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“Ben, look at me. Ben. Look at me. Ben, stop watching the water park and please look at me.” I gently took his wet cheeks in my pruned fingers and tilted his head so he couldn’t avoid looking in my eyes.
He slipped from my grip and with a half a mouthful of water, said “Mraapmh. Dlaahhh.” Each word he gargled in his half-English, half-nonsense dialect allowed more water to fill his gaping lips. A myriad of frothy bubbles crowned his nose, besieged his chubby chin.
Ben was autistic. Most of my students were. I specialized in either Autism or Down Syndrome cases. I had, in previous years at the old camp, taught all different skill levels, but had the most success with small, special education classes. There was little verbal communication during my classes, and from experience, I knew exactly what Ben wanted.
“We can’t play in the park today, kiddo,” I said, feeling guilty. My knees scraped the coarse cement beneath me, and caught the net of my scarlet swim trunks. I adjusted my position, being careful never to rise above his head. Demonstrating what I wanted Ben to do, and having a willingness to come down to his level, (be his height, act his age,) these things were important. It was in this way I became less scary; less intimidating. Ben began making guttural noises and made incomprehensible arm gestures. It was then I turned off my ears. I stopped listening to the outside world. The noises of the summer camp; the wind rustling leaves, happy, obnoxious children at play. All gone. It was just Ben and me, in the shallow end, when every other “normal” child his age was playing in deeper water. I heard nothing but the erratic splish-splash caused by his stiff, uncontrolled arm motions, his attempt at mimicking other children. I searched his chestnut eyes, endlessly, hungrily, searching for a note of understanding, a hint of progress. He lurched forward with his awkwardly oversized frame.
It was then I decided that I would reach him. I’d faced difficult situations before, and that’s what he was. A challenge. My challenge.
Baby steps. That’s the key. You can’t run before you can walk; you can’t swim before you can crawl. Or so I told myself.
Ben was only eight years old. He had few interests, and his speech was limited. “Eat,” “More eat,” and “Barney” were his favorite, and most commonly used words. Another personal favorite, however, was the name of his brother, Joey. A fully functioning, happy, healthy, two year old boy. Ben watched Joey, studied him even, from what I was told.
So I went on a crusade; a crusade for kick boards. Every time I saw one of those small, two by two semi soft kick boards, I snatched it up, and defended it like a mother hen looking after her chicks. Most of the ones I found had a mottled blue texture. They were old, and warn, and when you rubbed your hands across the cracked, tattered surface, it felt like an old Braille book. I collected many; close to thirty. I set up a large, doodle shaped track that looped around a cluster of lounge chairs, the elevated lifeguard stand, and all the way back to the stairs.
Leaving the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of the rest of the campground, Ben came to the chain link fence, counselor in tow. He took off his shoes, and sand filled socks; socks he would probably never see again. He took off his bright orange “rock on” shirt, complete with a white stick figure giving the “shocker” hand gesture. He waddled towards me, padding his feet against the hot, rough cement, and approached the lip of the pool. Two meaty arms were raised up, and two knees bent beneath him. His stature was that of a man preparing for to perform a shoulder press, as he cautiously teetered at the water’s edge. Ben was preparing to do his modified “jump entrance” he learned last week. That was the best part of working with Ben. Each time he learned, we learned together. Sometimes I felt like he was the one Teaching Me. Teaching me patience; teaching me understanding; Teaching me not to rely on words, but expressions and feelings.
I called him over to where I was standing and began giving him instructions about what we were to accomplish that day. I liked to give the first set of directions to him, in both tone and syntax, like I would instruct an adult.
“Ben, today we are going to learn how to swim,” I said, rather ambitiously. “But first,” I continued, “we are going to learn how to crawl.” I knew Ben could crawl. In my mind, it was always better to build of something children do naturally, rather than teach something completely foreign. I had a theory; if one can crawl, they can crawl in a pool. If they can crawl in the pool, they are doing a modified “doggie paddle.”
I would have been satisfied if Ben had given me a blank stare after I recited the directions. I would have counted my blessings if he had even been facing me. I placed myself between him and any visible running water; he was fascinated by it, and I needed his attention. I craved it. I was a cigarette addict, and his attention was my nicotine. After a combination of urges, prods, and commands of “down,” I brought him to his knees.
Holding his head firmly, but gently, with my fingers on his broad jaw line, and angling his head to keep his eyes on my face, I repeated my instructions in language closer to his comfort level. “Ben. We crawl. You. Me. Like Joey,” I said firmly. I don’t know how much got through to him. But Joey got his attention. So I said again, “Watch. Copy. Do like me. Like Joey.”
Down on all fours, I crawled. Crawled for everything I had, for everything I was worth. For every disabled child that could have learned how to swim if they had been nurtured correctly, given patience and understanding, I crawled. This was bigger than Ben and I. If crawling had been an Olympic event, I would have taken the gold that day. And my big, lumbering bear cub of a student copied me. So far, so good.
I had formed the track of foam boards to lead into the pool. And that is right where we ambled, at our own, night crawler’s pace.
Head first, into the pool I crawled, boldly on. The bugs, sticks, and grains of sand that had collected in the thin coat of hair on my shins, and had inched their way into the palms of my hands, dissipating, as the water enveloped me. I had been completely ignorant of the rubbish that had leeched onto me anyway, and only became cognitive of it as it debauched; joining larger piles of debris that collected in the corners of the cold, “L” shaped pool. I forged on, like the wagon train from that Oregon Trail computer game when you crossed the Mississippi. Soon, the water approached my neck. It kissed my chin; caressed my skin, licked my eyes. I turned around, still mostly submerged, and to my ecstatic pleasure;
Ben was still following.