I wasn’t busy when my roommate Pam asked me if I’d like to go with her, so I agreed. Pam spent two afternoons a week at her younger sister’s special school. Sherrie, Pam’s younger sister, was what society had labeled “retarded.” A blue-eyed, blonde ten-year-old with quiet mannerisms and slow speech, Sherrie couldn’t do most of the things that other ten-year-olds did. But she seemed bright enough. She was different, yes. But I wasn’t so sure the word retarded was an accurate description for her.
At the time, I was considering changing my college major to special education. I thought going with Pam to Sherrie’s school might be a good way to get some first-hand experience with special education students. Little did I realize what I would discover and learn.
The school was held in an old building in the old part of my college campus. There were three classrooms with students ranging in age from five to twenty years old. Pam introduced me to the principal, and he gave me a quick tour of the classrooms.
Later, we walked back into Pam’s sister’s classroom. The teacher asked Pam to help her with something, so I sat down and quietly observed. There were about ten students, ages and handicaps varying widely from child to child.
Several of the children had the physical characteristics of Down’s Syndrome. One of these students watched me for a few minutes, then smiled. I smiled back. A little boy with curly red hair and rosy cheeks, he looked about eight years old. He was plump and he rubbed his palms together as he walked toward me. Sitting down in the chair next to me, he wiggled back and forth for a while before he put his hand up to my ear and whispered something.
He told me a corny joke, and I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. Slapping his knees and tilting his head back, the little boy laughed with me. He told me his name before he ran off to play again.
A few moments later the classroom teacher walked over to me and quietly said, “You mustn’t laugh at the students.”
“But why?” I asked. “He told me a joke, and I thought it was funny. He enjoyed it.”
The teacher seemed taken back by my response. “Well we mustn’t encourage them when they’re acting silly,” she added as she started walking away. “I’ve been working with mentally retarded children all my life. I know how to handle them.”
I noticed the little joke teller, Kenny, out of the corner of my eye. He was rubbing his palms together and rocking back and forth at his desk. Then he turned to the student next to him and whispered in his ear. Both of them burst out laughing, slapped their knees, and flung their heads back.
“Shh!” the teacher said.
Suddenly I noticed the principal. He was standing in the doorway and had heard and seen everything that had just taken place.
“Don’t judge her too harshly,” the principal said sitting down next to me. “She was taught that way, and she has done a lot of good over the years.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well that teacher was taught to help these children become as ‘normal’ as she could. But the longer I work with these kids, the more convinced I am that we should become more like them, not make them more like us.”
I looked at the principal as he was speaking. He was middle-aged and balding.
“You’re different,” he continued, looking at me. “Most of the people who come through the school are afraid. As soon as one of the students touches them, they go wash their hands. But you’re different.”
I didn’t know what he was getting at.
“Will you be coming with Pam from now on? We could use some more help.”
I stammered around awhile, “Actually I hadn’t planned on it. I work and go to school both, so I don’t have much free time.”
“I understand,” he said, disappointed. “But if you ever have a free afternoon, please feel welcome.”
I assured him that I would.
The next time Pam was ready to leave for her sister’s school, I was busy studying for a midterm. Then I thought about Kenny and his chapped red cheeks and corny jokes and I had to jump up, slip on a sweater, and go too.
While I was walking off the playground one late afternoon, after several weeks of helping out at the school, the principal pulled me off to the side.
The children were playing on the playground equipment they had earned by collecting Campbell’s Soup labels.
“See that little girl over there?” he asked, pointing to a skinny, olive-skinned, dark-haired girl sitting on the steps.
“She came to us last year from the public school system. The teachers said she was slow, uncooperative and noncommunicative. No one could reach her to teach her. So they sent her here as a last resort. She has really come out of her shell here with these kids.”
I noticed the girl was hugging a young student after he had fallen down.
“But she won’t respond to any adults. As soon as one of the teachers tries to engage her in something, she clams up and stares and won’t respond.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“Because we’ve tried everything we know and she still won’t respond. I’ve even worked with her myself.”
Then the principal paused.
“And there’s something else,” he said. “I was going through her records today. When she was tested—when she first entered school—she had a very high I.Q. By the time they sent her to us, her I.Q. had dropped to an infantile level. Her hands are deformed, and she has a wooden leg. The records report that she was treated badly by the other public students. But the kids here don’t make fun of her. They adore her. She is everyone’s second mother.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked again.
“I thought maybe you could reach her somehow.”
From that time on I made it a point to observe this little girl every chance I got. I read her records and found out her name was Monica. She was 12 years old. A mother was listed on her records but no father. I noticed Monica spent a lot of time by the piano in the classroom. Because her fingers were deformed and small, she would sometimes start banging on the keys with her palms until all the other children were laughing and stomping their feet. At this point, the teacher would drag her away from the piano and take her to the principal’s office.
I watched the teachers and aids approach Monica with games, papers, blocks, and books. But she wouldn’t respond in any way.
Sometimes I’d sit down at the piano and play a couple of tunes. Monica would stand near the piano and listen. Once I noticed her squatting down at the side of the piano and placing her ear up against the wood.
One afternoon as I was playing, she came over to the bench and sat down next to me. Then she pushed my hands off the piano and began pounding on the keys with her palms. I gently took her hand and rolled it into a fist. Then I guided her hand to the piano and showed her how to play a simple tune that my mother had taught me as a child. It was a tune that she could play by rolling a fist down the black keys.
Monica quickly caught on and played the tune over and over. From that moment, she seemed to sense that I was her friend.
One morning during recess, I noticed Monica crouching beside a bush near the entrance to the school. I walked up behind her and could see that she was studying a chrysalis hanging precariously on a twig. The butterfly inside was almost free, struggling desperately to free its wings.
“You know,” I said whispering next to her ear, “that used to be just a funny looking caterpillar. Now look at it. In a few minutes it will be a beautiful butterfly.”
Monica didn’t say a word. In a moment the butterfly was separating its damp wings, and the gentle breeze soon dried the bright orange and black pattern. Moments later the breeze lifted the delicate wing expanse and the butterfly was gone. Monica cupped her hands and with them she followed the butterfly into the air as if attempting to follow.
Then she turned and looked at me. She looked me directly in the eye. Deep, dark, and brown, her eyes were wet and soft and imploring. In that brief instant, I knew. Monica was not mentally retarded. She was trapped somewhere deep inside.
“I want …” she said.
Then her eyes darted to the ground, and she ran up the stone stairs and into the school.
I suddenly realized that Monica had found some kind of security and love with the mentally retarded children that she could not find in the public school system and at home. Her infantile behavior was simply her way of making sure she could stay here. If she responded to any adult and showed her intelligence, she knew she would be put back into a system where she had been abused.
Weeks grew into months, and soon Monica and I were good friends. But whenever I questioned her about her home, she would avoid the questions and change the subject.
“I like the way you smile at me,” Monica said to me one day. “My mother never smiles at me.”
Later I found out from the principal that Monica lived alone with her mother. Her mother was on welfare and spent most of her days sleeping and most of her nights going from bar to bar. She often had different men living with her. Much of the time there was little or no food at the house.
When Monica had progressed sufficiently that the principal thought she was ready to return to the public schools, he asked me to speak to her about it.
After I talked to Monica, she pulled away from me and told me she would do or act any way she had to to stay at the school.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering what to do. Finally, one morning it came to me. That afternoon I talked to Monica about my idea. She agreed enthusiastically, so I went to the principal.
We worked out a plan where Monica could obtain the regular public school textbooks and materials for her age level and remain at the special school. Then Monica would spend each day doing her regular school work with a little help from the teacher and student aids.
The teachers and principal were amazed at how quickly she grasped her subjects and how quickly she progressed.
My course work became more and more difficult at college, and my hours at Monica’s school became less and less.
Four years later, after my graduation, I walked down to the special school to say good-bye. Most of the same students were there, but they were older now. Monica had developed into a strikingly beautiful young lady.
She had gone through her class work so quickly and well that she had taken her college entrance exams earlier that spring and had been admitted to college on scholarship at the age of 16 for the next fall.
Monica’s teacher was still telling Kenny to “Shh!” when he told his corny jokes. The principal was a little balder and plumper.
The children gave me a going-away party with cake, streamers, hugs, and tears. Monica proudly showed me her college scholarship and admission papers.
The principal put his arm around Monica’s shoulder and said, “You know I’ll be retiring in a few years. I think Monica would make a great replacement for me, don’t you?”
I don’t know what happened to Monica after that. After college I moved away, married, and had children of my own. But I have often thought about her.
There have been so many times when I, like Monica, have been tempted to find a safe place where I could have the security and warmth I long for. Monica had pretended to be mentally retarded so that she could stay in a place where she was loved and safe for a time. I have pretended to be less than I am, in many ways, at many times, in my desire for security and comfort.
There are still times when I am afraid—afraid of failing, afraid of rejection, afraid of appearing foolish. It is so easy to step back into my safe place and never try at all. Then I remember that flash in Monica’s eyes and that instant when her eyes revealed to me that she was more. She was trapped inside herself, wanting security, but, at the same time, longing to burst the cocoon.
When I think about Monica and the butterfly, I know that deep within me is that same lifting power. A bundle of possibilities, I can overcome the desire to remain trapped inside myself—I can find the courage to soar.