Sunday, September 08, 2013

BUS STORY # 357 (Special Needs)

I'm going into work later than usual when we pull into the stop at Monzano High School. I register a large group of students at the stop, but nothing more. When I hear the signal indicating the wheelchair ramp is being lowered, I look more closely.

Sure enough, one of the students is wheelchair bound. He sits at an awkward-looking angle, with arms that don’t seem to know what to do with themselves.

He’s the first to board, preceded by a man who is working the control knob on the front of the chair. He drives the chair slowly, and after a couple of tries, gets it mostly into the place opened up by the driver.

The adult is a big guy, 40s, in cargo shorts. He’s got an ID badge of some sort hanging from a ribbon around his neck. I figure he’s a teacher.

The kid vocalizes to him while the driver straps down the chair. The vocalizations are utterly unintelligible to me, but the teacher answers him. I don’t know whether he understands the kid, or is taking care to acknowledge and engage regardless.

The kid’s arms jerk spastically now and then. He’s wearing a bright green T-shirt which looks good against his olive coloring. In fact, the kid looks good: a bright, pleasing face and a happy expression.

The second kid aboard is using a walker. The teacher directs him to the bench seat just across the aisle, behind the driver. He helps the kid stay stabilized when he goes to sit, then breaks down the walker.

Once the kid is settled, I can see a happy and relaxed and slightly vacant look replace the expression of mild anxiety I saw when he was negotiating the boarding. He reminds me of someone I’ve never met, the son of the daughter of the sister of my ex-wife. (He would have been my grand nephew.)

My kids told me the story first. Later, I heard it from his mom at a wedding many years ago. They were all out walking one afternoon when a drunk driver jumped the curb and hit Eddie.*

The hit left him physically and mentally impaired, but not incapacitated.

She was struggling with the decision to enroll him in public high school rather than a school for the disabled. She wanted him to learn how to adapt his new condition to his old world rather than end up becoming isolated. But the physical and emotional impact on both of them was terribly wearing. I could sense she was unsure she was doing the right thing.

I am remembering this story as I watch the rest of about a dozen kids board, along with four more adults. Several of them look to be Down’s kids. All of them look like what we are currently calling “Special Needs Kids.” They’re stable enough not to require help. They do need direction -- “Move to the back, Chris.* No, all the way. There are seats there.” This to a student who was eyeing the empty seat beside me.

The adults are, simply, awesome. Attentive, patient, competent. Calm. Over and over and over again. And mutually supportive of each other as well. I think they have been working together for a while now.

And this fits with something else I notice: Most of these kids look happy to be here, and excited about whatever is coming next. There is an openness, an innocence even, long gone from the faces of their normal classmates.

There is one student who does not share the happy, open faces of her companions. She is sitting in the bench seat right in front of me, facing the kid in the wheelchair. From the time she is seated, until the time everyone gets off at the bowling alley where they are going, she stares with eyebrows knitted at the wheelchair kid, as if she’s trying to puzzle out what is wrong here.

I don’t know if this is her default expression, or if she is on to something. If it’s the latter, she’s dealing with the same question all of us deal with sooner or later: Why?

I tell myself she cannot know just how much worse things would be for her if not for (most likely) her parents, and these teachers, and for living in a society that has the means and the willingness to provide this level of support.

Just as I cannot possibly know what life would be like if I were sitting in her seat.

The boarding of these students takes long enough that I resign myself to a missed connection. I am fine with that.

As it turns out, with still more time taken by their exiting, I make my connection with a two-minute margin.


*Real name changed.


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