I know a boy named Nate, whose mind works a little differently than mine.
The first time I encountered him, I heard him screaming from down the hallway of the school at which I work. A blonde woman tried to comfort him, but he was inconsolable. He fell to the floor. His limbs flailed around him.
I thought, I hope I never have to deal with a kid like that.
Not long after that incident, I received a phone call from my mom. I was pumping gas. She told me that my younger brother, who had recently spent time in a psychiatric hospital, would be tested for autism in the near future.
With no shortage of guilt, I realized Nate had already been in my life for 15 years.
Fast forward to my senior year of college and my third year of working for that after-school education program. Nate, to everyone’s chagrin, would be part of the 20-student increase in our attendance. From our past observations, we knew he required more attention and patience than we had available.
And we were right. He shoots down the hallway with no warning, ducking into dark rooms that our other kids know are off-limits. You can’t talk him down from getting upset. When his eyes, which are normally focused on whatever object he’s worrying with his fingers, go wild, and his voice raises to a yelp, you know there’s about to be a scene. Someone must watch him every second of every day.
But it is in this constant weary observation that I have noticed something a little magical about Nate. Maybe it’s the way his eyes are always squinted, as if he’s studiously filtering the world around him. He certainly notices things that other children are simply moving too fast to see; for example, he’ll drop suddenly from the monkey bars where he was hanging to say, “I saw a ladybug.”
It could also be his intense fascination with things that have lost all (or never held any) sparkle for me. Rather than playing games on the computer, he image searches things like the number 40 or elevator buttons or dragon puppets. He’ll show you each one, then say, “Pretty cool?” If you respond, he smiles.
That smile, I think, is what really snags my attention when I spend time with this mostly non-communicative young man. His eyebrows furrow and he frowns when he has something right in front of his face, fingers flying, but when he is hanging from the monkey bars waiting for ladybugs to whiz past, he smiles. It’s a more of a smirk, really, barely there. I can’t help but think that Nate, with his various mental and social handicaps, knows something beautiful and critical that we don’t. His world may be very different from mine, but I am confident that he’s happy inside it.
This school year will be my last to work with kids, and although I know with some certainty that I will never see Nate again, I also sense that he has changed me in important ways.
As a writer, he has helped me understand that reality as I know it is only a fraction of the realities that exist, all of which are at my disposal if I care to seek them out.
As an educator (albeit an amateur one), he is a constant reminder of how important it is for us to instill in the children for whom we care a sense of acceptance of those differences. And as a human, Nate and his classmates have showed me how children educated in love and mutual respect bring out the very best in each other, despite their differences.
I believe the example of people like Nate have the potential to change the world, if only we watched them as closely as they watch ladybugs or orange crayons or the number 40.
On Google maps, he shows me where his house is. He gets directions to Kansas because he went there once. It would take 125 hours to walk there. “Long way,” he says, and I nod.