|What Levander Means
On Marcie Prescott's forearm is the green and yellow bruise from where Claudette bit her last week—no doubt angry Marcie had taken away the cookie she stole from Timmy. This week, Peter eats a spider, and Michael won't stop saying to silent Claudette, his voice way too seductive for an eight year old, “I like your teddy bear.” As a bonus, the teacher across the hall keeps eyeing Marcie’s clothes, making comments like, “I suppose at your age, you can get away with that.” All this she can handle. It’s Levander she can’t.
Things had started out smooth enough that first day. She recognized everyone except a dark-skinned boy with a large shaved head. He wasn’t there when she interviewed, when they gave her a tour of the classroom. As she watched him twirl a thread around his left pinky, she felt something askew, but dismissed the notion. All of the kids were in a circle. She called the name of each student and they came to her, looked her in the eye, shook her hand. When she called Levander, he popped up from his seat. He had a little spark in his step, his skin and skeleton squeezing the wattage tight. He giggled at her, eyes milk-ice bright. His skin smelled like cocoa butter, like Marci's lazy days on North Avenue Beach, the heat of the sun baking her into nirvana. Marcie took his hand, and for a moment, he was still. Their eyes met and in his she saw a mystery, perhaps ancient ancestors cast out of a secret Eden? But he didn’t speak, gave no clues--only smiled and returned to his seat.
As soon as Marcie left the circle to get a piece of chalk, it began. Levander screamed, and wouldn't stop.
Marcie was headstrong and optimistic though, Mother Theresa come to wash the leper’s feet, but Laura Rabinski, Marcie’s classroom assistant, was realistic. She had seen it all: a parade of fresh and stubborn faces undaunted by the challenge of teaching severely handicapped children. She wondered how long Marcie would last before she realized a meaningful fix was impossible.
Growing up, Marcie had watched the small yellow bus that carried the disabled adults from the Center to the bowling alley, racetrack, and county fair. She watched them with their pudgy hands and childlike faces, watched as they stumbled and smiled around like ducks on chemicals. Fascinated by the world they occupied, where everyone was happy, calm, and special, she studied special education in college and never understood the look of concern when she told people her career goal.
And Levander still hadn't stopped screaming.
On the second day, when she can’t get him to quiet, she asks Laura for an explanation. But Laura only looks up from wiping Timmy’s nose and says, “He screams.”
Not the answer Marci wants or expects. She takes an inner breath, wants to appear unfazed, and tries again. “Why is he screaming?”
“He just does it.” Laura acts like the screaming is nothing out of the ordinary. None of the other seven students, each with their own unique set of disabilities, seem bothered by it.
Marcie’s head begins to vibrate from the screaming. No intelligible sounds, just a wail, primal and echoing off the paint-chipped walls. She wonders if Levander’s absence on the day she first visited was intentional. Why hadn’t anyone told her a boy in her class would be screaming all day? Didn’t anyone think it might be relevant? She pushes the thought away--it’s of no use now. Levander continues to scream. There’s a panic in his face, and his eyes are welling with tears.
“What’s wrong?” Marcie says to him. More wailing. She looks at Laura. “What did the other teacher do?”
Laura thinks to herself, why doesn’t she ask me what I do when he screams? Because Laura is only the assistant, Marcie doesn’t comprehend that Laura knows how to handle Levander. Finally, Laura says “There’s a chair in the closet. Sometimes she had him sit in there.”
Nobody ever gives the assistants credit. Most of them outlast the teachers here. Maybe because the assistants are never given the chance to speak up, take control, run the classroom. Nobody asks their opinion. They didn’t go to college. Their title is assistant, not teacher. They get paid minimum wage. They don’t intervene unless asked. Their job isn’t to fix anything, only to keep order when asked--and because of that, they leave the job behind at three o’clock.
“How long does he scream for?” Marcie asks.
“It depends,” Laura says. It depends on the humidity, on the change in atmospheric pressure, on the phase of the moon, on what he ate or didn’t eat for breakfast, the color of his socks, the laundry detergent his mother uses. Laura can go on and on, but for now, two words are sufficient.
Maddox has the most messed up kids in Chicago. That’s what it’s known for, kids with so many different things wrong with them that one label won’t do. It’s not enough here to just be retarded. No. These kids have weird behaviors too, like spitting all day, banging their fists into their faces, or simulating sex acts on other kids, or even furniture. And there are stories: kids cared for by senile grandparents, found playing in excrement, left alone in a locked apartment for days, of Mexican mothers washing their floors with blessed soap in hopes of God healing their child.
Marcie takes Levander by the hand, “Let’s go,” she says. Marcie’s education makes her think the chair is for over-stimulated kids, that sitting in a quiet place will calm them. She thinks back to her behavior management class: the chair removes Levander from his “reward” of extra attention for screaming. But underneath Marcie’s calm façade there’s the tremor forming. Maybe the terrain she thought was stable is about to crack. Marcie dismisses the thought as a newbie anxiety that will get her nowhere. She’ll go over Levander’s records after school, try to understand what Levander is trying to communicate.
Marcie enters the closet for the first time. It isn’t the kind she expected. Though laws are on the books concerning placing kids in closed rooms for extended periods of time, this closet is more like a long and wide hall running the length of the room. It’s got a door on each end. Sometimes the specialists work here with kids. There’s a window with a view of the playground next to the chair Levander sits in. It’s a nice wood chair and has his name on it.
While Marcie is gone, Laura takes charge of the circle. Claudette reaches out her hand to pick Timmy’s nose and Laura slaps it, quick as a frog’s tongue snatching a fly. Roberto starts to stand, and Laura calls his name with authority and he sits back in his seat. Peter wants a box of G.I. Joe cereal (he pronounces it cer-e-o) and Michael returns to his seductive teddy bear routine. Laura ignores them both, knowing the chatter will extinguish itself soon enough.
Marcie returns to the group. Inside the closet, Levander continues to scream, and Marcie struggles to clear her head. She thinks of that movie, Jumanji, and wonders about being caught in another world, a world unaware of constructs related to space and time. Perhaps it is Levander’s world? She draws the number one, and a round dot, on the chalkboard. “Can you bounce a ball one time?” she says. A ball gets passed around the circle. Laura stands behind each student, making sure they bounce it just one time.
Levander is suddenly quiet.
Laura knows he’s found the cookies in the closet, that he’s ripped into them, that somehow, even though he can’t read, and the case is plain cardboard, that he has discovered them. Laura has seen these kids do all kinds of strange things, things no one expects of them. She watches Marcie get up, leave the circle and get Levander. Maybe Marcie will see the duct tape that’s on the hook next to Levander’s chair. When Marcie’s ready, Laura will tell her what it’s for.
Carol Reed is in her office, as usual. She’s the principal at Maddox. She sits at her cluttered desk, its drawers full of broken pencils--her way to navigate through stress. She’s on the phone, kissing up to a woman on a foundation board. This woman’s family has a huge trust, and Carol knows, if she dotes enough, maybe they’ll donate a few thousand for curtains to cover the auditorium stage. Carol’s got an estimate, $42,000. The woman is asking if Carol will be at the luncheon tomorrow for Doris Hocherman whose new book, Women Helping Women: Caretakers in the Field, portrays women in the social services as "earth mother archetypes." Sure, Sure, Carol says, although she couldn’t give a rat’s ass about it. This is her job, and that’s why she’s here, earning a paycheck. Oh, sure, she’s committed to it, but where else would she go?
Still on the phone, Carol glances over at Marcie who is waiting patiently for her attention. Marcie's sitting there in punky clothes--black jeans and a shirt with cartoon characters. Carol figures she probably cuts her hair herself, maybe dyes it too. That shade doesn’t look natural. Carol nods at her, moves her hand to simulate a mouth opening and closing, and let’s Doris ramble on.
Marcie isn’t sure what Carol wants. Usually it’s not a good sign to have to report to her. Still, it’s the end of the day and Marcie isn't bothered by sitting in Carol’s cramped office. Nobody is screaming or biting or wetting their pants here.
Marcie waits patiently. Minutes tick by. Marcie hears the “Well, it’s been nice to talking to you. I’ll try to make the luncheon,” which signals the end of the conversation. Finally, Carol hangs up the phone.
“So how is it going?” Carol says.
“Okay,” Marcie replys. She’s only been here three weeks and already knows there’s no point in being honest with Carol. She’s no help in a crisis and only feigns concern. She’s strapped to her desk and telephone all day, reciting slick sound bites to potential donors.
“We’re getting a new student next week. I’d like her to go in your classroom,” Carol says.
Marcie doesn’t want to hear this. “Laura and I are already scrambling enough with the kids we have,” Marcie says.
“Well, actually, you’re down a student. The rules say you can have one more and still be in compliance.” Carol knows Marcie’s concerns. All the new teachers are alike, thinking that some day, given the right circumstance, they will be in charge of their classroom. It will never happen. Carol knows, she started out here like Marcie, twelve years ago. You can only survive here by turning off the sound, switching channels. It’s a mistake to think you can save the world one child at a time. And now Carol’s on the other side of the desk, thinking dollars, budget, appearances, the stuff that's really measurable.
Marcie knows there is no point in arguing with Carol. “What’s her name?” she says.
“Lupita. She’s nine. I thought she would make a good playmate for Claudette.”Claudette has no playmates. She’s too busy stealing people’s food or trying to pick their noses.
Carol pulls out a file, scans it over. “She’s being toilet trained. She knows a few signs. Also she’s got a thing about holding her doll, or sometimes her purse.” She looks up from the file toward Marcie. “She’s probably insecure, and doesn’t want to let it go.”
“I don’t know.” Each day, Marcie tries to start afresh, but Levander, at some point unexpected, starts to scream. Sometimes, when she’s busy tying Roberto’s shoes or fixing Claudette’s braids, she’ll look up and Levander will be gone and the class door ajar. “I’ve been chasing Levander all week,” she says. “When he’s not screaming, he’s running out of room. Did you know the secretaries have a bag of cookies on their desk all the time?”
“He never used to run to the office, and I don’t remember the screaming being so constant.” Carol gives Marcie a look that can only mean she thinks Marcie isn’t competent. “There have to be ways to keep him interested in class. You need to make the room special for him. Why not try decorating his chair? He’ll enjoy sitting in it. Or maybe playing soft music might help.”
Marcie starts to grind her teeth, a new habit. “He was quieter in the past because the old teacher used duct tape on him.” Carol stares now and Marcie continues. “Laura told me. She says it’s the only thing that works.”
Carol glances at the clock. “She must have been joking. You know how people say things.”
Marcie nods her head as if to agree with Carol. She knows it is no joke, and she knows that she will never use duct tape on Levander, no matter what; but she also understands that Carol is not there to help her, only to pass the buck, equivocate, or burden her.
“Why don’t you talk to Richard. He’s been very helpful with the other teachers here.”
Marcie nods. Richard has been here longer than any other teacher. He’s the first to volunteer to help with any special program in the school. Anything to get out of his classroom.
On Monday, Marcie meets with Richard, mostly out of courtesy to Carol. Richard can’t stay after school, so naturally they meet during class while Laura watches the classroom. Marcie and Richard set up camp in the teacher break room. Richard begins by telling her what a good job she’s been doing. He congratulates her on working well with so little experience. He’s got a way of making a backhanded compliment. “You know, Levander has always screamed and run out of the classroom. You can try what you like, but it just needs to run its course,” he says.
Marcie shakes her head. “I can’t just watch him do it. And I’m tired of chasing him in the hallway. It’s a big game to him.” Marcie’s face reddens, and suddenly she feels emotional, suddenly she’s admitting that she can’t quite handle it, that it’s getting to her.
Richard looks at her sympathetically. “You know what the old teacher did, don’t you?”
“Laura told me about the duct tape. Did she really cover his mouth with it and tape him in the chair?”
Richard looks at her. “It sends him a clear message.”
“It’s child abuse.”
Richard doesn’t flinch and looks her in the eye. “These kids are different. The regular rules don’t apply. They need a strong concrete message of what correct behavior is. And for Levander, the duct tape sends that message.”
Marcie looks at him, unsure of how to react. After all, Richard is supposed to be in the know here. “I think my college teachers would be appalled to hear that.”
“Marcie, you’re not in college. Do you really think, especially after working here now, that those books taught you what’s really important? What really works? How do you think I keep Johnnie so still when he stands next to me? I dig my finger into his palm every time he gets rowdy. He knows what the signal means and he conforms. It’s that simple. And Marcie, it isn’t abuse.”
Marcie doesn’t reply.
Laura has been gone for about an hour each afternoon—she’s been with other staff, practicing for the play they’ll put on Friday. Maddox is known for these assemblies—the kids and the staff together acting on the stage in the new auditorium--the one Carol raised three quarters of a million to build. Visitors come, probably visitors who will donate money, or at least praise Carol for the wonderful things the school is doing with disabled children. Once a quartet from the Chicago Symphony came to play. The school has clout. Everyone’s heard of the fantastic things happening here with disabled children.
But Marcie has been struggling. With the class and the new girl, Lupita. Her issues are benign enough. She’s stubborn, like Carol has described, always carrying a purse or a doll, even into the bathroom, but it’s her face that creates the real problem. An untreated hydrocephaly—fluids built up in the brain with no escape--enough to explode the size of her head and terribly distort her face. It’s a sign of her family’s poverty. If the mother had gone to the doctor he would have shunted the fluids out of Lupita, and maybe she wouldn’t be retarded.
Despite Lupita’s ugliness though, she wears fancy dresses, white ankle socks with lace cuffs, and black patent leather shoes. Maybe she’s never seen herself in a mirror, or maybe in a past life she was an ego-maniacal beauty who scorned the needs of others. Each time Marcie sees her, she wants to vomit.
Friday morning. The assembly will happen in a few minutes and Marcie sits with her students in the auditorium. A few more classes file in. Calvin, the school social worker, is on the stage playing the guitar, soothing the waiting crowd.
Marcie has got everyone in their seats without event. The auditorium is full and there are visitors in the front row, a man and woman in fashionable suits, sitting next to Carol. Richard comes onto the stage, introducing the play and giving a little back-story. Levander starts to twitch, his shoulders jerking around. And then he starts to push his fist against the kid sitting in the row in front of him, a chubby Down’s Syndrome kid, and of course, one of Sally’s students (Sally being the teacher who constantly scowls at Marcie and makes nasty comments).
Marcie tries to distract him, realign his attention by holding his hands, but he jerks away and continues to hit the kid, who cries out now, causing Sally to turn to Marcie with that look. Richard stops talking from the stage. Everyone turns to look. Marcie sighs, takes Levander to the back of the room and sits next to him, away from the crowd. She puts her hand on his shoulder, breathes deep and slow, as if to pass her calmness to him.
Richard begins again to narrate the story, the attention of the crowd now back on the stage. The play begins. It's Jack and The Beanstalk. Young Jack talks to his mother about selling the cow. Levander plays with a string he’s pulled from his shirt. He makes shrill cooing noises, but not loud enough to distract anyone. Marcie crosses her fingers. Maybe it will be okay. She can see the rest of her class sitting in their seats, with only Lupita twisted around, ignoring the play. Levander seems to focus on the string and Marcie relaxes, lets go of her hold on him, and begins to watch the play.
The giant’s on stage now, one of the classroom assistants disguised and walking on stilts. Levander stares, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. He screams loudly, jumps up from his seat, and springs forward before Marcie can stop him. He runs up the center aisle, as fast as he can, and climbs onto the stage. In two more seconds, the giant is down, Lavendar having knocked into him. There are people running and commotion as Laura jumps onto the stage and grabs Levander while Richard assists the giant back to his feet.
Marcie heads toward the stage, somehow hoping to undo the damage, as if that were at all possible. Carol turns toward Marcie, her face red. "Get him out of here!" she yells.
Marcie grabs Levander’s hand and jerks him toward the exit. He screams and begins to pound Marcie’s head in retaliation. Another teacher grabs Levander’s free hand and they move together out of the auditorium and into the empty hallway. The door shuts behind them. Marcie feels the blood running to her head and tells the teacher to go back to her class, she will handle Levander now. Levander is jumping, jerking, shrieking. Only Marcie doesn’t care. Down the empty hall they go. She jerks Levander up the stairs, back to the classroom. Levander screeches, but only Marcie hears, everyone is at the assembly.
Marcie opens the classroom door and Levander enters with her. She lets go of his hand, locks them both inside the room. Levander stops screaming and stares at her, not knowing what is next. She takes his hand, pulls him toward the closet, opens the door and shoves him inside, locking him in. Levander starts to scream. Marcie sits at her desk, holding her head in her hands. Levader is pounding at the door now, kicking it. Marcie tries to ignore him, but she can’t get her heart to stop pounding, her hands to stop shaking. It’s as if the combination of Levander’s screaming and kicking the door and her heart pounding have found some primitive rhythm, escalating and escalating until Marcie can no longer bare it. She rises from her chair, heads to the closet, unlocks the door. Levander stares at her, panting, his chest rising and falling quickly. Marcie looks at the closet, the organized way the children’s coats are hung along the wall, the neat stacks of paper and supplies on the shelves.
Everything in its place.
She takes the duct tape from the hook, tears off a piece and instructs Levander to sit in the chair.
Oddly enough, Lavendar obeys.
Sharon Bippus lives in rural Michigan with her husband and three basenjis. She has recently completed a first novel, TRUMAN AND JERRY.