Names of students in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.
For three years I worked in a middle school classroom dedicated to children with special needs. The class averaged 9 students, but there were days when it felt like we were managing 90. Each student carried with them a plethora of demands, preferences, specific needs, and accommodation. Each student’s personality was clearly and definitively unique, and their academic levels scattered a range of pre-K to mid-elementary school. For three years that room was a second home to a very eclectic family.
For two of my three years in this classroom, we had a student named Ellie. Ellie was not conventionally beautiful. Her body was stout, with a round belly. Her head squashed toward her chest with a cheerful double-chin. Her thin legs were of unequal length, giving her a general lop-sided quality and a very pronounced limp. Her hair was coarse and thin, cut into something similar to a style you might find in an 80s film. She had a wide mouth and narrow teeth so that there were equal sized gaps between them.
Ellie’s demeanor required the utmost patience. She did not like to socialize with the other students. She had trouble with the simplest tasks such as writing her name or remembering colors. She oftentimes refused to share and was known to sink her narrow teeth into the hands of unsuspecting classmates if they took her markers.
Ellie liked exactly 5 things: Dora the Explorer, coloring, eating, her mother, and her favorite pastime—shouting out the things she saw.
“¡Mira! ¡Mira!” she would shout excitedly as she’d prod me repeatedly with a skeletal finger. (I am convinced I had a purple bruise on my right arm the exact diameter of her finger for the full two years I worked with her).
“Yes, Ellie?” I’d ask, knowing full well what she was about to say next. This activity was especially popular with Ellie at the end of the day. The bustle as we got everyone ready to go home excited her, and she’d stare with wide, dark eyes out the window from her perch in her wheelchair.
“Blue car!” Ellie would shout. Or, “Yellow bus! Yehhhllow bus!”
“You’re right, Ellie,” I’d say, as I cleaned faces, packed backpacks and checked under desks for any stray papers or toys to go home. Sometimes I would find myself echoing her words. “Yehhhllow bus!”
Sometimes she would shout in Spanish. “¡Mochila!” (Backpack). Or, “¡Basura!” (Trash). And right after her I would echo absentmindedly: “¡Mochila! ¡Basura!”
This activity gave Ellie endless joy and she would let out a girly chuckle and hide her wide smile behind a slender hand if you repeated her words.
This was not our only verbal exchange. I would often have to admonish, “Ellie, hands!” to remove her hands from her mouth, her nose, her shirt, or her pants.
We had to keep a watchful eye over Ellie to make sure that she didn’t unbutton her shirt too far or that her pants were pulled up high enough to cover her big belly.
On one occasion, we were not entirely successful—but managed to narrowly avoid disaster.
It was in my second year of working with Ellie and her classmates. Lunchtime.
Because of the extra time our class needed to get through the lunch selections, we arrived to the cafeteria at least ten minutes early. This gave us enough time to help everyone get their lunch trays, scan their I.D. cards, and make it to our table on the other end of the cafeteria.
Ellie, in a spike of independence, insisted on walking that day. We were a little ahead of her, helping the other students open their milks and condiment packets, all the while keeping a watchful eye on Ellie as she rocked across the cafeteria, her belly swinging from side to side.
The bell rang, and I knew any moment, hungry middle schoolers would flood the cafeteria from both sets of double doors.
I quickly scanned the table to make sure our students were all safely seated and frowned. Ellie had not yet made it to the table.
I looked back toward the middle of the cafeteria and gasped, horrified.
Ellie stood about halfway to our table, smiling cheerfully at us and clutching the black Styrofoam tray, and completely unable to move. The cause of her immobility was the fact that her pants had slipped off her narrow hips and lay pooled around her ankles.
I launched myself down the cafeteria, knowing that I was racing against a hundred ravenous middle schoolers.
I reached Ellie as I heard the first waves of boisterous conversation coming from down the hall. I pulled her pants back up over her belly as the first of the hoards of hungry students skittered through the doors. I placed a gentle but firm hand on her shoulder and patiently guided her to her seat.
I felt a flood of relief as the waves of students rushed by us, now that we were all safely seated.
I felt a hard and urgent prodding on my bruised arm. “Yes, Ellie?”
Ellie looked at me with wide, earnest eyes. Very seriously, Ellie pointed to a student with a pink backpack. “¡Mochila!”