I’d seen them before. Although I had quite little knowledge about disorders and disabilities, I knew this one. I recognized Down syndrome.
“Kyle, Jasmine, Travis! That looks amazing!” Mrs. Grave’s voice exploded from behind me.
“Done!” Kyle, the boy with Down syndrome, exclaimed as he pumped his fist into the air with exultation.
A girl beside me, nearly half my height, tugged on my shirt. “Look! Look! We did.” She pointed at herself frantically, slapping her chest with pride.
“Yes, it’s very good.” I smiled back at her, and she leaned against me, her small and fragile frame nestled close. Stunned, I looked down at her brown eyes and did the only thing I could: I wrapped my arm around her.
“Jasmine–me,” the girl mouthed. She had black hair and a small, delicate round face. I immediately noticed that she wore large heavy supports around her legs. Sucking in a silent breath, I forced myself to smile. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the pain and hardships this girl endured ever day of her waking life. Lost in thought, I hardly noticed the other girl who suddenly at my side.
“Hey, Casey, right?” the girl asked politely. I recognized her right away. Her name was Kathleen; I’d met her last year when the CLP Peer Supporters had had the chance to meet one another.
“Yeah, so you’re my partner?” I inquired, my voice quiet and shy. God, I was bad at introductions.
“Yes. I’ve been working in here while you were with the others . . . You want to see something awesome?” She looked at me expectantly behind her glasses with big blue eyes. Kathleen wore her shoulder length brown hair in a high ponytail and she was about my height, only super thin. I didn’t know her very well yet, but she seemed kind-hearted.
“Okay,” I obliged, wonderingly.
I watched patiently as Kathleen walked up to Travis, a very short boy with black hair and dark eyes. He had darker skin and appeared to be much younger than he actually was. Kathleen found his shoulders from behind and gave them a light squeeze. “Travis,” she said, grabbing the boy’s attention, “would you like to play Casey something . . . on the piano?” I was immediately envious of the way Kathleen handled him so calmly, touching him like a brother and speaking very close to his face. I wasn’t that comfortable, at least not yet.
Travis let out a strangled sound and then shouted with joy. He began to work himself up with excitement, and I watched with horror as he fisted his hands around his neck and squeezed hard. I knew I should yell, scream, do anything, but I was locked up inside.
You can imagine my surprise when I saw Kathleen take action. Immediately, she took his hands away from his throat, bracing them at his sides as she whispered intently, “Calm down. Only gentlemen can play the piano, remember? Can you keep yourself under control?” I watched mutely as Travis became silent and took Kathleen’s hand. “Coming?” Kathleen asked, glancing back at me and my ramrod-straight body.
I managed a nod as I followed in step behind her and we made our way to the back of the room to find a large wooden piano pushed up against the wall.
Kathleen pulled back the cover over the keys as I helped pull the piano out. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah, the teachers don’t mind, and just wait until you see what Travis can do,” Kathleen said, a grin spreading across her face. She pulled out a chair from one of the nearby desks and helped Travis get himself comfortable. I was stunned as I saw her stroll over to the other side of the room–the entire wall was lined with computers. Already up on one of the screens was a song from Glee, called “Don’t Stop Believing.” I knew the song well and quite enjoyed its upbeat tempo. Kathleen played the song. Looking back at Travis, I saw his eyes narrow with concentration as he slapped the side of the piano in rhythm with the song. “Listen, Travis,” Kathleen told the boy and once the song had played through, she stopped the music. “Go ahead,” she told him.
Before I could so much as blink, Travis’ fingers danced across the keys as he belted out the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Believing.” He was playing by ear, and it was like magic, the notes ricocheting off the walls and the sound drumming inside me like a heartbeat. I’d never seen passion like this before. Travis’ body was moving rhythmically like a dancer, the chair a forgotten thing as he used his entire being to create the music bunched up inside of him, the sound bursting and exploding around us as he seemed to spread his wings and fly into our hearts.
Kathleen began to sing along and clap. It wasn’t long before the whole “lower functioning” class and numerous teachers were crowded around Travis, celebrating the new school year in song. I couldn’t help but think that this was Travis’ God-given gift. I believed that every person, no matter how big or how small, had some greater purpose in the world; every person just had to find their place.
As I glanced around the room, I found my eyes resting on another boy that I hadn’t seen before. He was sitting by himself, rocking back and forth in rhythm with the music. He looked transfixed, his eyes somewhere very far away, caught inside an abyss. Still, something about his small, vulnerable face pulled me closer to him.
It was as if I was being directed by the strings of my heart as I found my way to the table where the boy sat. He didn’t stop moving back and forth, nor did he look up at me.
“Hey,” I said over the music, and then my voice seemed to die, swallowed by anxiety. I felt my nerves get the best of me, and yet, I was able to move past the fear. “What’s your name?”
The boy found my eyes, his hazel ones entrapping mine so much so that I couldn’t look away.