I had a rough two days at my new job. It was hard. So damn hard. For those of you who do not know, I am a functional core Para who works with developmentally delayed 3-5th graders.
It is a lot. Most of the children I work with are non-verbal, and for a hot minute, I was so intimidated by that. My six hour day is non stop. On the floor, up and down, feeding, sleeping, playing, and even teaching, all the while making sure these children are safe and do not plot their escape. We have a couple of “runners” who will break down the gates, tear down the padded mats in the room just to pull one over on all of us. These kids are smart. Too smart. Just because a majority of them do not talk, do not let that fool you.
My first two days, I was seriously expecting the teacher to pull me to the side and say something along the lines of “Jennifer, you seem to be a nice person, I just think you would be better suited elsewhere.”
Thankfully, that has not happened. On day three, I found my groove.
One of my favorites is a non-verbal little boy who loves books. He loves holding them and flipping through the pages. I am not sure how much he takes in when I point out pictures or words to him, but I know he is taking something in. When you are not paying attention to him, he will grab your arm and guide you to where he wants you to go. Most likely it is either to grab another book or the snack cabinet. The other day he reached for my arm and guided me outside, with a book in hand. Together, we climbed up on the slide in the playground. I just sat there with him. He plopped himself down and continued to flip through the pages of a book. Every time I would clap, he would mimic me. I do not know if “on paper” this means anything or not, but for a newbie such as myself, it means the world.
The most powerful experience I have witnessed just in my four days of work was pretty, well, powerful. There is an adorable little girl who is also non-verbal. All she does is sit in the corner, rocking back and forth, and occasionally “grunting.” In many ways, she reminds me of Gracie. My family knows that in Gracie’s younger years, all she would do is sit and rock. I felt some sort of connection to this little girl, yet I am still working on connecting with her if that makes sense. Well, the other day the teacher had the microphone plugged into the sound system. This little girl grabbed the mic and pretty much went to town. Now, all she did was make sounds into the microphone, but that was huge. It took everything I had not to cry happy tears. Because once she makes sounds, that is the gateway for so much more. And, now, we know that her “motivator” is the microphone….or xylophone, but that’s another story.
I have no idea what I have gotten myself into. Already, after just four days I feel attached to these kids. And, slowly, I am getting to know them. I do struggle with the guilt though. I am no longer able to pick up my own kids from school. I feel I am missing out on so much. Of course, Joe has it under control, but for eight years, this was my gig. I picked up my kids, and asked how their day was, and got them snacks.
During the holiday seasons, the girls would come home, looking forward to seeing what new decorations I had put up. Every day it was something new and we made a game out of it. I feel guilty, and also kind of sad that I can no longer do that during my work days. But, right now there is no other option.
Tonight, just as I was writing this post, Gracie comes up to me. She is swaying back and forth while rubbing her hands together. A nervous habit she has, that is also a part of her autism.
“Mom, how do you know when you made friends?”
Gracie more than anything wants to make friends.
“Well Gracie, the first step is to learn to be comfortable with talking. If someone says “Hi” to you, you should say “Hi” back.”
Gracie is constantly worried about what others think, and I am constantly telling her not to worry about what others think. It’s a struggle for her and between you and me, I have a feeling it will be a struggle for a long time. She is already asking me if high school will be easier.
I know that this is a journey Gracie has to take to get her to the place she needs to be. I know this because just like Gracie I struggled with friends as well. Many times I would eat lunch in the restroom or just hide out in there because I had no friends in school, and who wants to be THAT kid that cannot find a seat, or worse, is sitting by themselves while others make fun of them.
Because I have been down this road I feel I can give Gracie the tools she needs to go on this journey. Patience, faith and a smart ass mouth. I did not have anyone to talk to all those years ago. Not because I could not talk to my parents, I just did not want to. I was worried I would be a disappointment to them, so I kept everything in.
That’s hard for my parents to hear, but just wait because I am about to bring it full circle with a good ole “mic drop” at the end.
Having no friends sucked. There is no denying that. However, learning the lessons I learned over the years, well, that is irreplaceable. Who knows if I would have learned those same lessons if I had friends or if I allowed my parents to fix it for me?
Granted, it took a lot of trial and error for me to get my act together. It was never an easy road, but as we all know, nothing good comes easy.
Fast forward all these years, and now I am trying to help my own daughter who is walking in my same shoes with no friends. I am able to help her because I traveled down that same road. I have the empathy to not only help and guide her through this, but I have the empathy to work with these children who I talked about at the start of this post.
I remember many years ago as a young child I was crying to my Dad. Through tears of frustration and insecurity, I asked: “Why does it have to be so hard?”
Although I am summarizing, Dad said: “I do not know why it is hard, but I know that one day because of your struggle, you will be able to help other kids.”
Well, I think we are here. I think I have had my full circle moment, because not only am I able to help Gracie and understand where she is coming from, but I am able to take that empathy and use it in my new job. If not for nothing, I can be a friend to these kids, because I know what it is like to not have any.
There was a time where I wanted to be a famous actress, and then a famous author. I wanted to write the next great American novel. I wanted the fame. I wanted people to know my name. I wanted all eyes on me when I entered a room.
I may not be in Hollywood, but with every ounce of confidence I have, and I have a lot these days, I am famous in my childrens eyes, and when I enter that classroom in school, prepared for a busy challenging day, those kids, well, their eyes are on me, and call me crazy, but I would say that is better than all the fame I could ever hope for.