By Frank Kowal
Less than one year after I had retired from a full-time teaching position in the New York City school system, the Covid-19 pandemic hit us.
But as 2020 progressed and the pandemic began to wane, I heard that the city’s Department of Education needed substitute teachers urgently to teach in the city’s District 75 schools, which were the only public schools opened at the time.
District 75 houses the city’s special education classes. It consists of 57 schools designed to teach and help students with significant mental disabilities, most of which fall under Autism Spectrum Disorder.
My license, however, was not in special education. My license was in regular education English. Yet even though fist fights often broke out in some special education classes in my old school, and a number of special education students were also verbally abusive to their teachers, I just couldn’t turn my back on the Department of Education’s request. I therefore decided, if somewhat reluctantly at first and after discussing this at length with my wife, to take a chance and become a substitute high school English teacher in District 75.
And what a surprise being a substitute in that district turned out to be, for instead of encountering hostile students, I actually found the exact opposite: I found mentally disabled students who were truly sweet youngsters, who needed help, and who absolutely did appreciate the caring instructors assigned to help them.
It also became obvious to me, and very quickly I might add, that these youngsters also had the most caring parents imaginable, for these students were all well fed, wore clean clothing—a few of them actually wore quite expensive sneakers—nor did any of them have even the slightest of bruises on them from possibly angry or frustrated parents.
Now instead of writing endlessly about the nearly hundreds of autistic students who were in my classrooms over a nine-month period, I thought, for this essay, that I would limit my selection to only four of them—to four struggling, autistic teenagers who truly made a positive impression on me; to four who forever changed my way of thinking about special education students and autism in general.
Carl was the first student I interacted with. He was a non-verbal, 16-year-old who worked ever so slowly on all his assignments. But because he was constantly unsure as to whether or not his written answers were correct, he always welcomed my help, or the help of a paraprofessional.
When I sat next to him for the first time, he did complete all his exercises correctly, and without my assistance. He had been working on a page of everyday fill-in questions. For example, if one of the sentences read, “Yesterday was_____ and today is _____,” he was able to write in the correct days on his own. I would tell him at that point that he had done a good job, and that I was very proud of him. I repeated those words every time he completed an exercise correctly in my presence.
I made friends with Carl by following my verbal compliments with gentle high fives. (We made sure to wash our hands at the end of each session.)
Our gentle high fives soon turned into gentle “high tens,” which he seemed to like, and when I kept me hands against his, a smile came to his face.
Then one afternoon our fingers actually intertwined. And when that happened, he actually pulled my hands behind his head until our foreheads nearly touched and we stared, for the longest time, into each other’s eyes.
That was a dramatic moment for me, for I felt as though I were looking into his very soul, that his eyes were searching for some hope of overcoming his cognitive handicap, that they were simply asking, “Why can’t I be like everyone else in the world?”
I was no longer the same person afterwards. I actually wound up standing at a window, looking out at the rainy streets, trying to collect my thoughts.
I did not give Carl any more high fives or high tens after that. I simply put a large check on his paper when he completed all his exercises correctly.
Along with her red pony tail, and, when she smiled, the cutest pair of tight blue eyes I’ve ever seen above a mask, Rebecca always wore such beautiful apparel when she entered her classroom every morning that the paraprofessionals always complimented her.
But this 18-year-old, whether she was sitting at her desk or standing somewhere in the room, would occasionally wave both arms frantically in front of her while also shaking her head rapidly to both sides.
I tried to stop her arm waving before it started by giving her high fives, then high tens, and then by keeping my hands against hers as well. But the second our hands remained together, her arm-waving began and I had to back away quickly.
I also tried to help Rebecca with her spelling by printing on a paper each of the following words both correctly and incorrectly: mother, father, brother, sister. And after I spelled each one out loud to her, I asked her to circle the correctly spelled word. But as many times as she tried—and I could see the frustration growing on her face as she struggled with this assignment—she was never able to circle even one correctly spelled word.
Every time I was in her room during lunch, I noticed that Rebecca, who always walked slowly and cautiously, would make her way over to Daniel after washing her hands. Daniel was her age and height, but since he did not appear to have a significant grasp on his surroundings, and since both he and Rebecca were non-verbal, she simply stood in front of him, looking hopefully into his eyes, while Daniel didn’t react to her at all.
These encounters did not last very long, though, because as soon as the others in the class sat down for their lunch, a paraprofessional would tell Rebecca and Daniel to sit down and eat their lunch as well, so Rebecca would return to her desk, disappointed. Seeing her so unhappy, though—that she had failed to establish a sort of boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Daniel—broke my heart.
Each time I was in her room during lunch she walked over to Daniel, and every time she returned to her seat in the same dejected way, my heart broke all over again. I wanted so much to help her, but what could I do? Could I have gone over to her and said,“Say hello to Daniel”? And then to Daniel, “Say hello to Rebecca”? But again, that wouldn’t have worked because neither of them could verbalize their feelings, nor had I ever seen Daniel react to any stimuli in the room anyway.
Perhaps I should have requested that Rebecca’s desk be moved nearer to Daniel’s for the remainder of the semester.
After sitting quietly at his desk for several minutes, concentrating on a writing assignment with the help of a paraprofessional, 17-year-old Jonathan would suddenly start laughing and bouncing in his chair.
Or he would stand up and talk gibberish to everyone in the class, or he would run back and forth across the room while waving his arms in every configuration imaginable.
And sometimes he would burst into the room screaming, or he would enter the room and sit down for a few minutes before getting up and running around.
After helping him one morning with a new assignment, I went over to him after he stood up and remained standing by his desk. “Jonathan,” I said gently, “please sit down like a good man. Please, my friend, please sit down.”
To my astonishment he complied with my request, and I thanked him and felt quite proud of myself.
But just seconds later he was jumping almost non-stop alongside his desk, and when he did stop he began complaining repeatedly, “My icky lax gickers. My icky lax gickers,” so I went over to him again. “Jonathan, what’s the problem?”
“My icky lax gickers.”
His words were obviously gibberish, but not knowing why he was so upset, I put my hand on his shoulder to try and comfort him. “Jonathan,” I said softly, “please sit down and then we’ll go over what’s bothering you, okay?”
“My icky lax gickers.”
“Jonathan, again, please sit down.”
“My icky lax gickers.”
I scratched the back of my neck at this point, for I wasn’t exactly sure of how to handle this situation. But also remembering that there were several boxes of English Language Arts exercises in the teacher’s supply cabinet that were easier than the assignment I had just given him, I selected a paper on subject-verb agreement and showed it to him. “Jonathan, please sit down so I can do these exercises with you.”
But again, “My icky lax gickers.”
“Jonathan,” I said, trying to reason with him, “if you sit down, we can do this problem together.” But when his gibberish continued, I began the first question with him while we were both standing. “Okay, Jonathan, which sentence is correct: ‘Joe and Betty was here’ or ‘Joe and
Betty were here’?”
Suddenly he was running back and forth across the room while waving his arms, then a paraprofessional ordered him to sit down, which he immediately did. Yet seconds later, he was running back and forth again until he ran screaming out of the room.
Taking my cue from that paraprofessional, the next time I worked with Jonathan at his desk, I also ordered him to sit down when he began running across the room, and again, he promptly sat down. Only this time, before I continued working with him, I apologized to Jonathan for raising my voice. That’s when he surprised me: He got up and gestured for me to get up as well. And when I did, he wrapped his arms around me.
When we both sat down again, I was able to work with him on grammatical exercises for a full ten minutes.
I will never, ever, forget that hug.
My heart truly broke for Cheryl, for this tall 15-year-old, who always looked so frightened, turned out to be dependent on every adult in the classroom for her very survival.
She needed a paraprofessional to spoon feed her, to help her wash her hands, even to help blow her nose. And whenever she wanted to go somewhere, such as to the water fountain, she needed to be taken by the hand while she stomped on the floor as she walked.
I once saw her at her desk during lunch, playing with a wooden jigsaw puzzle designed for infants. The puzzle had large pictures of five baby animals on it, which were cut-outs. Each cut-out, shaped like one of the animals, had a knob on it so that an infant could pick up the piece without grabbing the edges. But when Cheryl played with this puzzle, she tried to fit all the pieces into the wrong holes, regardless of their shapes; and when she finally did succeed, it was only because she had tried to fit each piece into every other hole unsuccessfully.
I tried to establish a rapport with her the way I had done with Carl, by first giving her high fives, followed by high tens, and then by intertwining our fingers.
But this technique didn’t work at all with Cheryl. She didn’t respond to my high fives, and when I tried tickling her hands, she pulled away in fright.
At the start of my second week in Cheryl’s class, I sat down next to her and opened a workbook to a page which had some sentences lacking both capital letters and periods. The pages in the book were laminated so that markers could be used on them.
“Okay, Cheryl,” I said, giving her a red marker. “Circle the first incorrect sentence you see and then correct it.”
But her only response to me was a high-pitched, “Da-Da. Da-Da.”
“Cheryl, come on, circle the first incorrect sentence you see.” I pointed to an incorrect sentence and asked her, “Is this sentence correct or incorrect?”
She continued looking at me, almost as if she were wondering who I was, and then she repeated, “Da-Da. Da-Da,” so I took the marker from her. “This is what I want you to do.” I circled the first sentence. “See the circle I made?” I then capitalized the first letter and put a period after the last word. “Okay, Cheryl, now you do the same.” And after I erased everything, I repeated, “Circle the first sentence and then correct it, just the way I did.”
I gave her the marker, but all she did was make long zig-zags across the page.
So I erased her zig-zags. “Come on now. Circle the first sentence and make the corrections.”
But again she made the same long zig-zags.
I repeated this procedure several more times—until Cheryl began whining and a paraprofessional told me to stop what I was doing. But I wanted Cheryl to succeed so much that I
ignored the paraprofessional’s advice, then Cheryl started crying, and after I continued erasing set-after-set of zig-zags, she actually shoved me away—a hard shove which threw me onto the floor. I wasn’t hurt, just shaken up a bit, but when I got up and saw the resentment on Cheryl’s face, I realized how wrong I was for having pushed her so much, not to mention how wrong I was for also failing to listen to the paraprofessional’s advice.
Pushing a student who can do better is one thing. Pushing a student whose cognitive disability makes the student incapable of reaching certain goals is a completely different story.
Learning that was a very important lesson for me.
Working with these students, as I stated earlier in this essay, has changed the way I look at autism. So now, after spending nine months in District 75 schools, I am going to request a permanent substitute position in the district. That way I hope to be given permission to also observe the district’s full-time teachers. You see, I’ve fallen in love with these youngsters, and now want to become as proficient in special education, if that’s possible, as their current teachers are.