I recently started a job working with autistic and mentally retarded children. (It's a clinical term, I promise.) While being in charge of a group of children would normally make me anxious, I find that working with these kids has the opposite effect on me. Instead of following them around pulling them off window sills, I'm calmly telling them to put their toys away and stop eating their boogers. In fact, I'm enjoying these little punks so much that laughing at their missteps and cheering at their triumphs has become my favorite part of the day. Whenever they say a word or master a task they couldn't perform last month, I start acting like a proud mother, yelling and clapping while they look at me all, "Dude, really? I made the sign for 'more,' not tied my own shoes. Relax." It truly is a rewarding job. Exhausting and mentally challenging, but definitely rewarding.
While I'd met and worked with the kids before, my first official day was last Tuesday. Now usually an employer gives you time to get acclimated to your surroundings, a little grace period during which you get into the swing of things--not this job. Here, you hit the ground running. And that word right there, that word pretty much sums an entire day with these punks: running after them, running ahead of them, running toward them, running to clean up after them, running to avoid injuring them. Proudly, the only thing I'm not doing is running away from them. (Can I get a collective "aaawww"?)
Last Tuesday started out like any normal day with the kids: I helped get them off the bus, fed them breakfast, sat with them while they did music therapy, cheered when one of them tried to repeat a word ("buh" is just as good as saying "bus" is this classroom) and read books with them. (For the love of all things holy, please no more Dora).
Halfway through the morning, reading time was over. It was time for the kids to put their books back on the shelf and sit down for an activity. Only the kid I was working with didn't want to put his book away. I took the group leader's cue and sternly repeated the command, "Put book away." No dice. So I did what any teacher would do, what you're supposed to do: I took the book away from him.
The little punk, who happens to be the most behaviorally challenged punk in the class, wasn't having it. He gave me a look, a look that said "Who the hell are you, new chick, and why are you all up in my book?"
And then he went Chuck Norris on my ass.
First came the crying, the oppositional whimpering that alerted me to his discontent as having his Dora book taken away. Then came the screaming. Then the flailing. Then the full body convulsions. And unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough (nor trained enough) to move out of the way. He swung his head violently back into my face, breaking my glasses and sending them flying off my face. The impact of the hit shocked me so badly that I must not have had a grip on him, because the next thing I knew, he was facing me, my bra was up to my neck, and he was biting my boob. Yup, he went for my chichis. And thank God for padded bras, or else I would've had a pretty awkward conversation with an ER nurse.
"Ma'am, how exactly did you get the bite marks?"Oh I can see it now.
"Um...well you see...there's this autistic child..."
"And the broken glasses?"
"Well you see, he threw his head back and--"
"Ma'am, you know if you're being abused, you can tell me. We can help you."
"No, I swear I'm not being abused. I work with autistic children, and this particular one likes to bite."
"He bit your breast?"
"How did he--ma'am, were you breastfeeding him?"
When all was said and done, the injuries were pretty standard for a toddler Chuck Norris ass-whooping: a gash a few centimeters from my eye where my glasses hit my face, some bite marks on my left boob, a pretty deep bite mark on my right arm, and a broken pair of $300 BCBG glasses.
The best part of the situation, though, was when my boss (who had watched the whole thing happen) asked if I wanted to take a walk to the drugstore to buy some crazy glue so that I could fix my glasses. Obviously my boss doesn't know this, but I am blind without my glasses--the kind of blind where a hand 9 inches away from my face is blurry...the kind of blind where the big "E" on the eye chart barely looks like an "E." I think I was so frustrated and shaken by the incident that the filter between my brain and my mouth stopped working.
"Bob*," I said, "I can't take a walk to the drugstore because I wouldn't make it out of this building without falling down the stairs. And even if I did find my way out, let's be real--we're in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A white girl walking down the street with her hands out in front of her, feeling her way around the block and asking if that giant sign in front of her says 'Walgreen's....no thanks, I'm good. So if it's okay with you, I think I'll just sit quietly in the corner for a few minutes with this icepack on my head while I relive getting beat down by a three-year old."Okay, so maybe I didn't say all that to my boss. But I think he could see that I needed a minute, because he put his hands up in surrender and left me alone until the icepack melted. (Many thanks to my cousin and co-worker Nicolle, who took that walk to Walgreen's for me to buy Crazy Glue, and fixed my glasses.)
So how does this all make me a good person? Getting beat up by a three-year old obviously doesn't make someone a hero. But the fact that I instantly recognized that it wasn't the kid's fault, that he wasn't in control of his actions, the fact that I kept my wits about me while it was happening, the fact that I voluntarily put myself in direct contact with him after it happened, that I didn't give up on him, the fact that I would like to one day see him communicate his frustration without biting, even if it means going all Chuck Norris on me a few more times....well I think THAT kinda makes me a good person. Because by the end of the day, after his diaper was changed and he was groggy from his nap, after he had his snack and flashed me that huge smile when I tickled him, it was all worth it. If that doesn't make someone a good person, a better person, I don't know what does.