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Jonas (The Curious Incident of the Ninja Turtle at Noontime)

July 24, 2011

I first noticed him in the hallway in his fourth grade class line on the way to or from music or the library. It was not easy to miss him. He was two heads taller than his classmates and probably twice as heavy. His clothes were an odd mix and match of tie-dyed t-shirts or flannels and corduroy pants pulled up too high, and his hair was an uncombed bush above his chubby face.

But it was not his physical attributes that set Jonas apart. He would be in another world even as he stood amongst his classmates in the noisy bustle of the school corridor, his eyes looking off to an unknown destination, his hands moving as if conducting some invisible orchestra, quietly talking or humming to himself.

I did not know at the time that he was autistic, but when I learned that fact, I was not surprised. He seemed to be a harmless gentle soul, kind of a giant lost puppy. However, there was nothing particularly eventful about his presence until Halloween.

Halloween, or the day it is celebrated–a Friday, in this instance–is probably the greatest day of all for an elementary school kid (except possibly for the last day before summer). The air of excitement is tangible the whole week before with parties to be planned (who’s bringing in the cupcakes? the popcorn?), tissue ghost decorations to be made, and costumes to be decided on. Being in an upper grade class with the adolescents who were now too cool to be bothered much (on the outside, at least) kept me a bit insulated from the festive atmosphere, but when the younger ones were about, the fever was contagious.

Walking back to my room after lunch on the Big Day, I rounded the corner to see Jonas facing the wall and wailing uncontrollably, his face beet red. He was gasping for breath from crying so hard, tears virtually shooting from his eyes the way they do when small children bawl. He was rocking forward and back in his agony, hands flailing about wildly.

It stopped me in my tracks, so heart-wrenching and pathetic was the scene. He was surrounded by several teachers, kind and caring ones (I was glad to see), who were trying their hardest to soothe him. “Don’t worry, Jonas, maybe we won’t have to serve detention today.” “It’ll be all right. Just breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. It’s okay.” The nurse arrived, and the last glimpse I had as I retreated down the hall to my waiting class was Jonas being led down to her office.

The school’s Halloween parade was scheduled for one o’clock in the playground, an annual affair accompanied by parents with faces buried in video cameras and “Ghostbusters” and “Monster Mash” blasting from the speakers brought out for the occasion. The upper grade teachers led their jaded teens to the perimeter to watch the proceedings. Try as they might  to hide it, they too got into the spirit as the little ones came flouncing out grade by grade: Power Rangers and Little Mermaids and hobos and Barbies and even a few homemade creations (a laundry basket, a milk carton).

I saw one of the young teachers who had been trying to help Jonas, and I went over to her to ask what had occurred. She told me how in his excitement about the imminent festivities he had misbehaved in his regular class and got his Name Put on the Board. In his mind he thought it doomed his participation in the much-anticipated afternoon, and he reacted accordingly. I asked if the crisis was resolved and if he felt better, and she reassured me it was and he did. Any lingering doubts I might have had about her assessment disappeared immediately, for at that very moment, out came the fourth graders, Jonas in the lead.

It just so happened that the line stopped for some group singing and photo ops right in front of my class. His beaming smile reflected his unrestrained joy as he looked about him, oblivious to the program, just basking in the moment, standing there swaying to the music in his jumbo-sized Ninja Turtle costume as if it were all the ecstasy one could hope for on any given day. As his peers sang along, he would contentedly look at his costume, poking the Ninja padding on his arms as if in disbelief that he could be so lucky to be thus attired. The huge smile never once left his face.

His emotional resurrection so filled my heart, I had to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes. As the line of children began their march back inside, I thought of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his desire to protect the children from harm as they played in the field and wandered in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff, and how I wanted to protect Jonas and those like him  — the vulnerable and the innocent — in the same way, impossible a task as it is. I thought of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime and the pain that autism and circumstance had inflicted upon him and the tenderness of those who watched over him. And I was glad that there really exist such people that actually are catchers in the rye, kindhearted and smiling-in-the-face-of-adversity angels like Megan and Stefanie and Lawry in the hallway with Jonas that morning. I hope there are always such people about, just when they are needed, for there are so many Jonases in the world. Who will give them comfort in their times of need? It is my prayer that, in the nick of time, one will always be there.

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