I got the call at 5:10 on a Monday morning.
My first assignment: Drive through the fog halfway around the bay.
Turn east, toward the fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Report to the school at the edge of the eucalyptus grove.
They need someone to cover a Special Education class for children with ‘learning disabilities.’ The regular teacher broke his leg skiing on the weekend and left no plans. I’m sorry for Mr. Johnson, but this is the call I’ve been waiting for. Any class, anywhere. I need experience.
I have no idea how the day will go, so I wear sensible shoes and arrive early.
The walls in the classroom are an uncomfortable green and too close together. Fog seeps through cracks around the windows and leaves damp circles on the linoleum. The smelly mixture of Pine Sol and broken crayons in shabby shoe boxes gets me thinking of games to play outdoors.
The jittery school secretary walks me to the curb where the children disembark from a miniature yellow bus. She calls out the names, then whispers the labels, of eighteen students. They lumber and lurch into the room through a temporary chute of orange cones and yellow rope. She hurries away with a muffled “good luck.”
The list of children goes like this: three Hyperactive (can’t and won’t be still); four Trainable Mentally Retarded (need lots of extra help with absolutely everything); three Dyslexic (they scramble written symbols); one Hydro-cephalic (water on the brain), two Severely Emotionally Disturbed (a tragic accident and a probable torture), one Autistic (forever in her own world), and four Aliens (Spanish speaking children of the workers who pick the artichokes and Brussels sprouts).
After introductions and a fruitless round of charades, I gesture for everyone to come with me to the playground. I grab a basketball and point first to my chest and then to all of them.
“I’ll teach you a new game,” I bargain with an big nod, “but first, Follow the Leader!”
We make a colorful parade, each of us marching to a different drummer. When I get to the free-throw line on the basketball court, I turn around to see the last of them scurry off the blacktop and vanish into the forest.
The pounding of kettledrums between my ears blocks the impulse to scream and chase the nimble children. Blood does rush to my legs, though. Like my primitive ancestors, I am instantly primed to outrun a saber-toothed tiger. I hear giggling in the bushes.
“You already know some outdoor games, huh? Well, let’s see if you like this one.” I start shooting baskets and supply my own running commentary:
“She dribbles, she shoots, she misses. She takes the ball to half court and runs in from the other side. She makes it! She tries a hook shot. It’s close, but no basket. She’s getting tired. She needs some help out here!”
The three boys with reading problems are the first to join me. I deliver a bounce pass to the tallest one, then make him dribble around me to get to the hoop.
“He hits the rim! His friend is there for the rebound!”
The autistic girl approaches the sideline at half-court and plants herself with her back to the game. She remains rooted there the entire session, her head fanning from side to side.
The bright-eyed children of the migrant farm workers put their toes on the painted sideline, lower their heads, and wait.
“Bienvenidos! Que cantidad de jente en la calle!” I pant as I hand off to the one with the deepest dimples.
It is sporting of them to play along, especially since the only Spanish I can think of means something like, “Welcome! What a big bunch of people in the street!”
I keep counting and expanding the commentary as the cast of players grows.
“Let’s hear it from the cheerleaders! More yelling, more clapping, por favor! Can we see some jumping?”
“Would you mind holding on to this pole for us?”
“Who will walk William to the drinking fountain?”
Gradually, my Runaway Labels are all accounted for and we are a full troupe again. Eventually, we flock to the cafeteria, exuberant, hungry, and willing to stay on course in a herd. I can still hear the comments fly on the way:
“I was the best!
“I was the best, too!
“I coulda made more baskets. My shoe was untied.”
“I held the pole.”
“I’m hungry! Move faster, you retards!”
The smallest girl takes my hand and whispers, “Some of the kids in this class don’t have no brains.”
Note to self: Calling names is quick and dirty, like a sneeze. But labeling children locks them in categories that stick forever. Like a chronic disease.
I find the Staff Lunchroom and join three teachers who seem deaf, dumb, and blind. No one looks at me. No one smiles. No one speaks.
They don’t like me. I don’t belong. I’m a rookie substitute. No one cares how my morning went.
Then I crack and blurt out the whole story.
“It’s my first day and I lost it. I didn’t just lose control—- I lost the class. I took them outside and they scattered. Every one of them disappeared. I didn’t know if they’d come back. What was I supposed to do?”
“Oh, Mr. Johnson uses a jump rope to take them anywhere,” says the skinny one, slurping her soup.
“He has them all hold on to a long rope to keep them together,” her cohort adds from behind a magazine.
The third crone nods as she blots her lipstick and ends the conversation.
“That’s the only way he lets those kids leave the room. Didn’t he tell you?”
In the long shower that night I shake my head again and call Mr. Johnson every name in the book. Then I vow to get there even earlier the next morning, so I can find that rope.