Friday, August 26, 2005

Head On Crash with Humility

It was fast approaching 9 a.m. on the Fifth of July. I was 19 years and two days old, changing clothes in the backseat of a Plymouth Fury. My friends Nicki and Mary Ellen were in the front. We were still 30 miles from work. A flat tire had set back our little adventure—altogether we had spent 15 hours driving, to spend 2 hours at a party. I made it to work 15 minutes late, running on pure adrenaline, and sorely disappointed that no one believed where we’d been.

The weather had promised rain, but delivered a bait-and switch, turning the day into a 94 degree mass of humidity—the kind you can touch it in the air. I had bet on the rain and a drop in temperature. I wore a long-sleeved cowboy shirt, boots, and heavy denim jeans. I was wrong and paying for it in the pressing heat.

My job was Art Director at a Day Camp for Kids with Handicaps. Really it was a refuge for waifs and strays. We had kids with behavior problems, kids with Down’s Syndrome, kids with birth defects, kids who could learn very basic tasks, and young adults still in diapers who had never spoken beyond a grunt. Thinking of who they were, who I was, and the current circumstances, I planned a quiet day for all of us. I hadn’t yet learned that I’m not in charge of such things.

Dana, a 16-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome and a stutter, decided she would be my helper. Fair-haired Dana stood about 5’1” and weighed nearly 160 pounds. She had the shiny personality mix of a cheerful, hard worker and a phenomenally affectionate puppy. She was most happy when she was hugging or hanging onto someone to express her good feelings. Dana's abundance of affection in the summer heat could cause an Art Director to pass out from lack of oxygen, especially if the Art Director already suffered from lack of sleep.

Since such was the case, I went for some creative problem solving. My growing-up name was long and musical. If I could get Dana to focus on learning to say my name without a stutter, I might get some room to breathe. It sounded like a plan to me.

We sat on a picnic table under the trees. Dana sat unbearably close to me. We talked about words, about how names are the most important words that we know.

“Dana and Maribeth,” she said. I smiled to think she got there first.

“Do you know my last name?” I asked. She shook her head, leaning a bit to look at me.

“It’s Monterastelli. That’s a long word. Don’t you think?” Dana moved a little, curious to see what would be next.

“It’s Italian,” I said. "I don’t suppose you know what it means?” Again she shook her head, but her eyes were bright with anticipation. This child was alive, no doubt about it.

“I didn’t either for a long time,” I said. “but I do now. It means star of the mountain.”

The idea of speaking Italian and the image of the star on the mountain are enough to catch any kid’s attention. It sure enough gets mine. So in no time at all I taught her how to say Monterastelli. She practiced. Dana moved over so that she could draw a picture of a star on a moutain while she practiced. I had space. That was 11:00 a.m.

When she finished drawing, she moved back next to me, and I spent the next four hours hearing:
“Mar-i-beth-Mon-ter-a-stelli.-Mar-i-beth-Mon-ter-a-stelli.-Mar-i-beth-Mon-ter-a-stelli.-Mar-i-beth-Mon-ter-a-stelli. . . .”

Wasn’t I clever? It was 94 degrees with 99 percent humidity. And now I had a cheerful, hammer in my head beat-ing-out-my-name, and an affectionate child, who had a good 40 pounds on me, hanging on my arm relentlessly.

Around 3:30 when the air turned to steam, I needed her to let go of me.

“Dana,” I said barely breathing. “Do you KNOW what you’ve been doing
ALL DAY?” I asked, speaking slowly, clearly, emphatically.

“Loving you?” she said innocently.


What had I been thinking?

It was a head-on crash with humility.
—me strauss Letting me be


Anonymous said...

Hi. I came across your blog and just wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading through it!

Anonymous said...

I have a 17 yo special needs child, sometimes I need "space" too! Thanks for your post it helped remind me what is really important!

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Biotress, thank you. I'll stop by to see you.

Trac, that is so cool that you left me that comment. It was one heck of a day and one summer for growing too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by. I'm working on a post about the time I worked in special ed which kinda reminds me of this one.:)

Anonymous said...

That's awesome! I love how kids can show you what's really important in the world.

This summer I was teaching at a summer camp for gifted kids, and one day I had a fever and stayed in bed. My wonderful teaching assistant took over the class for the day, and I managed to regain my feet in time for dinner. I walked off to the dining hall worrying whether he'd survived the kids, feeling guilty for making him take over the class last-minute, and wondering whether I could make it through the evening session without falling over. Then I ran into my kids, and their chorus of "are you okay?" and "how are you feeling?" buoyed my spirits immensely. I made it through that evening without a hitch--the kids were so well behaved for me--and was fully recovered by the next day.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

It seems that this post is reminding lots of people of the gifts that special ed kids bring us. That's so cool. Good luck on your post.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

I can tell by your energy and enthusiasm why the kids were so concerned about you. I bet you were great at working with them.

You're right. Kids are good at life. They are the wisest people I know.


Anonymous said...

Consider me the newest member of your fan club! I found you at Laurie's site and I really like your writing style. Hope you won't mind me putting you on my link list.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Wow. Thank you, I'd be delighted to have you as a link. I love writing and spend a lot of time making sure that you'll love it too. I'm glad to see that it might be working.

Seriously thank you.
I'll stop by to see you.

Anonymous said...

what a great story; thanks for sharing it.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Thank you, Beth,
It was obviously something that had a real impact on me.


Anonymous said...

Talk about perceptive, huh?
Dana sounds like quite the firecracker.
You have the patience of a saint.
This story is a wonderful look into the mind and heart of a DS child.
I've always thought they were adorable and so loveable.



"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Many Downs kids are adorable and lovable. Some are not and bite you. This one HUNG ON ME ALL DAY ;p She taught me a lot that summer.

All were lessons I had to learn over and over.