“When is lunch?” (I don’t know.)
“That’s not how Mrs. Lawrence does it.” (I don’t care.)
“The teacher lets me sit under my desk.” (Not on my shift.)
“Oh Miss Brown Dress? Come here, please,” he summons. The unusual voice grabs my attention. Theatrical, authoritative, a budding high-pitched Julia Child.
I’m doing fine. I trace the request to a balding fellow with a paunch and baggy trousers sitting at his desk, absorbed in some calculations. With a spare pencil tucked in the crook of an ear, he stops now and then to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Beside his desk is a hard shell briefcase next to an Evil Kneival lunch box. His name is John and he is nine years old.
I have taken over for a teacher who left suddenly to seek help at a Famous Treatment Center. In this Special Ed class some of the students have problems that are not going to be solved with remediation or rehabilitation. Some of them need to be accepted ‘as is.’
I notice the handmade sign taped to the desk beside his name tag:
Office/ Quiet Please.
He is straining to grasp the idea of adding double digits.
“Hey, John. How are you doing with these?” I whisper.
“I’m doing fine. My teacher’s not here today,” he affirms with his startling falsetto.
As he speaks, his head makes a circuit that will repeat itself many times that morning. It rolls back all the way, then forward till his chin touches his chest, then to the left, away from me.
It is impossible for an outsider to duplicate the routines and rituals set up by a regular teacher. A substitute’s job calls for improvisation. We open an umbrella and walk a tightrope, bounce off the audience and try to have some fun.
I kneel on the floor to get our heads together. I tap out “Shave and a Haircut” on his desk with my pencil. Like an alert and hungry bird, he makes a slight head adjustment and looks at the first math problem out of the corner of his eye. He taps back “Two Bits.”
Adding six and six, I write down two and carry my one.
“Did your teacher show you how to rename tens when you add big numbers?”
He looks at the ceiling and blinks several times.
“I’m good at renaming things.”
He cocks his head to the side and works the second problem by himself. I nod. His eyes scan the ceiling, the floor, and the left again. Then he changes pencils and tackles the third one. I hover for another couple of head spins and one more pencil change. Then I move on to work the crowd.
“I’m doing fine!” I hear as I step away.
During the pre-lunch bustle, I notice him gather up his paper clips, erasers, and pencils. He arranges them methodically in his briefcase. He tucks in his shirt, smooths back his hair, and announces once more:
“I’m doing fine.”
After lunch we all go out to watch a baseball game together. We settle in a shady spot, and I feel John’s delight in chasing a darting butterfly. Relaxing in the soft grass, I am nine again myself, playing ball under blue skies and balmy breezes. Until I hear, “MISS BROWN DRESS!”
This time his voice is shrill and alarmed. John is running toward me, hands on both cheeks, sobbing.
“That big boy! He hit me! And he hurt me! That boy! The big one!”
“Let me see,” I command, and place my hand on his reddened cheek.
The crying stops. He looks deep into my eyes, cocks his head, and asks, “Does it still hurt?”
We are both stunned by the question.
“No, John,” I say slowly. “It’s not as bad now. It hurt at first, but now it’s feeling a little better.”
No one had ever made it so clear to me what pain is, and what can make it stop.
When I take my hand away, he feels his face again. He nods, and hurries away, chirping, “I’m doing fine. I’m doing fine.”
You may have already guessed what I am chanting on my drive home. I’m an auditory learner. Many years later, “I’m doing fine!” and The Mexican Hat Dance are tied for second. My Number One strategy to keep the world in order is still to count every step I take.