Can You Be My Friend: Special Education in Action

by / special education (1) in Features /
Students plan, cook and serve their own dishes every Friday in the TGIF Cafe.

Jack and Nicole have spent every weekday of the last five months together. At 7:45 a.m., Nicole picks Jack up at his house. Most mornings, they stop at Ferrisburgh Bakery on the way to school, so Nicole can get a breakfast sandwich; if she is in a good mood, she will buy Jack a cookie, too. At school, the two spend the morning going to classes, eat lunch together and cook in the afternoons. After school, Nicole usually drops Jack off at home at 3:15, but if he is lucky, Nicole takes him to the train tracks. Last week, they stood by the tracks for 45 minutes in the rain, playing I Spy while they waited for the train.

But Jack thinks Nicole is going to hell. Jack is the son of a devout Christian father; Nicole is into Buddhism. Jack has memorized the rules of Christianity and repeats them often. It is hard to tell if he understands what he is saying, but it does not matter; he is convinced. He will go to Heaven, and Nicole will not.

Jack is fourteen years old and in the ninth grade. Nicole is his personal behavior interventionist. Jack has long, thin fingers and Nike sneakers that are too big for his feet, so they bounce against his heels like flip-flops. His clothes are usually wrinkled, and he often tugs at the belt loop of his jeans to keep them from falling down. He is tall and fair-skinned with light blue eyes and buzz cut blonde hair that is prone to cowlicks. Most of the time Jack is either moving or making noise, often both. When he speaks, his words come out like train wheels hammering over tracks, one-toned and pounding one on the end of the other, stuttering and spewing thoughts that come faster than his lips can move; but when you ask him something, redirecting his train of thought, his voice gets soft, and he chooses his words carefully. Jack, whose name has been changed for this article, is speculated to be on the autism spectrum.

Jack goes to school at the Diversified Occupations Program (DO), a high school for special needs students in Middlebury. I visited the program and met Jack at the beginning of January and spent time with him throughout the month.

When I first met Jack, he was in the kitchen fiddling with the arm of an electric blue mixing bowl. His apron was crooked, his t-shirt caught in the knot around his hips. When his teacher Ms. Lynch told him to come say “hi” to me, he walked over slowly, one finger in his mouth. He offered me his left hand, placing it gently in my right, but Lynch corrected him, and he lent me his shaking hand instead.

“Are you Indian?” he asked, looking over my shoulder. His voice was high and loud, coming from a thin-lipped mouth ringed with faded acne marks.

Lynch interrupted. “Is that a firm handshake?”

When I responded, smiling, that it could be firmer, Jack tightened his grip. Then he looked at my eyes. “Can you be my friend I don’t know if you can be my friend,” he said in an even tone, as if it were one word.

“I can be your friend,” I answered.

“I don’t know if I can be your friend, can you be my friend?” His hand was still in mine, bobbing up and down evenly.
I repeated my answer and Jack continued to grip my hand lightly until Lynch broke the bond apart.

Jim Doolan and his wife Kay, both current substitute teachers, founded the DO program in 1970, spurred by the mid-60s formation of the Vermont Department of Education, which emphasized increasing special education opportunities. Uniting two small Addison County, Vt. special education classes, one based in a church basement and the other in an elementary school, and housing them in a closed-down Catholic School, the pair effectively cut the ribbon of the DO program, though the model looked different than today’s. At its inception, DO focused foremost on academics and secondarily on daily living skills such as home economics and shop. Now the classes are centered on practical learning, and the students are more involved in the community. Programs like bird banding, an annual trip to D.C. and vocational opportunities have developed over the course of the program’s life. These varied programs sprung up out of necessity to cater to a variety of individualized needs; DO students span a wide range of capacities, and DO prioritizes individualizing education so that each student graduates with a job and the skills they need to live independently.

Today, the program has 35 students in ninth through twelfth grades. They come from four area junior high schools (Vergennes, Mt. Abraham, Middlebury and Otter Valley), suggested for DO by their junior high case manager. Most of the students are learning impaired, which means their IQs are 77 or below (the average IQ is around 100); the rest test just a few points above 77. In the old days, said Lynch, this is what people called mental retardation. But Rosa’s Law, signed by President Obama in October of 2010, replaced the term “mental retardation” with the phrase “intellectual disability” for use in federal health, education, and labor policy. Though the change has been gradual, the “R-word,” has been essentially phased out of use nationwide, and is never heard at the DO program.

But the medical condition remains the same; learning impairments land most students entering the DO program at a third grade level of academic comprehension. Even in light of this reality, DO does not prioritize expanding academic knowledge. Instead, the DO staff asks: “How do you take a third-grade level and translate that into adult functioning? What do [students] really need to know?”

The answer, according to Lynch: “You don’t have to know physics, you don’t have to have geometry, but you should know how to add and subtract. You should know how to do a budget, you should know how to be able to pay your bills and have really good work skills so you can have a job.”

With 19 staff members working to specialize lessons for 35 students, DO’s financial responsibility is astronomical. Tuition comes in at $25,000, funded by the student’s home school, 55 percent of which is reimbursed to the school by the state — “a deal,” Lynch said, compared to other specialized programs, such as those for emotionally disturbed youth. But at such a low price, funding the program can be a struggle. Recent dips in enrollment – four or five fewer students than usual – necessitated cutting drivers’ education.

To Lynch, it seems incredible that this operation succeeds so smoothly for such a low price, especially considering the caliber of staff members currently employed. In several different conversations, Lynch expressed her awe of the people she works with and the effect they have on their students.

“We have some really quality people right now working with kids,” she said. “That’s not always the case in public schools.”

During my first visit, Jack and three other students were baking in preparation for DO’s fully-functioning Friday afternoon restaurant, the TGIF Cafe. In the kitchen, I asked him if he was happy with how his cookies turned out.

“Why is your face clear?” he answered.

“I asked you about the cookies,” I said.

“You don’t have any bumps on your face, like most women do.”

“The cookies, Jack,” Nicole interjected.

He stared at my face. “You don’t have any bumps on your face, you musta had acne treatment.” He pointed at Nicole. “You have bumps on your face.” She bit back a smile and shook her head.

“I know, Jack,” she said.

Jack made a “g” sounds in the back of his throat.

“What did you do this morning?” I tried again.

“Kicked my own butt.” His hands were elbow-deep in dough. Nicole gave him her look. “Stupid Jack,” he said, smiling.

Later that day, Jack stood at the mixer at his assigned cooking station, stirring the ingredients as Lynch had showed him.

As I watched him pack brown sugar into a measuring cup, he asked me again if I could be his friend.

“I can be your friend,” I answered. “Can you be my friend?”

“I don’t know if I can be your friend I don’t know.” He looked down at the mounds of sugar in front of him. After a moment he looked back up. “Would you be my friend if I punched you in the face?”

“Probably not,” I answered.

He smiled for a second. “Probably not, no.”

Jack is just beginning to figure out what it means to have friends – the “can you be my friend” mantra is a recent development. At Vergennes Middle School, he had some friends, but at DO he doesn’t think he has any.

“He’s got more issues, I think, than the other kids, so they don’t really know why he does what he does and what to make of him,” Nicole explained.

At lunch, which the DO students eat in the Middlebury Union High School cafeteria, Jack sits with Nicole, and usually no one else. He likes to watch the high school students because he likes the shapes of their heads. But they are not his friends. It is hard to get Jack to explain why they are not his friends, though he is convinced of this fact.

When I asked, he told me it was too hard to explain and that he was confused, but sometimes he says it was because the other kids do not look as young as him. I asked him if this was the only thing that mattered in friends.

“It matters nice and have fun with them,” he said, then shook his head. “It’s too hard to explain.”

I didn’t let it go, and finally he told me, “Maybe I’ll be too jealous of them because they have too deep voice and I don’t have deep voice. I wish my voice changed, I wish I was in puberty. Like a year ago I was saying,” – he made his voice high – “Mom, when will my voice change?’” He laughed.

One day, Nicole and I stood in the corner of the kitchen, when Jack scuttled over and leaned in between us.

“I have a question,” he said, staring at my nose. “Are you a Christian?” His eyes were wide and serious, his words coming quickly. I nodded.

“So that means you believe in God?” I nodded again. “So that means you believe in Jesus?” Nod. “So that means you believe he died on the cross for our sins? So that means you believe you’re going to heaven?” I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t thought about these questions for a long time, but I nodded again. “That’s good,” he said, bobbing his head violently up and down. “I’m happy.”

Jack used to talk to Nicole about Christianity all day, until Nicole told him one day they weren’t going to discuss it anymore. A few times, Nicole tried to explain her views to Jack, and after listening to her talk about reincarnation for a while, he started to nod along. Then he said, “I believe in Jesus,” and told her reincarnation is the work of Satan, his Dad’s views coming back through by heart. From time to time, Jack asks Nicole if she believes in Jesus now, but she never does. It disappoints him for a moment, but does not seem to affect their relationship otherwise.

One-on-one, Jack seems easier to talk to, but his thoughts and ideas always surprise me as they come out percusively and quickly.

After baking cookies one morning, we were sitting together in the planning room, when Jack spotted a doodle in my stack of loose papers. It was a green pen dinosaur. He stopped mid-sentence and sat up straight.

“Did you draw that?” he asked. I said yes, and he laughed, grabbed the paper and took my pen to the sheet.

“Hey, that’s my paper,” I said, trying to get him to stop. He giggled mischievously. “It’s not nice to take people’s things and draw on them.” I couldn’t get his attention; he was absorbed in the cartoon creature. After a second, he held the paper up and looked at me, a full smile on his face. He had drawn a speech bubble coming from the dinosaur. “Hi Jack.”

I smiled. “Ok, I’m not mad anymore.”

But that same day in Social Skills class, he was less charming. “Can I draw now? Can I draw can I draw?” he repeated, banging his hands on the table, while the rest of the class tried to focus on the problem-solving exercise at hand – Mr. O’s daughter was sick at school, but how could he help her if he has to stay at work?

“Can I draw now? Can I draw now? Can I draw now?” Jack said. He was bent at the waist and his shoulders smushed against the edge of the table. “Can I draw now? Can I draw now?”

Mr. O took the opportunity to redirect the class discussion. Jack’s desire to draw and his inability to do so during class became the new problem the group had to solve. The other students immediately engaged in the issue at hand, paying no attention to Jack’s antics. Jack did not so much as look at Mr. O. Mr. O began to write out Jack’s various options on a bullet-pointed worksheet. Jack could either: 1) keep asking, 2) start misbehaving or 3) negotiate.

“Stupid eee crap.” Jack’s forehead hit on the table, and his signature high-pitched “e” sound filled the room. The other students did not react, focused on Mr. O’s words.

“Stupid eee crap.” Then Jack was up out of his chair and at the glass door that leads outside. “I think there’s a train.”

A moment later he was back at the table. Class discussion had not paused. Thirty seconds later, Jack said he thought there was a train again, and this time was out the door, into the negative eight degree morning. Mr. O did not pause the lesson, trained instead to let Nicole and Jack sort out the issue while he worked with the other students.

Later that day, I sat next to Jack at the beginning of math class, and he babbled throughout Lynch’s instructions.

“Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross? I like you. Do you know the m word? Are you my friend?” I put my finger to my lips, and he responded with a ‘b’ noise, bouncing his lips against each other. Across the table, Melissa, blinking her big brown eyes and pursing her small but usually smiling mouth, asked him to stop, and he did. Deep down in the train tracks of his brain, he knows how he is “supposed to” behave.

Nicole doesn’t know if Jack will be able to hold a job when he graduates from high school. It will take him a while to learn how to interact with people socially.

“Even if he bagged groceries at the supermarket, he needs to learn not to get in people’s faces and not to ask a million questions,” she said.

DO’s ultimate goal is to place their graduates in steady jobs, but Jack’s ambigious future is not an exception among the pool of DO alumni. “Success” seems an almost irrelevant qualification for DO teachers – their students are too varied and individualized.

About a third of DO alumna hold full-time jobs and live completely independently. Others work part time and live with family members or friends. Graduates who test below 70 IQ points qualify for adult services, and receive formal assistance, usually through Counseling Services of Addison County (CSAC). In 2012, DO had ten graduates, eight of whom had 20 to 25 hours per week employment and two of whom declined employment because they were moving out of the area. In 2013, all four of DO’s graduates had paid employment upon graduation — one was full time, three were 20 to 25 hours per week. Overall, Lynch estimates that half of her students graduate with adult services requirements.

As for Nicole, she won’t be with Jack next September. The center is an hour-long commute from her home in Burlington, an unsustainable commitment, she told me, with clear sadness in her eyes. “I don’t know if there’s anywhere else like this. This is a very special place.”

For now, Nicole and Jack will continue to hang out together, watching trains and baking cookies, even though Nicole is not a Christian, and Jack is not sure if she is his friend.

One day I asked Jack if he ever tried to make friends with the other kids at DO.

“I don’t really have friends here,” he answered. “But you’re kind of my friend.” He looked away and scratched his head. “I don’t have that much – I don’t have – much friends – here much friends – I think you’re my only friend here.”

I was curious. What made me different than the other students?

“Because you’re a Christian,” Jack answered. He held my pen in his fist, clicking the end of it against his head. I told him lots of people are Christian.

“Uhh…I like the sound of your voice,” he said quietly. “Your voice sounds calm and kind. You’re a Christian which is good, it means you’ll go to heaven some day.” His voice was slow and soft. “And you’re a nice person.”

I told him he is a nice person too.

  • Maya

    this is beautifully written and a thoughtful piece, but what I like best is that you allow Jack’s* story to be told mostly through his own words.