Anthony and DeAndre stood in the snack line studying the menu. They'd stared at its sun-bleached images of ice cream and chips every day so far this school year. It was a ritual, matching their mood ... [+]
"Charlie...Charlie...are you daydreaming again? It's work time now, please get your pencil," asks Ms. Amy sweetly.
Charlie Madison is in the 3rd grade, at KB Woodward Elementary school. Generally, he likes school, his aide, Ms. Amy, and Mrs. Higgs, his teacher. Charlie also loves buses; in fact, he wants to be a bus. He loves the wheels on the bus, the soft rubber on the ground and the sound they make when turning on asphalt. Charlie often dreams about being a bus in class. In his dream, he would feel his cold metal exterior, hard to the touch, solid and strong. Driving down a windy road, feeling the wheels clinging to the asphalt...—suddenly, he feels a tap on his shoulder. Looking up he sees a smiling Ms. Amy, pulling him away from his thoughts and back to reality.
"Charlie, it's time to work now, let's do some math," asks Ms. Amy in her cheery sing song voice.
Charlie doesn't talk to others about wanting to be a bus anymore. Mrs. Randall, the school counselor, is teaching Charlie "social skills." Charlie is learning the importance of eye contact, listening to what others have to say and keeping some thoughts inside his head.
"I want a break now," whispers Charlie softly.
Ms. Amy carries on talking about his math, not hearing him.
"Break now!" says Charlie, louder this time.
He can feel the heat in his face, flushing his cheeks. The familiar flapping of his hands, that he has known for so long, starts to surface like an air bubble floating to the water's surface. Mrs. Randall says that it's best to keep flapping to a minimum, she gave him a stress ball shaped like the earth, but it doesn't feel as good as flapping. What Ms. Amy doesn't realize is that Charlie knows all the answers to these math problems, and he doesn't understand why he can't do the same math as his classmates; he's never really been given the chance. Ms. Amy looks up and sees Charlie's face flushing, a bead of sweat drips down from his temple, she knows what's about to come. Quietly she stands, gently holding one of Charlie's flapping arms.
"NOW!" yells Charlie after seeing that his math sheet has only five questions, and the other students have twenty-five.
Ms. Amy leads Charlie quickly out of the classroom to the sensory room and onto his trampoline where he jumps and flaps like a little chick learning to fly but not quite taking off yet. While Ms. Amy talks about deep breathing, all Charlie can think about is math, being a bus, and spinning wheels. His soft, shiny hair rises and falls with each bounce.
Slowly he changes his focus to his jumping, he counts until he reaches one hundred jumps. One hundred makes him feel safe. At home Charlie collects things, there are always one hundred of them. Charlie is no longer allowed to collect bugs; his Mom found his collection of a hundred snails under his bed in a large Tupperware container one afternoon and the smell after opening that container lingered in his room for a week.
After the trampoline, Charlie puts his hand in his pocket, he feels it, it's still there: he keeps one smooth white rock in his pocket. It's from his vacation last summer when he and his family went to Parksville. Charlie spent hours on the beach, holding the sand in his hands, letting it slip effortlessly through his fingers. He was content feeling the breeze on his cheeks, listening to the waves and looking for rocks.
"Back to class now?" asks Charlie, looking up at Ms. Amy with a grin.
"Yes, back to class now," replies Ms. Amy, leading him back to his classroom.
Charlie knows that art is the only time he can work alongside his classmates and create exactly what they are creating. Equal. The same.
He walks back into the classroom and is greeted by Mrs. Higgs, "so nice to have you back with us, Charlie!"
He runs up and startles Mrs. Higgs with a tight bear hug. She reminds him hugs are for family. There are so many "social skills" to remember.
Charlie skips back to his desk happily, unintentionally knocking over Angela's water bottle. Water splashes all over the desk and floor, soaking her fresh, crisp sheet of paper. Charlie freezes and starts to scream, tears falling from his eyes. He shuts his eyes tight, clenches his fists and continues to scream in a high-pitched squeal. Angela is so kind, he didn't want to make his only friend upset.
The screams get louder, Ms. Amy gives Charlie his squeeze ball. Charlie takes it and sends the blue and green painted earth into orbit across the room until it smacks Jared on the forehead with a hard, but quiet thwack.
Standing up, Jared yells, "Ouch!"
Mrs. Higgs gives Jared an apologetic look and he slowly sits down rubbing the fresh, round red splotch on his head.
Angela carefully steps over the water, and grabs Charlie's hand and says, "It's ok, it's just water, I'll clean it up. Do you want to help me?"
Charlie stops screaming while tears are still gently running down his soft, flushed cheeks. His friend is not mad at him. Angela takes Charlie by the hand to the sink where she pulls out five paper towels. Charlie wishes she pulled out ten, but he thinks that he should probably keep his thoughts to himself right now.
The class loses interest in the outburst, and the low hum of chatter fills the room. Charlie likes this hum, not too loud, not too quiet, just right. Like the waves rolling up onto the sand, the wind whispering in his ear, it is a perfect sound.
Angela gives him a paper towel and he helps her clean the mess. He likes helping. It makes him feel good; like part of the class, a member of something, somewhere he belongs.
Back at his desk he is excited to begin his project. For this project, the students must trace objects from nature that they collected the previous week and color them in. He had collected a dead moth and an acorn. Ms. Amy had suggested collecting a maple leaf she had found; she said it would make a pretty picture. Charlie had said no, but she'd picked up the leaf anyway.
Charlie carefully took out his moth and acorn, wrapped preciously in a Kleenex. Eager to get started, he grips his pencil tightly, and starts tracing the beautiful, small gray moth. Its wings shimmer in the fluorescent lighting above his head, while miniscule scales fall gently on his paper. He places the acorn directly beside the traced moth on his page, not touching, but almost. Two tiny pieces of nature, not connected, but connected in so many ways.
"Here's a leaf you can trace too," Ms. Amy says, smiling brightly as she brought out the red and brown dried out maple leaf.
She places the leaf on the page, partially covering up his careful outline of the moth.
"No," says Charlie, as he pushes Ms. Amy's hand and the leaf aside.
Ms. Amy looked up confused and says, "Charlie, you can't just put a moth and acorn on your page. Let's fill it up so your Mom can put it on the fridge."
"No!" says Charlie again, feeling his left hand beginning to flap.
Ms. Amy put down her pencil with a sigh, "Okay, take a deep breath, it's almost home-time. Let's get you packed up and ready for your Mom."
"Hi Honey," says Charlie's Mom at pick-up. "How was your day?"
"Good," replies Charlie, as he hops into the car.
Once buckled, he lays his head back, closes his eyes and drifts back to his favorite place. He pictures his shiny yellow exterior, now warm and sparkly from the blaring sun, tires sticky and soft, gripping the asphalt as he meanders down the windy, smooth and happy road.