By Jennifer Bisignano
She walks into the gym, four-foot eight inches of her. Her eyes are a bit too small for her head and her hair pulled away loosely from her face. She walks slightly hunched over, not caring about the personal space of the other children. I ask her what her name is and she scans me a once-over. “Nola,” she says.
We talk about her being born in the month of June (June 13). She walks away as if I annoyed her and then comes back, asks me to be her partner in basketball. “What about that kid?” I point over my shoulder to a kid who is watching our conversation. “He doesn’t like me,” she says. He shakes his head and walks away. I watch Nola and try to imagine her older. This beautiful soul that is now a writer, playwright or poet misunderstood for most of her life and who transforms this hardship into beautiful art. I tell her, girls born in June are sparkly and colorful, she tells me that she likes sports and plays with boy toys. I tell her that Geminis are outspoken, she tells me she is shy. I say they like to argue, and she laughs. We toss the ball and she invites me to her birthday. She gives me the street name but not the number. “I hate the heat.” She tells me, “I am more of a Winter girl.”
I substitute in the school system. I mainly go into special needs because they fascinate me. They see the world differently and have a free pass to do so. The children are extra helpful, teachers are understanding. These children are not held to behave within society’s “norms”. Although these kids may never achieve the valor of becoming a surgeon, they are taught life skills. This is something I never learned. I’m still not able to fry an egg or carry a tray of coffee without spilling it. Most of these young people are happy all the time.
Norman is now sitting in front of me with his Snoopy backpack. Norman just turned 16. He recently was invited to a birthday party of a peer in his school, he dressed as Batman. He mumbles something to me that I can’t quite make out, I nod my head. I apparently give the right answer. He pulls out two John Cena action figures, hands me one. I pretend to make the doll cry and he pulls it from my hand. “John Cena never cries,” he says. Norman waits until he is satisfied that I understand this and then hands it back. In Norman’s world, even the inanimate have a life. He creates his own sphere, living in the realm of his laws and politics. I chase Norman through the halls of his high school when he decides art is stressful. “Lunch,” he bellows when I find him sitting in an empty cafeteria. “There’s no one here,” I say and sit beside him. This is not his concern.
At graduation, Norman will receive a certificate of completion, not a diploma. He will most likely walk across a stage with his parents somewhere in the audience. Standing in front of a wave of positive kinetic energy, his achievement being the next stage in adulthood. People who have special needs are able to find work as greeters, cooks, and in maintenance. They are happy in this line of work, while I struggle with the level of my intelligence when I can’t spell a word that is more than six letters. The darkness within themselves is often outwitted by the light within their flesh.
So I ask you, in a world where we label the people with special needs as “disadvantaged,” who is the person who really needs help? The young person who may not learn to drive a car to work and has the social graces of a six-year-old, or maybe it’s me. At 43, having the opportunity to be educated and still tripping over my own feet and breaking my hand. I choose the latter.
Jennifer Bisignano grew up in Trenton New Jersey as a city kid. She ran up fire escapes and clapped chalkboard erasers in school. Later she moved to Frederick, Maryland and received her Master’s in Early Childhood because her dreams of being a child still haunted her. She draws inspiration from the children that she works with in the Maryland Public School system. She has written two children’s books and her short stories can be seen floating in space. She now lives in Maryland with her husband, two dogs, and a pig named Kenny.