“Life Lessons” by Cynthia McCloud

Waylon is smiling at me. Pablo is sitting, hands folded on the table in front of him; his dark straight hair frames his earnest expression. Amanda is hanging her head and fiddling with her sippy cup.

I take a deep breath. Maybe this won’t be so bad. 

I hold up the sight-word cards one-by-one in front of Waylon: “cup,” “car,” “cook.” He rattles them off quickly, fifteen out of fifteen correct. He grins and mimes slicking back his low fade, scoots his chair away from the table, and crosses his long legs. I spot purple Nike LeBrons. 

It’s Amanda’s turn. “I,” “go,” “so.” With her chin to her chest, she rolls her eyes up to see the cards; her expression is almost beseeching. She pauses at “big” and Pablo tries to help: “Sound it out: buh-ih-geh.” Amanda sighs and rolls her head to the other shoulder, looking not so much embarrassed as bored. I have seen that look before. I mark her score: eight out of fifteen recited without help.

Next, Amanda needs to list the months of the year in order. “January, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November, December,” she says, her curly brown hair falling around her face.

“Not bad,” I say, “but you left out two of the months when we get candy, and that is a shame.” I look around expectantly. No one gets the joke. I recite the months and include February and October.

The bell rings, signaling two students working at computers to return to their regular high school classrooms. 

I hesitated to accept this assignment, recalling my friend Justin’s first special education placement. He had no special training – not in presenting lessons to people with learning difficulties or caring for students who used wheelchairs with onboard ventilators. His biggest fear – someone would have a medical emergency in his classroom – became my only fear about teaching special education. 

* * *

My Uncle Jim was no dummy. And Jim was rather good-looking. Pale skin, sometimes with freckles. Blue eyes. Strawberry blonde hair that was usually trimmed and combed but often arrayed like a haystack styled with his hands. A grin shy and ornery. His favorite color was orange – like the General Lee hotrod on The Dukes of Hazzard.

When James William was born, the nurse dropped him, my grandmother swore. Soon after, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy with an intellectual disability. Contracted muscles drew his left leg up and pointed the knee inward. He could not put both feet flat on the floor. But he could walk well enough to get the mail from the box a half mile away, climb stairs without assistance, and pull toddler me around in a Radio Flyer with wooden slat sides. Involuntary and unexpected spasms would cause him to jerk abruptly, as though startled, and even fall sometimes. He grew more crippled as he aged, though, and needed a cane. Then two canes. Then a walker. And finally, a wheelchair, and a lift to get in and out of bed. 

Jim, do you have any 6s?

Uhhh.

Monkey tails.

Go fish.

Uncle Jim could recognize numbers enough to play cards – though sometimes he needed prompting that sixes are the ones that looked like a monkey’s curled tail. Jim couldn’t read or write. He told time by what show was on television: The Dating Game at 2, General Hospital at 3, Donahue at 4. If the network moved the shows to different time slots, he got frustrated until he figured out the new times. Once, when he was in the hospital, he needed to breathe deeply to prevent pneumonia using a spirometer. It’s a tool that ensures a patient’s breathing is completely filling their lungs. It has three plastic chambers, each with a colored ball. The patient seals his lips around the device’s hose and inhales deeply. Negative pressure causes the balls to rise in their chambers and hover. A nurse told Jim to breathe in and make the balls hover in the spirometer chambers every 15 minutes or so. Do it every time a commercial comes on, I told him – and her.

*  *  *

The only experience I bring to special education classroom assignments is growing up with people who had special needs – Uncle Jim and my cousin, Roberta, who has Down syndrome. But I am not specially trained, and I know I am ineffective in the classroom. The substitute teacher training deals mostly with controlling behavior of students in mainstream classrooms. How did I get here? Subbing in public schools pays the bills while I finish an MFA in creative writing. My first career – in print journalism – sapped all my creative energy, leaving none for homework. Subbing shares similarities with newspaper reporting; for one, each day’s assignment is different from the day before.

A few minutes after the bell, Travis comes into the classroom for science with Waylon, Pablo, and Amanda. The lesson is a worksheet about animals and how they adapt to their environments. I read the short passage to them. We answer the questions one-by-one together. “Why do you think eagles remove the soft padding from their nests when their babies are old enough to move out?” I have to guide Amanda’s hand when she writes because cerebral palsy seizes her muscles. It is a bit like playing with a Ouija board – is she really moving her hand or am I making the letters? At the same time, I have to coach Waylon and Pablo and Travis to think about the answers. “What kind of bed do you like to sleep in? Is it soft or is it hard with sticks that poke you?” I coax. Travis stares out the window and writes nothing. Waylon asks me how to spell “because.” Pablo rushes ahead, writing any word in the blanks, and puts down his pencil; he is “done.”

I am discouraged. My mind is blank. I have no idea how to get another person to come to the right conclusion from clues in the text. I remember feeling this way 30 years before.

* * *

jAne. sEE jANe. sEE JAne run. Run jaNE run. ‘look, look,” said sAllY. “i cAn mAkE somethinG too’

Mixing upper- and lowercase letters, Jim filled writing tablets with the stories he copied from children’s books. His tongue would protrude past his lips as if he was straining with great effort. And he was – just to move the pencil, (though I think he had good fine motor skills), pulling the words from the page, through his eyes, to his brain, down his arm and onto paper. I was born into my grandparents’ two-story asphalt-sided house on the side of a holler. They put in an indoor bathroom because of my impending birth. My home was rich in art supplies, vinyl records, and books. I received new Little Golden Books – my name and the occasion written in ink inside the cover by my mother. The den held Bibles, my grandfather’s Grit newspapers, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and the state agriculture market bulletin – though we were not farmers  –  and a musty set of encyclopedias, plus the children’s books – some mine, some my uncle’s – from which he copied.

Sometimes Jim ran words and sentences together or missed a quotation mark around dialogue. But he was diligent. He did what so many writers, like I am supposed to be, do – he showed up to work, his butt in the chair, his hand always moving. And it has taken me 40 years to figure out that my uncle, who had trouble learning, could teach me something. He couldn’t read or comprehend, but he felt compelled to copy the text. To stay busy. 

Jim knew enough about what he didn’t know to feel ashamed of his shortcomings. He was born in 1947 and would’ve gone to school in the 1950s when special education was nascent, at least, in West Virginia. My mother, his sister, told me that he stopped going to school when other children made fun of him. He would hear the lesson, go home, and forget it by the next day. He couldn’t learn, at least not reading and spelling and math. 

I cannot honestly say I sensed Jim had a desire to learn to read.  I likely wanted him to want to read. When he was transcribing books, he may have just been keeping busy as he did when he drilled holes in wooden shims and pushed bolts through them, threaded a nut on and tightened it down – his other favorite pastime. I wanted him to read. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I had my mom order a kit that taught children phonics. I was going to teach Jim to read. He got frustrated, just like I imagine he did in the real classroom so many years before, and I,  having set up a “play school” with a grade book and incentives, lost interest in the task when I didn’t have instant success. What did I know about teaching someone to read? How arrogant that I thought I could do so just because I had learned to read. How hard could it be? In the high school special education classroom today, when I failed to teach the science lesson in an understandable way, I felt like I did when I failed Jim.

In 1977, when Jim was thirty years old, the Preston County Sheltered Workshop was founded for the purpose of teaching adults with physical and intellectual disabilities how to do things – janitorial work at interstate rest stops, assembling products, trimming and packaging Fiberglass filters, scanning or shredding documents – for a small wage. I think Jim would have thrived there, would have had friends outside the family. My grandparents would not allow him to go; I don’t know why. I don’t think it was because they didn’t want to drive him the six miles to the workshop. I think it was because they feared he would get hurt, either physically injured or emotionally wounded, again. By keeping him home, they stunted his development into the person he saw himself becoming, a craftsman, a maker. He diligently did the work of a carpenter and a scholar even though he wasn’t paid or called by those titles. I stunt my own development. I hold jobs, but I am afraid to claim them. I was a newspaper reporter who didn’t advertise her lack of degree. For a few months, I read heart rhythms at a hospital, an impostor in scrubs, trained to do the work, but not to be mistaken for a nurse. I see work as inextricable from identity, yet I feel like a fraud. I work hard to be competent at whatever I do, but I worry I don’t deserve the prestige people assume jobs carry. Who am I anyway?

* * *

The special education students take gym class and eat lunch with their high school peers. Pablo gets along well with the general population and runs off to play kickball. I push Amanda’s wheelchair around the track with the gym teacher. At lunch I open her milk and plastic fork and position her food where she can spear it. I don’t have to feed her, though I would if needed. I also don’t have to change her diapers; the aides in the class of severe and profound students next door do that. The group home sends clothing in case of accidents; her outfits don’t match. Today she arrived in gray sweatpants and a Care Bears T-shirt that looks more like a younger child’s pajama top. She will go home in green camo sweatpants. I am angry that someone doesn’t ensure she is dressed somewhat fashionably. 

I think about dignity a lot. The group home staff makes the school – and by proxy, me – keep records for them. When Travis exits the restroom before lunch, I beckon him away from the group. 

“Did you go number two?” I whisper to him. “I need to fill in your chart for your workers.” 

My explanation is unnecessary, my discretion probably unexpected, and I am more embarrassed than Travis, who tells me that he had a bowel movement this morning. All agency has been taken from Travis and his fellow group home residents, from expressing themselves with fashion like their peers to keeping bathroom business private. If someone determines that a person who thinks or moves slowly or differently has no right to make any choices for himself, what is to keep someone from limiting my choices for some reason?

* * *

The last few years of Uncle Jim’s life, his caregiver, my mother, had to catheterize him daily. He lost muscle control in his bladder so he could not urinate. She also had to change his colostomy bag. Personal care was not new to her; my mother moved a bedpan under her own mother’s hips for years when rheumatoid arthritis imprisoned my grandma in her bed. Even being raised with the example, I am not sure I could perform that most personal of tasks for anyone who wasn’t my child. It feels like an irredeemable invasion of privacy to touch areas we keep concealed. It is not that I think wiping another’s excrement is a task beneath me. It is that, if the roles were reversed, I would be embarrassed to have a stranger or a relative help me with that duty. I am embarrassed on their behalf, even if they, like Travis, are not. If a person cannot perform daily self-care and hygiene, do others question if they can control other aspects of their life? It is a matter of autonomy and the right to direct one’s own affairs as much as it is a question of competency.

* * *

After lunch, we are to take the bingo game and go to the severe and profound class next door to cover that teacher’s planning period. Fortunately, the aides will be there. This is the situation I fear – being in charge of students with serious needs and medical ailments. I am not privy to their personal information; I don’t know the names of their conditions or ailments. I don’t know what behaviors are normal or how to correct behaviors that are not allowed. I am not trained to restrain a student. The thought to defend myself in that way would not cross my mind. I never worry about being physically hurt in a school, though that is a possibility in any kind of classroom. People with emotional or intellectual disabilities are no more dangerous than any other student, but incidents sometimes happen.

Last school year in my district, a first-grader bit a principal on the leg, through her pants, and brought blood. She had to restrain him in her office while hollering for help. That child’s behaviors were so extreme the school invented a new emergency color code just for his meltdowns. The secretary announced Code Purple and a location, much as a hospital announces Code Blue when a patient’s heart stops.

I heard this story from that elementary school’s assistant principal, Mr. Davis, on the first day of school this year – the first day I had ever substitute taught anywhere. That day, for forty minutes, I did math with third-graders who needed extra help. With no lesson plans, we counted play money and pretended we were shopping or ringing up purchases. The rest of the day I worked one-on-one in a regular classroom with a second-grader named Julio. I was less a teacher than a correctional officer; most of the day I redirected his behavior, stopping the bad ones and coaxing him to do what his teacher said. When he could not focus anymore, I was told to walk with him in the hallways, but to watch he didn’t bolt; last year, he ran from his teacher, who caught him in the field behind the school. On this day, Julio decided he would crawl through the hallways while I followed, carrying the judgment of passing staff and students who questioned with their stares my ability to keep control. Later at lunch, as Mr. Davis talked about the bite the year before, it slowly dawned on me: They had assigned me to the Code Purple kid on my very first day! 

* * *

The high school special education classes are huge and brightly lit by windows that fill one whole wall. In the severe and profound room, Solomon – a young man who constantly repeats “You’re not mad?” – and Benji are playing an educational video game with one aide. Kristina is sashaying around the room, sideswiping people. She twitches her hips and brushes against people in a way that could get her in trouble one day. She taps me on the shoulder and says, “Ponytail,” holding out a hair tie. I look at Kim, the aide with whom I graduated high school. 

“You can if you want, but you’ll be sorry,” Kim said. “She will bug you to put up her hair all day.” I pull up Kristina’s hair into a ponytail and twist the band around it. She walks off without a “thank you” and begins to pull at the tie. Soon her hair is down, and she is back at my side insisting, “Ponytail.”

Pammy is sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, clutching a toy music box to the side of her head, her eyes closed. Her shoes and one sock are off. Kim explains that Pammy is nonverbal. Her therapists say they have taught her to communicate by giving a picture of what she wants or needs – a cartoon drawing of food, a toy or a toilet – to her caregivers. Pammy understands she gets something for presenting the card, Kim says, but Pammy does not understand that the picture on the card is always what she is going to get. Give her a toy when she wants food and she will throw a tantrum.

I seat my students at a table and pass out BINGO cards and tokens. 

“B-4.” I help Amanda maneuver a token onto a square. 

Kristina is back. “Ponytail.” She has snapped the band. 

“I can’t put your hair up; the tie is broken.” 

“Ponytail.”

“O-69.” I explain to Pablo that he doesn’t have that one. An iron grip clamps my forearm. Pammy thrusts a card with a picture of a toy at me. 

“Do you want a new toy? Where do they keep your toys?” I don’t expect an answer. Pammy’s grip tightens – it is not rough, just firm – and she tugs; I follow her against my will.

I am not in the room anymore but just as scared; I am standing on a one-lane dirt road beside my family’s full-size Ford Bronco, and my Uncle Jim is kicking the front seat and pounding the back windows. At nine years old I am not sure I noticed what set off this tantrum, but my neck is burning where the acrylic yarn of my sweater scraped my skin. I feel under my chin and the plastic bead necklace is still there; Jim didn’t break it when he tore at my shoulder. It is the only time I recall him laying a hand on me. 

Pammy has pulled me to the other side of the room where I switch the music box for a doll, relieved that she wanted what was pictured. She unclamps my arm. 

“N-42.” Pablo still hasn’t marked a single square on his card.

“I-19.” I help Amanda catch up, scooting tokens over numbers that have already been called.

Pammy squalls behind me. I do not know how Kim upset the young woman, but Pammy’s neck is red and her shirt is torn where she has ripped it. She is biting a ball and swinging at Kim. I try to ignore her and position my body between my students and the spectacle.  

“G-56. Pablo, you have that one!”

He is trying to look past me. Pammy wails. I hear her fist strike Kim’s body. 

The other aide spreads a mat near Pammy’s swinging feet and sets another on its end to block my students’ view. I redirect them to the game. 

The school nurse, who is also the cheerleading coach, clicks in on three-inch peep-toe heels. I hear Kim tell the other aide, also a substitute for the day, “You’re going to hold her head and shoulders; I’ll straighten her arm.” The nurse uncaps the syringe.

Pammy’s shrieks turn to whimpers as she lowers to the mat and curls her body. 

“B-15. Amanda, I think you have bingo. Everyone, hold your cards.”

* * *

Learning to read is difficult. Teaching someone to read is still incomprehensible to me. I remember my uncertainty, sitting at the kidney-shaped table with my reading group, “The Rabbits.” Later, it dawns on me that we first-graders took to reading faster than our classmates in “The Turtles.” Even later, I realize the insensitivity of the labels. But in the moment, at 6 years old, I was fighting the blank space in my head, unsure if I was “getting it.” At 21, the smokescreen convinced me that I cannot learn, and I quit college. When did I get the idea that if something is difficult, then I am not supposed to do it? At 36, I realized the brain fog was a cloud of anxiety and banished it in therapy. At 37, I went back to college; at 39, I enrolled in graduate school. Learning to write literature well turns out to be as difficult as learning to read. The fog creeps along the edges of my conscious thoughts, seducing me to quit. When I feel stuck or unworthy of being a writer, I fix my gaze on an unlikely beacon: suspenders crisscrossing the flannel back bent over a desk, Jim’s tongue thrusting out the corner of his mouth, one nail-bitten finger marking each word in the text he copies, his right hand gripping a chewed pencil but always moving.


Cynthia McCloud holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She teaches English Language Arts to academically at-risk high school students at a quasi-military residential school. Her work has appeared in regional and national newspapers and magazines, including an essay on The Washington Post’s Inspired Life blog and, most recently, a poem in Shift: A Journal of Literary Oddities. Interact with her on Facebook @CynthiaMcCloudWriter and Instagram @cynthiamccloudwv