Just one word: circle. But a wondrous word it was. I had almost forgotten that word, and the little boy who uttered it so long ago. It all came back to me last night when I had the opportunity to return to the place where it had been spoken to me. I shared the story with those around me, and surprised myself by getting choked up in the telling.
In the 1980s I was a junior at Seton High School in Baltimore. I had the opportunity to volunteer during school hours at St. Elizabeth’s, a special-ed school, which was within walking distance of Seton. I had volunteered at the Maryland Special Olympics a few times, and knew that I liked working with special need kids. And, what high schooler wouldn’t take advantage of being able to leave school in the middle of the day?
I was assigned to Sister Raymond’s kindergarten class. It wasn’t kindergarten like you or I went to. Some of the kids stayed at this level for a few years, until they could learn as much as they could grasp before being advanced. Many of the kids were non-verbal. But what they lacked in words they gave back in 100-watt smiles. I remember angelic Gretchen. White-blonde hair, brilliant blue eyes, and always dressed in the most adorable outfits. She never stopped smiling. Poor Gretchen would develop fevers for no reason. I laid on a mat with her a few times, pressing a cold compress to her head, while reading a book to her until the random fever passed. She never stopped smiling, even with cheeks that blazed red from the fever. Luckily for her the fevers never lasted long.
But my main-man was Timmy. Where Gretchen, judging by her clothes, came from an affluent family, Timmy did not. Sister gave me a change of clothes for him because the ones he had on were too small. He went home better dressed than when he arrived. Timmy was always coming to school with cuts and bruises. I was told that he was being raised in a house with his single mother and an aunt who had several children of her own. Timmy would try to keep up with the other kids, and often got hurt because of his developmentally delayed motor skills.
Timmy was non-verbal but all boy. Getting him to sit still was a job by itself. I was trying to work with him with shape and color flash cards, but the little rascal wouldn’t sit still. Out of desperation, I put him on my lap and put my arms around him, with the cards in front of him. It helped a little. That is until he reached down and happened to touch the cabled tights I was wearing under my uniform skirt (I told you him was all boy). He started tracing the cable pattern with his finger and almost immediately settled down. It was an “Ah-ha!” moment. Timmy responded to tactile objects! I told Sister Raymond. She had me glue glitter to the flash cards so that Timmy could feel the shapes as we went through them over and over again.
That became our routine each week. I remembered to wear the cabled tights, Timmy climbed into my lap now, and I repeated the names of shapes and colors while he felt the cards with one hand and cables with the other.
I was saying, “Triangle . . . . square . . . rectangle . . . circle . . .” over and over and over. And then it happened. My Timmy said, “Circool.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I turned him around so that I could see his face, and asked him, “did you say circle?” He answered by giving me the biggest shit-eating-grin I had ever seen My little dude knew what he had done. I called Sister Raymond and everyone gathered around to congratulate him. When it hit me that Timmy had said his first word EVER, for me, I started to cry. I was immediately told to leave by Sister. Confused, I did what I was told and went into the hall. She followed to explain that I couldn’t cry because Timmy would have seen that as disapproval. He didn’t understand tears of joy. So I sucked it up and went back in.
In the weeks that followed, he never spoke in my presence, or anyone else’s that I heard about. The school year ended, I graduated, and never saw Timmy again. I wonder where he is now? I hope he’s wearing a nice cable sweater, and is talking someone’s ear off.
St. Elizabeth’s school has long since moved from that location. The building, known as the Margaret Jenkins House (formerly the Hiss Mansion), is now home to 22 formerly homeless women, who are being incredibly supported by the Women’s Housing Coalition. I had a chance to see the place last night. I have volunteered to work on a research project about the building and its history.
After all these years, I’ll be back volunteering in that great old building. I guess I can say I have come full “circool”.