Perseverance and Pretzels

April 24, 2010
By Daniel Listwa GOLD, East Brunswick, New Jersey
Daniel Listwa GOLD, East Brunswick, New Jersey
14 articles 3 photos 1 comment

She would just not eat. I placed an apple in front of her and she angrily shoved it back. I tried a sandwich: still no luck. A bag of potato chips received a sharp cry of protest and the water bottle was hastily grabbed from my hand and placed back in the lunchbox, which was promptly shut and zippered. Out from her backpack she pulled her black and white marble patterned journal. Then came the markers, seven well used ones, each with one of Snow White's dwarfs on it.

"Jaclyn, it is lunchtime now. We can draw in the journal later," I said, beginning to reach for the book. A high pitched shriek pierced the air. Every counselor in the room knew what was going on, but no one could resist turning toward the commotion. For Jaclyn, a six year old girl with autism who came to camp each day with matching shoes, shorts, shirt, and ribbons in her hair, this had become a regular occurrence. With her face contorted as though in pain, the screaming continued, but no one rose to help from any of the long folding tables that lined the high ceiling room. As the crying bounced off the whitewashed walls, it sounded like the wail of a police siren. Across from me, Frankie, a six year old autistic boy with bright orange hair, a baby face, and chubbiness that made him irresistible to all the female counselors, was steadily chomping away at a never ending selection of chocolate chips, marshmallows, and salami. My sister, Jessica, sitting next to him, was just barely managing to keep up, hurriedly pulling snacks out of his lunch bag.

"Just give her the journal and let her sit quietly and color," she intoned. "You heard Lena; her mom said Jaclyn won't eat anywhere until she feels completely comfortable. Anyway, look, her yelling is upsetting Frankie."

While Frankie seemed unperturbed as he munched away at his sundry snacks, my sister was right. Lena, our division leader, had told us weeks ago that Jaclyn would refuse to eat until she became accustomed to the daily routine at the Daisy Recreation Summer Program, a camp for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities, but it had already been two weeks. While everyone else had simply accepted Jaclyn's monk-like abstinence from food as inviolable, I could not do it. It was not just that I was worried about her health, having gone so many hours without taking a single sip of water, even after spending the entire day out in the blistering heat by the pool; her refusal also signified that she still did not feel habituated to camp. As a counselor, I felt that if one of my campers was uneasy, I was failing to do my job, which is to provide a fun, safe, and supportive environment. Despite the dismissive remarks of the other counselors, I made it my personal goal to ensure Jaclyn would eat something. While some of the others must have surely thought that I, only a CIT in a group with many who had years of experience, was naive when I made this announcement earlier in the day while we were sitting in a circle waiting to hear which camper we would be working with that day, I was confident. When Lena then assigned me to Jaclyn for the day, I took it as a sign of fate.

"Today, Jaclyn is going to eat," I proclaimed. "I can feel it!"

"Good luck with that," was the only response, coming from Nikki, the other CIT in the group. Nikki and I had been having a tacit competition for the past week, trying to prove who was the better counselor. Just the day before, Rachel, an incomparably energetic and rambunctious four year old, who, because of a genetic disorder had the stature of a young toddler, had practically announced her preference for Nikki by choosing to sit on her lap during music time. However, the chance that convincing Jaclyn to eat would prove my skills as a counselor was at most a minor motive. Primarily, I saw this as an opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in someone's life. Often I had been lured to volunteer with various causes and organizations, each one alluding to this glorious prize, making an impact on another. Attracted to this claim, I had given my time doing such varied activities as planting trees, running carnival booths, and stuffing envelopes. Though each time I could grasp that my efforts where helping some cause, never had I been able to have any concrete proof that my sweat brought any response. This was different. If I could get this young girl to eat while at camp, I would be able to see right before me the fruits of my labor.

With these encouraging thoughts locked into my head and bound to my heart, I pressed forward. It was an unusually hot day, and as a result we stayed inside. With the air conditioning making the room frigid and causing what could only have been icicles to form on the windowsill, we began our day. Jaclyn was her usual jovial self, starting off by tiptoeing quickly around the room, and then collecting from her bag the stuffed animals she brought for the day. As usual though, once we started to do activities, she withdrew. Refusing to join the rest of the group in a game of volleyball, she instead took out her journal and handed me a marker.

"Max and Ruby!" she demanded, and I began to draw two creatures that just barely resembled the characters from her favorite show. After a slight pause, she demonstrated her approval.

"Arthur!" she exclaimed, and so the day continued. As the day went on, I occasionally succeeded in drawing her attention away from the journal, persuading her instead to participate in a round of musical chairs, at which she proved quite adept, and to sing along to "Old McDonald," though the verse about a bee that went "buzz buzz here and buzz buzz there," accompanied by a matching finger puppet, sent her into a frenzy. Finally lunch, much anticipated and dreaded, came. Rarely did a lunchtime pass during which Jaclyn, allowed to write in her notebook, did not became hysterical and begin screaming, and that was when just trying to get her to stay in the same room as those eating. The reactions my attempt might receive made me hesitant.

We walked into the lunchroom and sat down at a crowded table with the rest of the group. Behind me I felt the presence of a ticking clock looking over my shoulder; in twenty minutes I would be forced to go on break: twenty minutes, that was all the time I would have to break the barrier that was keeping Jaclyn from enjoying her summer. She began to take out her journal, but I held her back. Instead I unloaded the contents of her purple and pink lunchbox, placing them appetizingly on a white paper plate. A screech began to rise from her throat. Anticipating such a response, I reached for her hand and held it reassuringly tight.

"You don't have to eat if you don't want to," I said slowly, "but I am going to put it right here in case you do."

"I don't want to eat now!" she screamed back, though slurred together to sound like one long, unhappy word. I quickly took hold of her other hand. I felt a pang of nervousness when she turned to me and I saw her eyes, watery and on the brink of tears, but I kept the appearance of being strong and confident. From past experiences working with autistic children, I knew I had to show her that I was self-assured, so I held my gaze. For what seemed like an eternity our eyes stayed locked as I tried to intimate through the silence that I knew she could overcome whatever obstacle was preventing her from feeling comfortable. Finally, she turned away. After sitting silently for a couple of moments, while an empty apprehensiveness tore at my insides, she reached for the plate. As she placed that first pretzel in her mouth, I felt as though a blast of the most clean and brisk wind was rushing into my lungs. Unable to control my excitement, I almost fell out of my chair. The other counselors gaped at the sight of Jaclyn devouring the motley collection of food before her. A bewildered silence gripped the room, broken only by the sound of chewing as Jaclyn finished off her pretzels, ate up her cheese sandwich , and started on her Oreo cookies. Astounded, I continued to stare, until my division leader sent me to the break room.

As I was walking, the full reality of what had just happened dawned on me; I had managed to accomplish my goal, and no regular goal at that, but an objective with true merit. By applying myself, I was able to help a young girl overcome the difficulty that had been preventing her from reaching her full potential. Now, with the hindrance gone, she would be able to more fully participate in the activities and, as a result, become more sociable and have fun. The realization I could cause this change and make such a true difference in another person's life thrilled and invigorated me. I began to appreciate that a singular person truly could do something constructive. More than just some theoretical musing, I saw that I am capable of having a real positive effect on someone or something other than myself.

As I approached the break room, I saw Nikki already lounging inside.

"I guess this means you win," she called out as I opened that door. Still slightly shocked, I stood breathlessly dazed. Jolted by the sharp click of the door closing behind me, I dropped down on a nearby couch.

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