"Mr. President, the pilot has announced he will be landing the plane in Dallas in ten minutes."
"You know, I don't have a good feeling about this. Tell the pilot to turn the plane around and head back to Washington. Okay?"
Such was a typical exchange between me and Luke, an eighth-grade special needs student. He usually provided the set up leaving me to improvise some witty response. Genuinely entertained and fully understanding my comeback, he did what any junior high student would do: he grinned, he groaned and he walked back to his seat.
Luke was a member of the developmental education class which consisted of several wonderful teenagers with intellectual disabilities. He was autistic and academically delayed, and his inability to fully socialize with others had greatly interfered with his learning over the years. He was intensely aware of his personal space and was fairly choosy as to who could be in it.
I credit the paraprofessional in that classroom immensely for helping this young man cope with his disability and succeed in spite of it. She was firm yet fair with all of the students. They knew that she would catch them when they acted out and that there would be consequences. But they loved her nonetheless for they knew she had a sense of humor and that she truly cared about them all.
She recognized early on that Luke had a vast knowledge of American history. His mind was filled with names and dates and events. He gravitated often toward the macabre as many adolescent boys tend to do. Often, during my daily walkthroughs, Luke would slip into actor mode and present to me an historical situation involving an assassinated president or a criminal from the past.
“Clyde, I hear the cops have been keeping an eye on your girlfriend Bonnie lately.”
“Oh man,” I retorted, in character, “that woman is definitely going to ruin me.”
He grinned, he groaned and the aide told him to sit down.
Convinced that Luke was capable of learning and that he had more interest in and knowledge of history than most of his non-special education peers, this wonderful woman scheduled a meeting with the social studies teacher. Together they arranged to mainstream Luke into her class one period a day.
Each day he sat enthralled by the lectures, soaking up all of the new information. His hand was raised constantly with answers to the teacher’s questions and sometimes with questions of his own. He felt like a “regular” kid succeeding academically but, more importantly, socially.
At the end of the first unit, the teacher provided each student with a written test. Luke failed miserably. He was devastated and wanted to quit. His supporting aide would have nothing of such talk. She got a blank copy of the test and marched Luke to a picnic table outside. She read aloud every question and recorded his responses as they were given. When the test was regraded, Luke had one of the highest scores in the class. His supporter had known instinctively that the young man was an auditory learner and, if allowed to work in the realm of his own learning style, he could be extremely successful.
As the school year progressed, Luke’s knowledge of American history continued to increase, his social skills improved and his attempts at pulling me into his historical mini-dramas continued.
“Mr. President,” he warned one afternoon, “I really don’t think you should go to the theater tonight.”
“Oh, but Mary enjoys the performers so. It should be a lovely evening,” I replied in my best impersonation of the sixteenth president.
He grinned, he groaned, and I pointed at his desk.
A week before the school year and, ultimately, his elementary school days ended, Luke left his table and stopped me as I was rushing through the cafeteria. It had been a crazy day full of pre-summer vacation behavior, and I was trying to track down my next customer.
“Can I talk to you for a minute, Mr. Ramsey?” he politely asked as I breezed past his lunch table.
“Not right now, Luke. I’m in the middle of something. I’ll catch up to you later this afternoon when I come through the rooms.”
Respectfully, he nodded his head “okay,” and returned to the food on his tray. I continued on to help the playground aide deal with a student who exhibited far less respect for adults.
Around two o’clock, I began my afternoon classroom visits. I stopped in the special needs classroom to observe a little of the teacher’s lesson. Luke met me at the door and again requested a conference. Embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten his earlier appeal, I stuttered, “Uh, sure, Luke. Just give me about ten minutes. I want to watch this lesson. You need to do the same.”
Twenty minutes later, he came to the back row where I was sitting. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten him again.
“Okay. Let’s talk, but let’s go outside.”
He followed me across campus to the “Hope Garden” surrounded by a wall about two feet high. We sat, and I allowed him to unpack his thoughts.
“I hate the word ‘retarded,’” he sadly unloaded upon me.
“You and me both, kid,” I replied. Immediately, I was upset with myself for not talking with him earlier, for making him struggle all afternoon with what was weighing on his mind.
“Do you think there is a pill to make people smarter?”
“I don’t think so, Luke.”
“Well, I watched a movie last week, and there was this guy and he took a pill and he got smarter and smarter and he kept taking the pill and it kept working. But then he died.”
“It was just a movie, man. Besides, that’s not a pill I would want to take.” He was quiet for a few minutes, and I could sense him struggling with his emotions.
He finally blurted out, “Mr. Ramsey, I don’t want to be in special ed anymore!"
“First of all, Luke, let’s get one thing straight,” I began. “There is nothing wrong with you! You are a smart kid! Look how much you know about history! You blow me away with your intelligence!”
“Then why do I have to be in - in there,” he said exasperatedly pointing to his classroom.
“You are in a special class so that you can be more successful. And you have been this year, haven’t you?” I paused for a moment. He sat nervously wringing his hands. “Are you worried about high school, Luke?” I asked.
“A little,” he replied. “But that’s not the real problem. There is so much to learn. I want to learn! I don’t want to be in special ed anymore!”
“Okay, fair enough. But it’s not as easy as just pulling you out, although I wish sometimes it was. There are a lot of legal things that need to happen. Have you told your parents how you are feeling?”
“Well that’s what I want you to do. We will need their input. I'll talk to the high school staff, and all of us will work on getting you the support you need. Okay?”
Reluctantly, yet a little relieved, he agreed. Silently, we walked together down the sidewalk toward the eighth grade building.
"You gonna be okay?" I asked when we finally arrived at the classroom.
"Yeah," he answered half-heartedly.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to catch up with you today."
"That's okay," he forgave me.
"You're a smart kid, Luke. I promise, I'll help you."
"Thanks," he whispered. He pulled the door open, stepped inside and headed for his desk.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2011.