My Friend Aaron

Some people talk and laugh at you, But I won’t! I won’t! I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you. That’s how I’ll show my love for you. (Children’s Songbook, page 104.)

When I first saw Aaron, he made me uneasy, even a bit scared because he was so … well, different. I had never really been around anyone like Aaron.

At Madison School, Mrs. Wood’s kids with special needs—we called them “SN kids”—had their classroom down the hall from Mrs. Parrick’s fifth grade room. The first day of school, as Mrs. Parrick lined us up to go to the cafeteria, Mrs. Wood marched down the hall with the SN kids—Paula, the girl in the wheelchair; Carlos, the Down’s syndrome boy with the funny grin; Maggie, the girl with the braces and twisted legs; Charles, the chubby boy who never smiled or spoke; and Aaron.

I had seen Aaron a couple times before because his family moved into our ward a few weeks before school started, I remember staring at him as his mom and dad brought him into the church. He was grinning and grunting and mumbling things that nobody could understand. Although he was about my age, he couldn’t talk, and Mom told me later that his mind would never grow up, that he would never be able to talk like other kids.

When Aaron passed me in the hall that first day of school, he stopped in front of me and grinned. I felt uneasy and embarrassed, even a little afraid. I looked at the floor, hoping he would disappear down the hall, but he reached out, pushed me, and shouted something I didn’t understand. All the kids in my class laughed, and my cheeks burned as Mrs. Wood led him on down the hall.

“What a weirdo,” Paul snickered behind me. “Watch out, Ben—you’ll get bugs from him.”

“Why did Heavenly Father make someone like Aaron?” I asked Mom that evening.

Mom thought for a moment. “Well, Benjamin, he’s a child of God too. Heavenly Father loves him as much as He loves any of His children.”

“I didn’t figure that He didn’t love him.” I fidgeted with the salt and pepper shakers. “But if He loves Aaron, why did He make him so different?”

Mom thought for a long time. “I’m not sure we’ll ever know why some of God’s children are born with such special needs. But He does love them, and He wants us to love them too.”

“How can you love someone like Aaron? I mean, you can’t play with him because he doesn’t know how to play. You can’t be friends with him because he doesn’t even know you. I bet he doesn’t even know who his teacher, Mrs. Wood, is.”

“Benjamin, I think you’d be surprised by how much Aaron knows. Not about math or reading or science but about people and about how much they care for him.”

I didn’t know if I believed everything Mom told me, but every day at school, I watched Aaron as he went down the hall, ate his lunch in the cafeteria, or charged crazily around the playground during recess. Always alone.

Most of the kids in my class laughed at him. When he came around, they ran away screaming, like some monster was after them. They said that anyone who hung around him would get cooties. It was all a game. For them.

I especially didn’t like going to the cafeteria because wherever I sat, I found myself watching Aaron eat his lunch in a kind of daze, sometimes spilling down his front, always smearing his food across his face, even when Mrs. Wood was there to help him. I felt sorry for him eating alone, but I didn’t dare get close to him. I didn’t want the other kids to talk about me like they talked about him.

One day I finished my math early, and Mrs. Parrick called me up to her desk and asked me to take a note to Mrs. Wood.

My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry as I pushed open the heavy door of the SN room. Mrs. Wood was on the other side of the room, working with Paula. Aaron was at a corner table, stacking huge plastic blocks. He watched me rush across the room and hand the note to Mrs. Wood.

I turned to charge from the room, but Mrs. Wood stopped me. “Wait, young man. Let me write an answer for you to take to Mrs. Parrick.”

I stood beside Mrs. Wood, staring at the floor and poking my fists deep into my pockets. Suddenly a cool hand touched my arm. I jumped and turned. Aaron stood there, grinning and staring. As I backed up, he touched me again.

“Aaron just wants to play,” Mrs. Wood said, smiling. “When you have some time, you’ll have to come down and play with the children. They love visitors.”

I wasn’t supposed to run in the halls, but as soon as I was out the door, I ran back to my classroom. I wanted to get as far from that SN room as I could.

“I don’t ever want to go in there again,” I told Mom that evening. “It gives me the creeps. They’re so different. I don’t know what to do around them.”

“Benjamin, Heavenly Father would be very happy if you would show real kindness and love to those special children.”

“I don’t know how to be kind to them. And I sure don’t want everybody thinking I’m one of them.”

The next Sunday in Primary, Sister Roth told us about how Jesus had loved and been kind to everyone, even to people who were sick, crippled, dirty, or wicked. He reached out and cared for them all. Just the way she told the stories made me want to be like Jesus. Then she challenged us to help someone in need, like Jesus did.

I thought of Aaron. Not because I wanted to. I wanted to be kind to someone normal. I didn’t care if that someone was sick or dirty, but I didn’t want to help someone who made me feel uncomfortable. That week I did everything I could to stay away from Aaron. I didn’t want to even think about him.

On Friday I got to the cafeteria late, and all the tables were filled—except the one where Aaron sat alone. I frantically looked for a table where I might crowd in.

Then I remembered Sister Roth. I thought of Jesus Christ. And I knew that more than anything else, Jesus would want me to sit by Aaron. I wanted to refuse, but I couldn’t.

I walked toward him, sure that every eye in the cafeteria was on me. “Hi, Aaron,” I rasped. I set my tray next to his and sat with my head down so that I wouldn’t have to look at anyone. Aaron stared at me for a moment. Then he grunted something and held his pizza in front of my face. I nodded. “Yeah, it looks good.”

He shouted and touched me with his other hand. It was covered with pizza sauce, and I had to use my napkin to wipe it from my arm.

When I looked up, I saw Marni at the next table. She’d just moved into town and started school here on Tuesday. She was a very nice girl, and I’d been happy when she was assigned to my class. She was staring at me as I sat next to Aaron. I could feel my cheeks and ears burning, but there was nothing I could do except stay there and eat my lunch.

The best way to keep from noticing the staring eyes was to concentrate on my own lunch and to help Aaron. I helped him cut his pizza into small pieces. I used a napkin to wipe his face. When he knocked his carton of milk over, I helped him clean it up. When it was time to dump our trays, I helped him carry his.

Then he disappeared outside! I hotfooted it toward a different door.

“Benjamin?” Marni was standing there. “Benjamin, I think … well, I think you’re the most wonderful boy in this whole school!” Then she scurried past me to the playground.

“Do you like eating with that weirdo?” Paul snickered as he brushed by.

Later, while I was working on a science project, Marni came over to my table. Usually I don’t talk to girls because they make me nervous. I couldn’t think of anything to say then, either, so I just sat there and pretended that one of the nicest girls in the whole school wasn’t standing next to me.

“Is that boy in the cafeteria a friend of yours?” she asked.

“I know him a bit. His name is Aaron.”

“I have a cousin like Aaron.” Marni looked down at the table. “He’s not exactly like Aaron, but …” She pressed her lips together. “I like David—that’s my cousin’s name. Once you know him, he’s really a neat kid. But he’s different. Ever since coming here, I’ve watched Aaron because he reminds me of David.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she confided, “Benjamin, that was a brave thing you did today.”

I coughed. “It wasn’t anything.”

We were still talking—not just about Aaron and David but about lots of things—when Mrs. Parrick came over. “Benjamin, Mrs. Wood wondered if you’d like to work with her students for a few minutes this afternoon.”

Paul, who was sitting at the next table, grinned and muttered, “Benjamin’s getting so he really likes those retards.”

Mrs. Parrick was starting to scold him, when Marni asked, “Could I go with Benjamin?”

Paul’s mouth dropped open, and Mrs. Parrick apparently decided she didn’t need to say anything more to him. She just told Marni that Mrs. Wood would be delighted.

Marni and I were both a little nervous, but as we worked and played with all the kids—not just Aaron—the jitters left us, and I realized that I was actually having fun.

The following Monday at lunchtime, Marni and I sat on either side of Aaron and helped him with his lunch and talked to him, even though he didn’t understand anything we said. By the end of the week, lots of kids sat at Aaron’s table. Even Paul came over on Friday and squeezed in between Aaron and Marni.

In the afternoons, if I finished my work, Mrs. Parrick let me go to Mrs. Wood’s room for a few minutes. Sometimes Marni went with me. Sometimes I went alone. One day Randy, who sat behind me, asked, “Can I go with Benjamin today? I’m finished with my work.”

It was funny how, after a few weeks, our class kind of adopted Mrs. Wood’s class. If we were working on an art project or having a class program, we invited them to come to our room. At recess Aaron would hang around while my class played football or soccer. He didn’t know how to play, but he chased around the field and shouted and laughed like he was part of the game.

“I saw Mrs. Wood in the store this afternoon,” Mom told me one evening. “She said that you’ve become great friends with Aaron.”

I smiled. “He’s fun. He doesn’t make me nervous anymore. I still don’t think he knows me, though. I’m just some kid to him, like all the others.”

“But Heavenly Father knows you and knows how kind you’ve been to Aaron.”

The next Sunday I was walking down the hall at church, when I heard a shout. I turned and saw Aaron charging toward me. His mother was down the hall, struggling to catch up to him. Laughing wildly, he crashed into me and threw his arms around my neck. When his mother reached us, Aaron pushed away, jabbed his finger against my chest, and grinned at his mother.

For a moment she just stood there. Then a huge smile covered her face. “You must be the boy at school! We’ve known for some time that Aaron had someone very special at school. He can’t exactly tell us things like that, but we knew that there was someone. You must be Aaron’s very special friend.” Her face was beaming, and tears wet her cheeks.

Aaron stopped pointing and wrapped his arms around me again. I felt a strange, happy warmth spread over my body, and tears jiggled in my own eyes as I wriggled loose and put my arm around the shoulders of my special friend Aaron.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus