Ten years ago, I suited myself up in snug-fitting, job-interview attire. My toes screamed for mercy as I crammed them into the stiff leather pumps I saved for dress-up occasions. The hostaged flesh around my midline rebelled with equivalent fervor.
Desert Valley Regional Co-op (DVR) had solicited me as a potential candidate to fill a teacher vacancy in the vision department. I had limited experience in the teaching field. Several years prior to the interview, I worked as a substitute teacher. That taught me nothing other than I had no talent for interpreting, let alone carrying out the vague plans the teachers-in absentia left for me.
My ambitious goal to ward off starvation and the bill collector compelled me to accept any and all positions the sub finder threw my way. Like a dog chasing after a rubber bone, I ran after every job offered to me. I never quite sank my teeth into teaching as a career, though. Like that rubber bone, it lacked a meaty satisfaction.
I wanted to land a career with a little more flavor, not to mention with a more reliable income. After several years of subbing, a one-on-one aide position in a special needs classroom crossed my path. I applied. I looked good enough on paper to earn an interview. Before grilling me with questions, Mrs. Archer, the special needs teacher, shared what little she knew about the new enrollee. "He requires full-time support. That's where you come in. Among other things, the student—a nine-year-old—is multiply disabled: orthopedically impaired, non-verbal, and visually impaired."
That little preview blind-sided me. I knew nothing about this population. At the same time, I knew not to let on that I was clueless. I wanted a steady paycheck. The health benefits provided an extra perk.
Either no one else applied for the position or I wowed them with my impressive credentials and articulate responses—the district hired me.
I had two months, the summer break, to mentally prepare myself to work one-on-one with this child. During that time, I researched resources available to the blind or visually impaired. I learned that the local library had a collection of braille children's books. A call to the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) revealed even more. The University of Arizona offered an $8000 stipend for anyone enrolled in their program to train as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI).
This news struck a nerve. Still in debt for a master's degree in physical anthropology that I never used—motherhood derailed my original Jane Goodall wanna-be plans—this revelation got me thinking. I survived substitute teaching. That meant I could do anything. Right?
I secured an application, aced an over-the-phone telephone interview with the department head and mired myself in a new job and academia. The summer got hotter as I fretted over whether I'd jumped in over my head.
* * *
The first day of my new job rolled around, and so did my charge in his custom-fitted wheelchair. His handsome face and big grin belied his medically fragile condition. A premature birth at 24 weeks sentenced Armando to a lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy.
Armando's mom accompanied him into the classroom. She introduced herself and her son to me. Next, she gave me a cursory rundown of how to operate the wheelchair, how to prepare and serve Armando's pureed diet and how to put on his orthotic device or AFO, a brace worn on the lower leg shank. After handing over diapers, wipes, and baby powder, she took off.
Stunned by the reality of my new responsibility, I pulled up a chair and made nervous chatter with Armando. Judging by Armando's distressed countenance, the two of us had something in common—a comfort level that just about zeroed out.
Over time Armando and I learned to communicate with one another. As an aide, I followed through with goals established by the physical, speech and occupational therapists and vision teacher. Like any other kid, Armando often balked at the "homework" they provided.
Armando learned to communicate by tapping a bright yellow switch. I recorded daily news reports into this device. Whenever the nurse came in to give Armando water through a special tube that fed directly into his stomach, Armando shared the highlights of his day. Eventually, he learned to pause between statements so that the nurse had a turn to respond. Through this activity, Armando acquired the give and take of two-way conversation.
Armando had access to another wheelchair-mounted communication device. He had an aversion to this equipment. It operated either with switches or in a computer-like touch screen mode. Now and then—maybe six times over the course of the school year—Armando tapped out a brief message. He let everyone know one morning that his wheelchair had a tune-up. On another occasion, he announced he had met a local sports celebrity.
One morning Armando cried non-stop. No one had any luck uncovering his distress. That's when I took it upon myself to interrogate him on his little-used computer. Although at first reluctant, Armando tentatively reacted to my quest about what hurt, "Your head?" I asked, tapping the voice-activated picture of a throbbing head.
"No," he tapped.
I moved on to the next picture in the sequence, "Arms?"
"No," he tapped again, but this time he kept tapping until he got to foot.
"Foot," he announced.
I rolled up his pants leg, ripped the Velcro fasteners on his AFO, and peeled off the brace. Next I took off his sock. An angry blister raged beneath. Mystery solved.
Armando taught me a few things that surmounted what I picked up in my intense training as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired. Despite his condition, I learned that Armando was a regular kid. Although incapacitated, he had opinions and a strong personality.
The most important message conveyed to me though was the value of patience and waiting. Students with limited communication skills at their disposal often slide into a passive mode. Their caretakers, like well-intentioned genies, answer every one of the child's anticipated, unstated wishes and desires. Armando had little use for his expensive communication equipment. The adults around him took care of everything.
Armando's desperation to have his painful foot condition addressed compelled both of us to slow down and methodically consider our options. Thanks to Armando, I learned to step back, watch and listen. Now, I liken myself to the school bus that stops at all railroad crossings. Sure, it seems senseless. There's no sight or sound of an oncoming train. But on that rare chance that I miscalled that assessment, I've at least made all efforts to do the job right.
* * *
My earlier experiences as a substitute teacher still haunt me. They resurfaced during my job interview at DVR. I still had doubts about whether I had it in me to teach. Just in the nick of time, my successes with Armando skidded into my head. They emulsified my uneasiness and gave me the confidence to endure the stressful Co-op interview.
I must have said something right. DVR invited me to join their ranks. Over the past ten years the lesson learned from my original mentor, Armando, served me well. Stop. Look and listen.