Hi, I’m Pete and if I ever again complain about a first world problem other than an empty glass I give you permission to slap me. I’d also like to preface this with the notion that it’s just my recollecting and observing what this experience has meant to me. I’m not trying to pose as an expert in any way shape or form and hopefully don’t offend anyone. And if I do, toughen up a bit, it’s just a casual recount.
I’m less than a month from home and I’ve just begun to learn things about myself here. Well, maybe I have before this, but at present the realizations are so profound, it is unreal.
So, like all ad hoc travelers, I thought with my work visa I’d get a job right away. It didn’t happen. As the ensuing panic of, “Oh shit, how will I pay for things?” set in, I landed this job at Hamilton North School, a specialist learning center for children with disabilities.
Before you think I’m going all high and mighty let me tell you, I was hesitant to go into the job. Like all cynical assholes, I thought the job would be glorified babysitting, monitoring the kids when the went to the bathroom, making sure they didn’t do any harm to themselves, etc. Looking back on it, I realize I was a prick, so don’t hang me up from the rafters for my previous thinking or place me on a pedestal for having worked with an underserved population.
There are some things that I’ve learned here working with these kids that have taught me a fair amount about myself. It has helped me identify some major flaws and work to correct them. It also has enlightened me in regards to the treatment and perception of children/individuals with special needs. Finally, it made a real declarative statement into how I’m living my life and what’s really important.
I arrived here in NZ by no means a patient person; I’d resided in a city that is go go go, no one gives a shit about anyone (in public, anyway) kind of lifestyle, where you stand inches away from someone in an elevator, just the two of you and neither says hello. I was edgy when I have to wait more than five minutes for a subway car or one minute to hail a taxi. I shook my leg through the whole flight in a manner of, “Are we there yet?” I was calloused, arrogant and masked by the niceties that society mandates we have by the minimalist amounts.
And here I was working with kids.
Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft spot for kids. I think being at the mercy of another persons reasoning while still trying to formulate thoughts and opinions all your own is a difficult enough spot as it is. Maybe it’s easy to live in Manhattan because you rarely see kids, just the same personification of insolence you see in yourself in another formulated adult.
Ok bring it back; here I am the first day at this school, meeting kids who love to ask questions, love to ask why, love to hug, high five, and sometimes don’t know the meaning of personal boundaries. I’m aloof.
As I got the flow of the day to day operations, working with kids who were high functioning was easy and low functioning was taxing. The range of disorders amongst the children is highly diverse, and the quality of care given to these kids is immaculate.
So, having no backing in education (sports medicine doesn’t really apply to a learning center such as this, not in my area of expertise anyways), I do what I do best, small talk.
I’m an immediate hit with the kids, which throws me for a loop. Usually, small talk is a pleasantry for passers by, not the doorway to full blown conversation. It takes me a while to get used to. It was my first realization that these kids get treated differently 24/7, and the opportunity to talk just like everyone else does is (seemingly, at least) a luxury.
One little fella speaks with me everyday about Lebron James. Being American here, it’s a bit of a step outside the norm for a lot of these kids. So, being social and courteous kids, they choose topics I might know something about. We do have the same conversation every time, which is a bit funny, but I appreciate the effort and enjoy watching him get excited.
K: “That Lebron James, pretty good basketball player, aye?”
P: “Sure is.”
K: “He plays for the Miami Heat, he didn’t always used to but he does now.”
P: “Sure does.”
K: “I play EA Sports against Lebron James. I beat him too.”
P: “That’s awesome.”
I told you, I’m a small talk wizard.
There’s countless of these stories and I’ve been making little notes of them aside to myself so I can remember all of them as I go forward from here, but there are two that really resonate with me.
One of the boys here has Dyspraxia. You have google, you can look it up. This boy has difficulties with learning, some motor coordination issues, and speech. We talk regularly, and the teachers are shocked that I understand him better than they do sometimes. My only thought is that his condition has left him without much of an accent, so he sounds more like me than them.
I digress, one day he comes up to me and says something that I can’t totally make out. I ask him to repeat it. I ask him to repeat it again, trying best to make it seem like it’s not his speech, but my understanding that’s faulty. He produced a handheld device that he uses when communication breaks down like it has. Roughly, he formulated “You. Me. Friends.” When I realized he was asking if I considered himself to be my friend I said, “Jeremy*, absolutely, mate” (yeah, I picked up mated) and he went off beaming like he’d won on the Price is Right. It made me realize that if you can do something small to impact an individuals day on a grand scale, it is worth the effort to listen and actively try to make a difference.
The other realization I had is that we’re all just looking to have a bit of common ground. Ultimately, we search for some form of bond to let us know that we aren’t alone. The kid that made me realize this was Tino. I call him Tino, because his real name I trip over, Maori is not my strong suit at all. Anyways, Tino has Cerebral Palsy and Autism. His communication skills are immaculate and he routinely likes to tell jokes of the Knock Knock variety. Anyway, Tino suffers from seizures, at a rate of about three per week. When I first met him he asked me,
T: “Pete, do you have seizures?”
P: “Nope, Tino I don’t. Why?”
T: “Don’t ask me! …Have a seizure, Pete”
T: “…Have. A. Seizure…Pete”
After doing this on a few different days with him, I asked a teacher what he meant by it. His teacher went on to explain that Tino feels embarrassed about the fact that he has seizures and uses that phrase as a bit of a crutch, most likely to establish a common ground with the person with whom he is speaking.
These experiences have leveled me. Not only have I learned that children with special needs aren’t as fragile as I had grown up believing, I’ve learned that we’re basically all the same at a root level. We all want people to associate with, we all want friends, and at the end of the day it’s just nice to have someone to talk to.
All in all, I’ve learned that if you’re getting your base needs met. You really don’t have much to complain about. I like it more that way.
Until next time…have a seizure guys.