Teacher’s Pet (Part 3)

In June of last year, I attended my niece’s high school graduation. I was happy for my niece, but I found the ceremony speeches tedious to sit through. The speech of an elderly English teacher told the story of a boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back in the ocean. A man comes up to the boy and tells him that he can’t possibly hope to make a difference when there are so many stranded starfish on so many miles of shoreline. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it in to the sea and replies….

 

“Makes a difference to that one!” I said smugly to my sister as the teacher paused for dramatic effect. I’d heard that fable before. It was in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books I read when I was in middle school.

 

As tedious as that graduation ceremony was, I think it ultimately played a part in me finally returning to college to finish my degree the following winter. During the first week of class I had dinner with a friend of mine.

 

“Hey there, dinner date!” my friend greeted me, as I stepped in to her car from my driveway.

 

I kissed her on the cheek and asked her how her day was.

 

“Stressful. My students are driving me crazy.”

 

“Too bad you can’t have more students like me.”

 

Although I call my friend by her first name now, in a part of my mind she’ll always be Mrs. Walters.

 

“You’re looking good,” she said as she turned to me from the driver’s seat.

 

“Thanks. I brushed my hair and there’s no toothpaste in it…Remember when I got that sewing needle caught in my hair?’’

 

“Of course. I’ll never forget that.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what you said when it happened 20 years ago.”

 

“Gosh. Has it really been 20 years?”

 

We settled in to one of those diners off Route 1 that are so emblematic of New Jersey.

 

A loaf of bread was placed in the middle of the table. I told her she should cut it because her fine motor skills are better than mine.

 

I congratulated her on winning the teacher of the year award and told her no one deserved it more than her.

 

She told me she will be retiring at the end of the year and that next year she will be volunteering in the school with dogs. She showed me a funny cell phone video of dogs. We talked about our previous and current pets. She asked if I remembered Mrs. Staggard and I said that yeah, I remember I was jealous that her class had a hamster and ours didn’t.

 

“I like how you remember everyone by their animals.”

 

Throughout that dinner as the intervening years between middle school seemed to melt away and the past seemed to meld with the present, I was filled with the kind of joy that comes with catching up with an old friend that you connect with so genuinely and so completely, but I also felt tinges of sadness. I found myself wishing I’d “overcome” the struggles I’d faced in middle school and become a “normal” adult. Instead I’d become the kind of adult who can’t hold a job, live on her own, or have a romantic relationship.

 

Yet I knew the fact that I was sitting there right then having dinner with a long- time friend was a testament to what I have overcome. Maintaining friendships with other humans once seemed impossible for me. Now I have become a social animal. I know I owe it all to the good animals, good friends and good teachers in my life. I also know that those are overlapping categories.

 

On the drive home my friend talked about how special education has changed over the years, how she could never get away with being as friendly with her students now as she was with me back then. She said she’s seeing an increase in aggressive, depressive and suicidal behavior in students. She said she used to think she could make a difference as a special education teacher but now she’s not so sure.

 

That statement shocked and bothered me. As I reached across the car to rest my hand on her shoulder, that starfish metaphor entered my head and it was as though my arm had been transformed in to the arm of a starfish.

 

“You made a difference to me.”

 

 

Teacher’s Pet (Part 2)

“Hey, kid, want to go have lunch together?” Mrs. Walters asked as she approached me in the cafeteria on the first day of eighth grade.

 

I wasn’t sure why she was asking me to have lunch with her since she wasn’t my teacher anymore, but I acquiesced.

 

“I just loved all those letters you sent me over the summer,” she said sarcastically.

 

“Sorry. You know writing’s a chore for me.”

 

“So, how was your summer?”

 

“Good.”

 

“And how’s Frisky doing?”

 

“He’s doing well.”

 

“I’m glad but you can tell me if he died. I can handle it.”

 

“No, he’s alive and well.”

 

“I have two new rabbits. They’re black rabbits.”

 

“What are their names?”

 

“Midnight and Charcoal.”

 

I was thinking those were not very original names for black pets, but I just said “Cool.”

 

“How are you liking eighth grade so far?”

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“How do you like your new supplemental teacher?”

 

“I don’t like her. I wish you were still my teacher.”

 

“I’m still your friend.”

 

***

I knew I had a much friendlier relationship with Mrs. Walters than was typical for a teacher and student, but I was still pretty shocked when she suggested I come over to her house for dinner.

 

“What? Why would I do that?’’

 

“So you can meet my animals.”

 

“You’re allowed to take me home with you? Can’t you get in trouble for that?”

 

“As long as your mom says it’s okay, I think I can get away with it.”

 

 

For years my mom had been trying to facilitate playdates between me and my peers but with little success. I basically considered playdates to be a form of torture and getting me to participate in them was like pulling teeth. I rarely got invited on playdates and I never initiated them. On the few occasions that my mother was able to arrange playdates at our house she would stay home from work in an effort to facilitate appropriate social interaction between me and the other kid. Things like conversing with the other person, showing interest in the other person and making eye contact just didn’t come naturally to me. My friendships never lasted very long.

 

Being friends with a teacher was pretty weird so I figured this would be the most awkward “playdate” of all. I figured I would not be invited back. I figured this friendship would dissolve even more quickly than my other ones had. Yet somehow this friendship worked. Somehow, I was invited back over and over again. Somehow, I was readily accepted by her entire family-the two-legged members, the four- legged members, the members who had more than four legs and the members who had fewer than two legs. I’d never liked little kids when I was a little kid myself but now I took a liking to her kids and of course to her animals. The only issue that ever arose was the time I was playing with the family frog and it got loose. I started panicking but I was told to calm down. This wasn’t the first time an animal had gotten loose in the house.

 

One day as she was taking me to her house I said, “Oh my god! Let’s stop at my dad’s house and see my chickens!”

 

“Oh my god. You’re crazy. I’m not trespassing on your dad’s property when he’s not there to look at chickens under a trampoline!”

 

“Please, please, please,” I begged, flashing her my sweetest smile.

 

“All right. I’ll do it for you.”

 

Mrs. Walters wasn’t one of those friends I “just barely tolerated.” I completely and utterly adored her. Some people were confused by our friendship though.

 

“Why is Kira always having dinner at her teacher’s house? Is she in trouble at school?” my babysitter asked my mother.

 

“No, she likes her teacher. They’re friends,” my mother replied.

 

“She’s friends with her teacher?’’ my babysitter said incredulously.

 

“Yeah, they’re good friends. I’ve never seen Kira respond like that to anyone.”

 

 

While the dinners at Mrs. Walters’ house were not a sign of trouble at school, unfortunately I was experiencing some trouble there. I hadn’t been kidding when I’d told Mrs. Walters I didn’t like my eighth- grade special education teacher, Mrs. Robinovitz. Mrs. Walters and I had been a perfect match. She was someone who completely understood me. Mrs. Robinovitz and I were a terrible match and she did not seem to understand me at all. She was one of those teachers who tended to interpret my struggles as rudeness or laziness and would chide me accordingly. The problem was that now that I was an angsty teenager who had gained some social courage, I was reacting to those kinds of encounters not just by blushing and crying but by defending myself, sometimes a bit too aggressively. When Mrs. Robinovitz said she was going to write me up for I don’t even remember what, I replied “Fine, write me up, bitch!”

 

“Couldn’t you have just said ‘Fine. write me up’ and left off the bitch?” the school psychologist asked.

 

“You know, there’s a staff member in this building that I dislike and disagree with, but I realize I have to get along with her,” Mrs. Walters said, after the school psychologist had asked her to talk to me about the situation.

 

“Who is it that you dislike?’’

 

“It doesn’t matter. The point is…”

 

“Is it Mrs. Strachan?’’

 

“Kira…”

 

“Is it Ms. Maurer?  Mr. Glass? Miss Gi…”

 

“Kira! The point is how do you think it would go over for me if I called this person a bitch?’’

 

“Not too well.”

 

“Correct. And it didn’t go over too well for you either, now did it?”

 

 

I was also having problems at home that were carrying over to school. For years my parents had had this weird not really married but not entirely separated relationship but now the marriage was moving toward divorce. Things were getting ugly and I was getting blamed and caught in the middle. I started getting bad grades and running away from home. A meeting was called with my parents, the school psychologist and some of my eighth- grade teachers to discuss my situation and well-being. Mrs. Walters attended the meeting too.

When she next saw me after the meeting she held her arms out to me and drew me in tightly.

“You don’t deserve any of the hard stuff you’re going through, kid. People say things about you that aren’t right. I’d stop it all if I could.”

 

I did not doubt for a second that she would move heaven and earth to help me and in that moment in spite of everything, I felt incredibly lucky.

 

“I love you,” I said as I leaned my weight against her, absorbing the comfort she offered.

 

My next neurologist report said that I was now expressing affection and humor towards others in a way that I never had before, and that people were flocking towards me in a way that they never had before.

***

 

Perhaps no female coming of age story would be complete without a mention of that time when the girl “becomes a woman.” It happened for me a couple of weeks before the end of eighth grade. As close as I was with Mrs. Walters, I was not inclined to discuss my period with her, but she ended up finding out about it anyway and in a very dramatic fashion.

 

As you might imagine, first periods are particularly rough for the hygienically, socially and fine motor skills challenged and particularly when they’re accompanied by gastrointestinal upsets.

 

I sat in a stall of the middle school girl’s bathroom moaning and unable to cope with what was happening to me. Someone must have noticed and tried to help but I was overwhelmed and unresponsive. A teacher was called in to the bathroom and then so was the vice principal. They tried to get me to come out, but I was in pain and having trouble cleaning myself up. I just wanted to be left alone. Their efforts to get me to come out became more demanding and forceful. It was when the teacher climbed over the wall of my stall that I really lost it.

 

“I hate you!” I screamed.

 

The vice principal threatened to knock down the door of my stall.

 

“Go away, asshole!”

 

I burst in to tears. I could hear frantic discussion being carried out over stalls and across walkie talkies. More people entered the bathroom.

 

“Go get Mrs. Walters,” a voice was saying

 

“She’s busy now.”

 

“We need to get her. She’s the only one who’s going to be able to calm Kira down at this point.”

 

I buried my head in my hands, feeling hopelessly trapped and wishing for an escape. The walls of the bathroom stall had become a pink prison.

 

A blur of pain and hysteria and then Mrs. Walters’ voice.

 

“Kira, it’s me. Are you okay? Can you come out?’’

 

“Make everyone else go away first.”

 

On this day of becoming a woman I couldn’t have felt more child-like. I heard hushed voices and retreating footsteps.

 

“Okay, everyone else is gone. Can you come out now?”

 

“I’m bleeding…and… and… my stomach hurts…and…I can’t get this pad on….and…”

 

“It’s all right. It happens. Just do the best you can.”

 

After adjusting my underwear and making ample use of toilet paper, I finally pulled myself to my feet. I cautiously opened my stall door and walked over to the sink where Mrs. Walters was standing.

 

Mrs. Walters pressed a wet napkin to my face and rubbed my back. As she took me in her arms, I spilled tears all over her and prayed to God that was the only bodily fluid being spilled.

“They said they were going to break the door down…and she climbed over the stall…and…” I spluttered.

 

“I know, honey. It’s okay now. I’m here now. You were just scared.”

 

She dabbed at my face some more, then sighed and said, “But for the love of God, you can’t call the vice principal an asshole!”

 

I was suspended from school the next day, although Mrs. Walters told me not to think of it as a suspension but a day of rest.

 

She took me to her house for dinner that night and as she drove me home, I fretted about facing the music at school the next day.

 

“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Just write an apology letter and you’ll be fine.”

 

In my apology letter I compared my actions in the middle school bathroom to the actions of a trapped and terrified animal and emphasized my need to behave in a manner more appropriate for a human being.

***

 

The day before school ended I sat in the gym with the rest of my eighth – grade class rehearsing for the graduation ceremony that would occur that night. Although my period was over now, I was once again experiencing pain. This was emotional pain but the pangs it was producing in my body were not entirely dissimilar from menstrual cramps. It was the pain of anticipated separation and loss.

 

The mood in the gym was jubilant. My peers had every reason to be happy. Soon they would be leaving middle school and next year they would be entering high school along with all their friends. I, on the other hand, would be leaving my best friend behind. It was enough to trigger another meltdown. After a teacher noticed that I was crying, I was removed from the graduation rehearsal and Mrs. Walters was once again called in to attend to me.

 

“What am I going to do without you?” I asked plaintively, reaching for her hand.

 

“What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“But I am.”

 

“People don’t stop caring about each other just because they’re in different buildings. That’s not how friendships work.”

 

“But I won’t see you anymore.”

A pregnant pause filled the air. I could tell Mrs. Walters was measuring her words carefully.

“I can’t promise that I’ll see you every day or every week or even every month, but I can promise you I’ll be your friend forever.”

 

My mom took me to the store that night to get goodbye presents for my eighth- grade teachers and of course for Mrs. Walters too. I got her a birdhouse and an accompanying birdwatching book. This time there was no need for my mother to write a note thanking her for all she’d done for me. I wrote that note myself.

 

After putting the note in its envelope, I laid on my bed and cried some more. My mother tried to comfort me. She assured me that Mrs. Walters would keep in touch with me and would always be there for me. She said she could tell she was that kind of person just by looking in to her eyes. She also said that while she was sorry I was hurting so much, she was glad that I had gotten attached to someone. For a while she was afraid I would never be attached to anyone besides her.

 

“You’re so sweet,” Mrs. Walters said the next day as she read my card.

 

I thought I was all done with crying but when I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Walters at the end of the day, I shed some more tears.

“Crying again? You are such a turkey.”

In spite of my distress, I found myself amused by that animal reference. I told her that I was really going to miss her.

“We’ll keep in touch,” she reassured me.

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive high school.”

“You’ll be fine. You can connect with other people.”

I could feel my old argumentative streak flaring up.

“I don’t want other people! I want you!”

“You’ll still have me, and you can also make new friends. You’re a very genuine person. People appreciate that.”

“The word is pronounced genu-WIN, not genu-WINE,” I corrected through my tears.

“Well, however it’s pronounced, you’re a lovely person and you have so much to offer.”

I thought back to the first time I cried in middle school-that time when Ms. Maurer confronted me in the hallway over my tardiness and Mrs. Walters came to my rescue. I realized that Mrs. Walters had rescued me in so many ways since then and I had changed so much as a result. Although it sounds trite to say I’d changed from a caterpillar to a butterfly, considering how heavily animals played in to our relationship, it feels like an appropriate metaphor.

 

***

The summer after eighth grade a card arrived for me in the mail, written in the familiar flowing cursive of my favorite teacher.

 

Dear Kira,

Thank you for the gifts. They weren’t necessary! I have enjoyed our friendship greatly. You are a very special young lady and always will be! I will be calling you soon to get together. Keep enjoying your summer. See you soon!

Love,

Mrs. Walters

I put that card from the best friend I’d ever had in my drawer of special things, next to the first one she’d sent me.

Teacher’s Pet (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Here’s an essay I wrote for my writing class last year about a teacher who made a difference in my lie. Enjoy.

 As I walked the hallways of my new school building on the first day of seventh grade, I noticed that the first class listed on my schedule was supplemental. “What on earth is supplemental?’’ I wondered. When I entered the designated classroom, I noticed that it was a small classroom with a table instead of desks. There were only six other students seated around the table. At that point I realized what supplemental was. It was the special education class.

I’d had special education services my whole life, but it had been a while since I’d been in a special education classroom. Back when I was in first grade it was referred to as resource room.

My second-grade teacher had suggested that perhaps special education services in a public school were not enough for me so in the summer my parents sent me to a school for the learning disabled for a trial period. That school said I was welcome to come back in the fall, but they weren’t sure there was much they could do for me because their school was catered toward kids with language- based learning disabilities and my language skills were advanced. My parents asked me whether I wanted to return to the public school in the fall or remain in the special school. I was initially indifferent but when I heard that the third- grade teacher I had been assigned to in the public school kept a pet rabbit in the classroom I decided I wanted to return to public school.

I preferred the company of animals to the company of humans. Animals wouldn’t criticize my poor social skills, poor fine motor skills or poor visual spatial skills. They wouldn’t complain that I was disheveled, disorganized or inattentive. When I flapped my hands, they wouldn’t ask me why I did that or inform me that it’s not something normal people do. Some of them would just flap their wings in return. Friendships with humans were elusive to me but friendships with animals came naturally.

This teacher who sat in front of the table in my first class on my first day of seventh grade was middle aged with shoulder length blond hair and deep blue eyes. She introduced herself as Mrs. Walters. She said she was going to tell us a little bit about herself and then we would take turns going around the table telling everyone about ourselves. I groaned inwardly. I hated telling people about myself. I hated talking to people in general. Elective mutism was one of the many diagnoses that had been given to me over the years and then discarded. I did not fit neatly in to any one diagnostic category.

I was only half listening as Mrs. Walters told us about her husband, her kids and the town in which she lived but my ears perked up when she told us about her menagerie of pets. While my educational and psychological reports often noted that I showed little interest in other people, I was, however, interested in other people’s animals. Mrs. Walters obviously was too since as we went around the room she encouraged the students to talk about their pets. Mrs. Walters had an impressive collection of pets and so did some of the other students in the class but since I was going through my animal hoarding phase at the time, I had the largest menagerie of all. When it was my turn to speak, mouths dropped open as I shared my list of pets. I’d kind of enjoyed  speaking about myself in that instance.

The next day Mrs. Walters decided to ask us if we knew why we were in her class. It was the first time I’d ever heard a special education teacher address the issue.

“Because we don’t do our homework?” a girl named Patience ventured.

“No, actually that’s not why you’re in here. You’re in here because you learn differently….”

Just then something in the corner of the room caught my eye.

“You got a fish?” I asked Mrs. Walters, pointing to the swirl of rainbow colored fins gliding through the water of an oblong tank.

“ Oh, yeah. I just got him yesterday at the pet store.”

“What’s his name?”

“I think I’m going to call him Frisky. He seems pretty frisky, don’t you think?”

“He’s a Japanese Fighter Fish, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“I have a fighter fish.”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Bluefish.”

“That’s a cute name.”

“Did you know that sometimes when fighter fish shit, the shit comes out of their neck?”

“Please don’t use that kind of language in my classroom. Say poop instead,” Mrs. Walters finally replied, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over the room.

Fish shit-I mean poop- may not have been the most appropriate conversation topic but it was a rare instance of me choosing to spontaneously engage in conversation and share information with someone I didn’t know very well.

As the days wore on I continued to open up in Mrs. Walters’ class, which was an unstructured class that was in place of the study hall my more typically developing peers got. While conversations were discouraged in study hall, they often took place in Mrs. Walters’ class. Since we were a group of animal loving kids with an animal loving teacher, the conversations often centered around animals. Animals were a subject I was interested in and a subject in which I prided myself on my experience and knowledge, so I took part in the conversations. My contributions weren’t always socially appropriate but after I told a kid that I thought his basset hound was ugly and told Mrs. Walters that I did not like her dog’s name, Mrs. Walters helpfully informed me that I was going to get beat up if I kept insulting peoples’ pets.

I was always the last one out of Mrs. Walters’ classroom. Sometimes I would linger behind with my face pressed in front of Frisky’s aquarium and sometimes Mrs. Walters would hand me pellets to feed to him. Often, I would be struggling to cram all my crumpled papers, battered books and pens without caps in to my backpack. Mrs. Walters would help me get my materials together and since we were both headed towards language arts class, we would walk to class together. While many middle schoolers would walk to class conversing with a friend by their side, I did not. At first walking to class with a teacher felt even more weird and unnatural but I soon got used to it. We mostly talked about animals.

 

Unfortunately, I had a hard time in some of my other classes and I had a hard time adjusting to middle school in general. I struggled to get to class on time and to finish my assignments on time. I struggled with opening my locker and keeping my papers organized. I struggled with math and science and gym. I struggled to sit still and pay attention throughout the day.

Since I struggled so much in school, Mrs. Walters had to periodically provide me with support throughout the school day. Sometimes I would have to spend my lunch period with her working on skills such as opening my locker. At first, I resented it but soon I not only tolerated but looked forward to having lunch with her. I related to her in a way I couldn’t relate to my peers. She would talk to me about her dog Daisy who was a mutt that looked like Lassie and I would talk to her about my chickens that lived under my trampoline. She would ask me what pet I thought she should get and I’d give her my best advice. She’d lament on the pets she wanted but her husband wouldn’t let her have and I’d commiserate with the pets I wanted but my parents wouldn’t let me have.

The struggles I’d been having in middle school came to a head about a month in to the school year. My social studies teacher, Ms. Maurer, called me in to the hallway. “Why are you always late to class?” she demanded to know. I lowered my head and said nothing.

“Please answer me.” She was growing increasingly irritated.

“I don’t know,” I said softly.

“You don’t know?’’ she retorted incredulously. Her face was just inches from mine.

My heart was racing, and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

Just then Mrs. Walters was walking by in the hallway. “Hey, Mrs. Walters, can you come here for a minute?” Ms. Maurer asked.

“Sure. What’s going on?”

“Kira is five minutes late to class every single day!’’

“Okay. I walk to class with Kira sometimes. I’m sure I can help her figure out how to get to class on time.”

“She better figure it out because this behavior is unacceptable!” She was outright yelling now.

My lip started quivering. I struggled to maintain composure, but I lost control and burst in to tears. There I was, twelve years old, and sobbing in the middle of the school hallway like a baby. I hadn’t felt this humiliated since I’d peed my pants in front of the class in first grade.

Mrs. Walters wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Everything’s going to be okay, honey. Why don’t you go in to the bathroom and freshen up while I talk to Ms. Maurer?”

Unfortunately, this was just the first of many indignities that I would face in middle school. Fortunately, it was also the first of many times that Mrs. Walters would comfort me and save the day.

One day as I was getting ready to hand in my homework in science class, I realized I’d forgotten to write my name on it. As I started to write my name on it, Mrs. Strachan, my ill-tempered science teacher, noticed and said, “Kira, I’m going to have to mark your homework as not finished.” My face flushed. Then Mrs. Strachan turned to Cara, the girl who was sitting next to me and the star student of the class.

“Kira, thinks she can get away with slacking off but we’re not going to let her, are we, Cara?”

I slunk down in my seat and wished the floor would swallow me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Walters.

“It’s okay, Kira. Let’s go to the back table. I’ll help you with your lab.”

***

While many of my developmental milestones had been delayed, my speech came early. I spoke my first word when I was nine months old. That word was no. My second word was cat. Those words ended up being a good summation of my personality. I love animals and I have a stubborn argumentative streak. When I argue about animals I am particularly tenacious.

While I was happy to have a class pet, there’s only so much gratification you can get out of a fish. I longed for a fuzzy class pet I could interact with. I longed for the days of third grade in which in addition to Pumpkin and Marshmallow the class goldfish, there was Eppie the class rabbit and the caterpillars we kept on our desk and released when they turned in to butterflies. I knew Mrs. Walters loved animals so I decided to try my luck in convincing her to purchase more class pets.

“Mrs. Walters, can we get another class pet?” I asked hopefully.

She sighed. “No, Kira, we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re only in this room for an hour a day and I have enough animals to take care of at home.”

“Why can’t we get a hamster? They’re easy to take care of.”

“Mrs. Staggard has a hamster so if you want to see a hamster you can go over to her classroom.”

“How come her class can have a hamster and ours can’t?” I countered.

“It would be nice if you were a little less argumentative.”

 

Then there was the issue of homework. I could be a good student when I wanted to be, but I didn’t always feel like putting in the effort and I found the workload in middle school to be rather overwhelming. In regular study hall the teacher just sat at her desk and left the students alone, but Mrs. Walters was always on her students’ backs about homework and I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion.

 

“Kira, did you do your science homework?”
“No.”

“Did you do your math homework?”

“No.’’

“Well, I guess you decided to take the night off!”

“I don’t want to do homework.”

“I don’t want to clean my bathroom, but I still do it.”

 

 

One day after she told me I had to re-do a worksheet I’d just done because she knew I could do better, I snatched the pencil and paper from her and threw daggers at her with my eyes.

She smiled assuredly. “You love me. I know you do.”

I could not argue with her there.

 

When Mrs. Staggard brought her hamster to visit our classroom, Mrs. Walters cooed over it and said, “I missed my calling as a veterinarian.”

Even as I resented the fact that she wouldn’t let our class have a hamster, I recognized that she’d found her calling as a teacher.

 

 

One of our projects in language arts was a speech project about a family tradition that required us to bring in a prop. My speech was about my family tradition of playing an egg knocking game on Easter. In addition to not looking forward to speaking in front of the class, I was unsure about what prop to bring in.

“Why do I have to bring in a stupid prop?” I whined to Mrs. Walters.

“Hey guys, what do you think looks better, Kira standing in front of the class with nothing or Kira standing in front of the class with colorful Easter eggs?”

“I know! I’ll bring in my rabbit!’’

“I don’t know about that….”

“Come on. It would be so much fun!”

“Yes, it would be fun but I’m not sure the teachers would be okay with it.”

“Can’t you convince them?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

By the end of the day I had permission to bring my rabbit to school.

The next day, Mrs. Strachan who I had the misfortune of having as a homeroom teacher, insisted I keep Scarlett O’Hare in her carrier but Mrs. Walters was quite happy to meet her, as was the rest of the class. “Aw, she’s so cute!” they all squealed in delight. They asked me questions about Scarlett, which I eagerly answered.

Mrs. Walters decided we needed a class picture with the rabbit and left the room to get a camera. I held my rabbit as my peers gathered around me and I smiled. Mrs. Walters handed me the polaroid.

As I moved from class to class that day, students and teachers alike continued to fawn over my rabbit. They continued to ask me questions about her and I continued to engage in conversation with them. When the time came to give my speech, being able to pet Scarlett throughout it calmed me down and I performed well.

“I wish you could bring your rabbit to school every day,” Mrs. Walters said to me.

 

While I too would have liked to bring my rabbit to school every day, I recognized that I was still reaping the benefits of my one bring your rabbit to school day months later. I could not find a way to incorporate my rabbit in to my next speech but the confidence I had gained as a result of my successful previous speech served me well when it came to giving a speech as civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. Despite the awkward crying incident in the hallway, Ms. Maurer had really taken to me after I’d brought Scarlett O’Hare in. She did my hair and makeup for my Shirley Chisolm speech and it was quite a change from my usual disheveled appearance. By the time I’d finished my speech, I was the one making her cry. Mrs. Walters was crying too. So were my other teachers.

 

I faced my biggest struggle of seventh grade when I had to take a sewing class. I was just terrible at sewing and not even the fact that I was sewing a type of animal could make up for the trauma that pig pillow inflicted on me. Mrs. Walters tried her best to help and encourage me but eventually we both conceded defeat.

“I hate this! I can’t do this anymore!’’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in frustration.

Mrs. Walters considered for a moment and then said, “I know you can’t and I see that you’ve tried your best so give me the needle and I’ll do the rest for you.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t tell your sewing teacher.”

“Damn it! I can’t find my needle.”

“Keep looking. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Suddenly she was laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I found your needle.”

“Where?”

“In your hair!”

I touched my head and sure enough there my needle was.

“Hold on, honey. Let me help you. There’s toothpaste in your hair.”

“I will never forget this moment,” she said as she reached in to my hair.

I knew I would never forget it either.

 

 

It was in seventh grade that the beast called depression first started clawing at me. As I didn’t have many friends, I didn’t have many people to talk to. However, I did have one friend, whose name was Jessie. We’d initially bonded over a discussion about her pet rabbit. I was described as just barely tolerating Jessie, but I did sit with her at lunch and sometimes I even talked to her.

“Jessie, do you ever get depressed?” I asked in the lunchroom.

“No. what would I be depressed about?’’

It figured that Jessie would have nothing to be depressed about. She was the kind of kid who easily got straight A’s and whose school materials were always perfectly organized.

That evening at home my mother came in to my bedroom to talk to me.

“Hey, Kira. Mrs. Walters just called me. She’s worried about you.”

“Why?”

“She thinks you’re depressed.”

“Why does she think that?”

“ She says you’re always arguing with her and giving her a hard time but suddenly you’ve stopped doing that.”

 

“So, did your mom tell you I called her last night?” Mrs. Walters asked me the next day.

“Yeah.”

“I’m worried about you, kid.”

I stared at the floor.

“Your mom tells me you feel badly about yourself. Is that true?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you feel bad about yourself?’’

“I’m just bad at everything.”

“That’s not true. You’re good at arguing with me, you’re good at making me laugh, you’re good at writing.”

“My handwriting is terrible.”

“I’m not talking about handwriting. I’m talking about the things you write.”

Her eyes were full of concern.

“You do well in all your subjects.”

“No, I don’t. I get C’s in math and science.”

“So? If you try your best you should be proud of a C. You don’t have to get A’s in everything.’’

“Other people do.”

“You don’t need to compare yourself to other people.”

“You have to help me with everything! No one else needs this much help!”

I was afraid I was going to cry in school again. Mrs. Walters looked like she might cry herself.

“Oh, honey, I know some things are hard for you, but I enjoy helping you and you’ve taught me something. You’ve taught me that there are things people can do and there are things they can’t do. You’re a very bright girl. No, you’re never going to be a seamstress but that’s okay. You have other talents.”

I made my way over toward Frisky’s tank.

“Will you think about what I said?”

I nodded.

“So, what are you asking for for Christmas?”

“A goat.”

“Oh, Kira. Can you take care of all these animals?”

“I don’t think you have much room to talk. You have quite the menagerie yourself.”

 

 

Over Christmas break Mrs. Walters allowed me to take Frisky home with me.

“Hi, Kira!” she greeted me when I returned

I fiddled with the strap on my overalls

“Can I get a response?’’

“Hi,” I said softly

“Did you get a lot of presents for Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“What was your favorite present?”

“I don’t know.”

“I heard you got an aquarium. I bet that was your favorite present.”

It was true. The twenty- gallon aquarium had been my favorite present, but the encyclopedia of mammals had been a close second. My mom had persuaded me to invite Jessie over for a sleepover during Christmas break. When she asked us if we wanted to watch TV, I’d replied that no, we’d watch the aquarium instead. For a while Jessie enjoyed and then tolerated all my talk of aquarium fish, which carried on in to the school cafeteria but eventually she tired of it. No matter, Mrs. Walters was happy to continue discussing aquarium fish with me.

 

One day Mrs. Walters was sitting in one of the main classrooms helping me with a reading project and talking to me about chickens when my math teacher walked by. The project was a self-representation collage that involved cutting and pasting materials from magazines so of course it was taxing on my fine motor skills and of course most of the pictures in my collage were of animals. I was talking about how the neighbors had been complaining about my rooster crowing in the morning so my father had decided that my rooster would have to sleep in a hamper in the closet at night rather than in the garbage can under the trampoline with the other chickens and now my rooster had been trained to jump in to the hamper in the closet at night all on his own. This was typical conversation between the two of us, but the math teacher was understandably a bit perplexed by it.

“So, you have chickens and a rabbit?” he said to me.

“Oh, Kira has a lot of pets. Tell him about your animals.”

I clammed up and shook my head.

“You seem to know Kira pretty well,” he said to Mrs. Walters.

“I know Kira like the back of my hand.”

 

In April I missed a day of school for a neurologist appointment. Mrs. Walters was asked to submit a report for the neurologist and since I was a nosy child I took the report out of my mother’s desk and read it. She’d written that I was a great young lady and a proficient writer, but that unfortunately fine motor skills deficits interfered with my achievement. When asked if I had trouble getting along with other students, she said it wasn’t that I didn’t get along with other students, but I chose not to interact with them much and that I tended to only converse with people I knew well. She remarked that I was inattentive and fidgety throughout the school day and that since I struggled with opening my locker, I chose to carry around a backpack that weighed about seventeen pounds. She noted that I often came to class with my hair unbrushed, my shoes untied and toothpaste on my face but that none of those things bothered me.

 

Based on the unusually large discrepancy between my superior verbal IQ and borderline performance IQ, the neurologist diagnosed me with nonverbal learning disorder. It was a complicated and poorly understood disorder that seemed to account for all my symptoms except the flapping.

 

My mom accumulated all the books and articles she could find on the disorder. Several of them noted that middle school is the time when things start to become really challenging for the child with NVLD. They gave examples of kids who were repeatedly misunderstood and judged by their peers and teachers to the point that they felt hopeless and helpless. They came to the conclusion that they lived in a world not built to accommodate them.

 

I could certainly relate to those feelings, but I knew that I was extremely lucky to have a teacher like Mrs. Walters. She had shown me a part of the world that did accommodate me. She accepted and appreciated me as thoroughly and completely as animals did. I liked her as much and felt as comfortable with her as I did with animals.

 

The trouble kids with NVLD had making friends was well documented. It was said that they tended to prefer the company of adults to the company of their peers. Mrs. Walters wasn’t just my teacher. She had also become my friend.

 

Soon preparation was being made of for the end of the school year. At my IEP meeting we talked about how I’d done in seventh grade. My mother said, “I think she hasn’t done as well this year because it was hard for her to deal with things like switching between classes and using lockers.”

 

Mrs. Walters got along very well with my mother but on this point, she felt the need to correct her. “Actually, she has done well this year. I’m very proud of her.”

 

As I was feeding Frisky his pellets during the last week of school, Mrs. Walters told me that she didn’t think she could keep him over the summer or in her classroom next year. She asked if I would like to have him. I said I would.

 

The day before the last day of school my mother took me to get goodbye presents for my teachers. I selected chicken stationery and a matching chicken bookmark for Mrs. Walters. As I was putting the cards in the envelopes, my mother told me she’d written a note of her own to Mrs. Walters that she wanted me to give to her.

 

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because Mrs. Walters takes such good care of you and I wanted to thank her.”

 

“Smile, Mrs. Walters!” I said as I sat in her classroom for the last time and pointed a disposable camera at her.

She smiled obligingly.

“Another one!”

This time the other students posed next to her.

I flashed the camera a third time.

“Okay, Kira. I think that’s enough pictures.”

“I have something for you.”

I handed her the gifts and the card.

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”

She opened the card and read the note I’d written to her saying that I’d tried to sew her a sweater as a goodbye gift, but it hadn’t worked out too well.

She laughed. “You have such a great sense of humor.”

 

“Are you sure you have everything you need, kid?” she asked me as the day drew to a close and the busses began to arrive.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Promise me you’ll take good care of Frisky?”

I vowed to take as good care of him as she had taken of me.

“We’ve had a lot of fun this year. I’m really going to miss you.”

I crammed the last of my wrinkled papers in to my seventeen- pound backpack and zipped it up.

“And I think you’re going to miss me too.”

I smiled slightly and then started to frown.

“But we’ll see each other around the building next year,” she added.

The last bell rang.

She drew me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Write to me over the summer,” she called after me as I made my way towards the bus.

 

A few weeks later a letter arrived for me in the mail. It was written on chicken stationery.

 

Dear Kira,

I love my new stationery and the great bookmark. I will be using it all summer because this is the time of year I enjoy reading for pleasure and writing letters. I am waiting to receive some kind of correspondence from you…a postcard ..a letter…anything so I know how your summer is going so far. I have enclosed several cards with my address. I figure you should put them around everywhere so anytime you see one of them you will think about writing to me and if you lose one you’re bound to find another somewhere. You are a wonderful young lady and I’m so happy that you were in my class! I have to tell you that you are my favorite student! I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Walters

 

I put this letter from the best teacher I had ever had in the drawer at my bedside where I kept things that were important to me.

 

 

A Different Kind of High School Reunion

I enter the doors of my old high school. There’s a security guard sitting at a desk in the front hallway. I sign my name in a log book along with the time and date. It’s November 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving. Under “Reason for visiting” I write “Academy Alumni Event”.  After confirming that my name is on a list, the guard hands me a name tag, with a drawing of a knight, the school’s mascot, on it.  I put it on my chest, where I can feel my excitement building.

I’m not the kind of person you’d think would get excited about high school reunions. I wasn’t popular in high school and I’m not popular now. I tend to be reserved and socially awkward, to avoid social events whenever possible. I don’t have the kind of life that’s likely to impress anyone from my past and I often dread having to talk about my life with new or old acquaintances. This is a different kind of high school reunion though.

I ascend the staircase and look at the numbers beside the classroom doors. 211…216.. 219.. 222. I’m there. The location of the classroom that housed the class I knew so well and loved so much when I was in high school has changed but the atmosphere is the same. I rush in and envelop Ms. Madigan in a bear hug.

“Now that’s a good hug. This kid over here comes in and hugs me with one arm and I’m like ‘What kind of of a hug is that?’ She gestures towards one of the other alumni.  I don’t recognize him. I don’t know any of the alumni in the room. They were after my time.

I glance around at the decorations in the room.  There’s a bulletin board that says “Lettuce Taco Bout the Elements of a Story.”

“Is Mr. Giarelli responsible for that one?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“No, I came up with it myself.”

“Where is Mr. Giarelli?”

“He’s teaching another class. He’ll be here soon.”

“And Delilah?’

“She’s coming at 11”

I call my mother and tell her not to pick me up until 11:30.

Two familiar faces enter the room.

“Hey, Phoenix!” I say to the adorable toddler in my friend’s arms.

“And hi, Zara” I say to my friend, remembering my manners.

Ms. Madigan takes Phoenix in to her arms. I snap a picture of them. Then I search through my Facebook albums on my phone and compare it to the picture I took of them at this time last year, when Phoenix was an infant.

An alumni enters the room with a puppy in her arms. Phoenix reaches for him.

Zara turns to me. “Phoenix loves him as much as she loved your cat. We’ll have to get together at your house again soon so they can play together.”

“Sorry I couldn’t join Zara and Delilah for lunch at your house that day” Ms. Madigan says.

“That’s okay. I knew you were busy at the school.”

“But you live near the school now so you could walk over and eat lunch with us sometime.”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Hey, did I tell you I ran in to James a few months ago?”

“Really?’

“Yeah, I was walking by my therapist’s house while I was waiting for my appointment and he said ‘Kira? It’s James, Ms. Madigan’s son.’ I said ‘Yeah, I thought it was you but I wasn’t sure and I was too afraid to say anything.  I’m glad you’re braver than I am.” We both laugh.

I walk over to the refreshments table to grab some pumpkin pie. In the center of the table is a ‘Gratitude tree’ with each paper leaf representing what each person is grateful for. I look at the words written on some of the leaves.  Among the gratitude expressed for things like health, friends and family, there is gratitude expressed for the Academy.

“How did the Thanksgiving feast go yesterday?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“It went well. We had a lot of people come. Did we do Thanksgiving feasts when you were here?’

“Yes, I was around for the beginning of every Academy tradition. I started most of them.”

“This is true.”

I remember we were allowed to invite a guest within the school to our feast. At first my brother was reluctant to come eat with ‘the crazy class’ but in the end I convinced him. I remember when asked to name something I was grateful for I said The Academy.

A new staff member I don’t know walks into the room and introduces himself as Mr. Willis.  He announces that a video tape is being made in which alumni will be asked questions about The Academy.

“In answer to the question ‘What was the best part of the Academy?’ you all better say me” Ms. Madigan interjects.

“Should we have the oldest alumni go first?” Mr. Willis asks.

“No, because I’m the oldest alumni and I’m not ready” I reply.

As I buy myself some more time, I glance around the room some more. The journal question on the board is “How would you show other people that you are grateful for them?” The quote of the day is “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles. It empties today of its strength.”

I pace over to the classroom supply closet.  On one of its glass doors is another quote. It reads “There are no endings, only new beginnings.” Underneath it is the year I graduated.

In the closet is the stuffed rat my classmate Ariel gave to Ms. Madigan back in the day.  Many years later, another classmate, Vanessa gave her another stuffed rat. In May I completed the trifecta and gave her a third stuffed rat. As the other teachers show off the flowers and chocolates they get from their students, Ms. Madigan can show off the rats she got from hers.

I pace to the sliding wall that divides the classroom in two. On the wall is a blue paper silhouette of a person. Around the person’s head are black and white images of smaller people with their heads drooped in to their arms, dark clouds hovering above them. They are surrounded by quotes such as “Wasted Talent”, “I was doing better,why am I like this again?”, “Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares”,” I’m not smart enough and I don’t know enough about what’s going on”, “Life” and “Family.”

Beside the blue person is a list of student goals. One of them says “To go to a good college and get a good job.” In the background I can hear the alumni telling the teachers about their colleges, their jobs, their significant others and their children. The familiar waves of shame, jealousy, regret and longing wash over me.

On the blue person’s chest it says “It’s okay not to be okay.”

Mr. Giarelli enters the room. His mustache is gone but otherwise he looks the same as he did when he was my teacher.  “Hey, Kira!” he says as he hugs me.

“Glad to be back in The Academy?’ I ask.

“Definitely!”

“It’s where you belong.”

He sits on the sofa. I take a seat across from him where a circle of of alumni has gathered.  “Do you know Randall?” Mr. Giarelli asks gesturing to a young man on my left.

“I didn’t go to school with him but I met him at last year’s alumni reunion.”

Randall tells Mr. Giarelli he’s heard that Delilah left the The Academy and the program isn’t what it used to be. They discuss what’s changed and what the future has in store. Then the discussion moves to the past. Mr. Giarelli talks about how he decided he wanted to work with emotionally disturbed adolescents, how he used to work at an alternative school with Ms. Madigan and how that led to them working at The Academy.

“Shakira?” Mr. Wilson calls out. I laugh at the name error and then take my seat in front of the camera. The questions appear on the screen. I stumble and hesitate over some of my words. I’m not quite as eloquent as I’d like to be but I get the gist of what I want to express across.

State your name, graduation year and what you’re doing now.

“My name is Kira. I graduated in 2003. Now I’m tutoring English and blogging.”

What staff and students do you remember and why?

“I remember everyone. I remember the main staff, the teachers, Ms. Madigan and Mr. Giarelli and the therapist, Delilah. I remember them because they’re wonderful.”

If I went in to all the reasons why they were wonderful I’d be there all day. I think of Mr. Giarelli and his corny jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh at. I think that it somehow seems fitting that Ms. Madigan needed surgery for an enlarged heart because she has the biggest heart of anyone I know. I think of the Tuesday afternoons I would spend with Delilah, of her belief that she’s not warm and fuzzy and how I beg to differ.

“As for the students, I remember Vanessa and Zara. I’m still friends with them today. I remember Ariel, who was in the same graduating class as me and Vanessa. The staff called us The Three Witches of Eastwick. I remember Laila, who I had a love-hate relationship with. I remember Peter and Annie, who I rode the bus with.  I remember Evan and Toby and Jason and so many more.”

What was the best part about being in The Academy?

“The best part about being in The Academy was the sense of belonging it gave me. When I was in middle school I was fortunate enough to have teachers who took care of me and looked out for me. My freshman year of high school I didn’t have that so much. I felt lost and developed emotional problems. In The Academy I found my place. I learned so much, laughed so much and had so much fun.”

What would you have changed about The Academy? 

“I would have changed the behavior modification system with the rewards and the punishments and the purple sheets. It felt juvenile and condescending and it didn’t help me. I really wouldn’t have changed much about The Academy though.”

I can think of a bunch of little things that bothered me about The Academy when I was in high school but in the grand scheme of all that it gave me they seem insignificant and not worth mentioning.

What advice would you give to Academy students? 

“I would tell them to be grateful for everything everyone in The Academy is doing for them. I’d tell them to realize that even if they’re doing something they don’t like, they may have their best interests at heart. I would tell them not to think that once they graduate, they’re out of sight, out of mind.  The staff say ‘Once you’re ours, you’re ours forever’ and they mean it. If you haven’t talked to them in several years you can pick up right where you left off. They’ll still care about you and they’ll still help you. It happened with me.”

I walk back to the other side of the room. I say to Mr. Giarelli “One of the questions was ‘Who from The Academy do you remember?’ I’m sure you know I remember everyone.”

“Oh yeah. I’ll never forget that day we all played the name game where we went around the circle saying each others’ names. You knew everyone’s first name, middle name, last name, birthday, probably their social security numbers too.”

“She knows my kids’ birthdays!” Ms. Madigan says.

“You know, Kira, through you and  some other students, I learned not just to accept others’ differences but to appreciate them” Mr. Giarelli says.

I remember how in The Academy my pacing, my messy handwriting, my bluntness and my dark sense of humor were appreciated-things many other people just found annoying and inappropriate.

“So Kira… have you found some measure of happiness?’ Mr. Giarelli continues.

“Yes, I have.”

“What are some things that make you happy?”

“My dog,my cat, my writing, living by the pond.”

“Remember when we would take field trips to the pond?”

“Of course I remember!”

The clock strikes 11, the time when the Alumni reunion is supposed to end.

“Hey, do you want to get a picture of everyone before they leave?” I ask Ms. Madigan.

“Oh yes, thanks for reminding me. Everyone gather together for a picture.”

I squeeze in between Zara and Ms, Madigan and smile. Then I request that a picture be taken with my camera too.

At 11:15 Delilah walks in carrying art supplies in one hand and a sign with a motivational quote in the other hand. It says ‘It is what it is.’

“Hey Kira! It’s good to see you!” I kiss her on the forehead. Then I call my mother and tell her not to worry about picking me up. I’ll walk back home whenever I’m done.

When I turn around Delilah is saying something about being warm and fuzzy. Then she’s consulting an alumni who’s studying to be a psychologist about an issue she’s having in her own clinical practice.

Finally at around noon I head out of the classroom, Delilah and Ms. Madigan by my sides, struggling to hold on to all the things they have to carry.

“I can’t believe I actually thought the kids would all be gone by 11. Maybe next year you should have the event on a full day instead of a half day” Delilah says as we walk down the hallways.

“Then they’d stay all day” Ms. Madigan points out.

We walk out of the building and in to the parking lot.  I say goodbye. I hug them both and tell them I love them. They tell me they love me too.

As I head towards the route by the pond that will take me home I can feel the crisp November air on my face and a mix of emotions swirling within me but there’s one emotion I feel more prominently than all the others, an emotion that permeates my whole being. Gratitude.