Shrieks split the air. Ellie froze. She could make out the words, “No, no, no, no,” but not much else. Then the screams came again.
Ellie hurried down the hall and broke into a run. The office, where was it? She should know this. Ben and Mel had told her to make sure to check in there before getting Kyle. Besides, she had no idea which room he was in.
The screams died down then rose to a new crescendo, accompanied by bangs and bumps, objects striking hard surfaces. Kyle!
The sign saying Office was just ahead. Ellie raced in and grabbed the counter. “Kyle. Kyle Wickens. I’m here to collect my nephew. Is he okay? Where is he?”
A placid gaze met hers as an older woman rose from behind a desk and approached the counter. “May I help you?” she asked.
Ellie gaped at her. “Help me?” What was with this woman? “Yes, you can help me. What’s going on here? I want my nephew right now!”
The woman peered at her, the calm not leaving her face. “Have we met before?” she asked. “Your face looks familiar.”
Was she dense? Or deaf? Couldn’t she hear that ruckus down the hallway? Who cared about social niceties? Something was clearly wrong here. Some kids may be in danger, including her nephew. Couldn’t this strange woman see that?
There was a commotion in the hall and Ellie retreated to the doorway, ready to snatch Kyle and run if need be. A group of small children lined up against one wall of the hall. With the door open, the yells and thumping were louder. The kids, however, did not seem perturbed, at least not nearly as perturbed as Ellie felt.
She turned her head back to the woman in the office. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“I imagine they’re doing a room clear.”
“A room clear. That’s what we call it when for safety’s sake we bring the other children out of the classroom when one of their classmates is particularly upset.”
“Upset? Upset! Is that what you call all this screaming?”
Before the woman could answer, Ellie spotted her nephew in the line of children. Her breath whooshed out and her shoulders came down from their hunched position. He was safe. She didn’t know how she’d ever explain to her brother and sister-in-law if Kyle was hurt the very first time she was entrusted to pick him up from school.
“Kyle,” she called. “Kyle, come here.”
Kyle turned his head and stepped slightly out of line to see who was calling him. His face lit up when he saw her. “Auntie Ellie!” He waved and waved a grin on his face. “Hi, Auntie Ellie.”
“Kyle, come here.”
Kyle’s grin faded and he didn’t move other than to lower his hand.
“Get over here now.” Ellie spoke more sharply than she’d intended.
Still Kyle’s feet didn’t move. But his hands, both of them now, rose. Instead of waving this time, his arms went out from his sides and his hands started to flap.
Oh, great, Ellie thought. Here it comes now. She spoke more softly this time. “Kyle, please come here now. We need to get out of here.”
Kyle’s eyes got wider. His hands flapped harder, and his gaze shifted from Ellie to the open doorway and back again.
A girl beside Kyle put her hands on Kyle’s shoulders and pushed.
“Hey!” called Ellie as she stepped forward. Was this girl the source of the screams? Was she about to turn her attack on Kyle?
But, Kyle didn’t look fearful and the girl was not screaming. She continued to push on Kyle’s shoulders. As Ellie got closer she could see Kyle’s arms lower and the flapping motions slowed. The little girl looked relaxed, but determined. As Kyle’s hunched shoulders lowered and he took in then let out a big breath, the girl released his shoulders, turned away and began chatting to the girl in front of her.
Ellie took Kyle’s face in her hands. “Are you okay?” she asked him.
“Hi, Aunt Ellie,” he said as his arms went around her.
Ellie hugged him back. “Hiya, Munchkin. Are you all right?”
“What are you doing in the hall?”
“Ethan got upset.”
Kyle nodded. Well, that didn’t tell her a lot.
“Let’s go. Grab your things and let’s get out of this place.”
Kyle froze. She reached for his hand but he pulled back.
Kyle stared at her. The boy behind him said, “We’re supposed to stay right here.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve come to get Kyle and I say we’re leaving now.”
“The rule is wait for the all clear,” Kyle recited under his breath.
The other boy explained. “After a room clear, we’re supposed to wait here until we get the all clear.”
A deeper voice behind her spoke up. “They’re right, you know. When we’ve had to clear the room the other students are to wait against the wall until a teacher tells them it’s all right to return to the room. The kids have not received their all clear yet, so Kyle is doing exactly what he’s supposed to do.”
“And who exactly are you?” Ellie’s eyes blazed.
He held out his hand. “My name is Rob Sells. And who are you?”
“I’m Ellie Wickens. Kyle’s father is my brother. He and Mel are both out of town today and they asked me to pick up Kyle for them. I guess I’m a bit early but I didn’t want to be late.” Then she noticed the hand that was still outstretched. “Sorry,” she apologized as she accepted his firm handshake.
“Ah, you’re Mel’s sister-in-law. She told us you’d be coming. Welcome to Madson School.”
Was this place surreal or what? How could they stand here having a social conversation when just moments ago it had sounded like a child was being hacked to pieces in this very classroom?
“Is everything all right? What’s been going on here?” she asked him.
“One of our students became a bit upset.”
Mr. Sells flashed a grin. “Well, maybe more than a bit, but he’s okay now. In fact, we were just about to go back into the classroom. Care to join us for a few minutes before it is home time?”
Without waiting for her answer, he turned to the children. “It’s all clear now. Head back to your seats.” The students turned toward the doorway and walked quietly into the room and to their desks.
Well, “desks” was using the term loosely. Ellie had never seen such a rag tag collection of furnishings in a school. Where were the desks of her childhood, those heavy wooden things with a seat attached to a side bar welded to the desk top?
Kyle was perched atop a grey plastic mushroom-looking thing. Its round top had a slight depression, which narrowed to a thinner stalk. On the bottom was another disk. As she watched, he squirmed. The poor kid had to wiggle to keep his balance because the stool or whatever it was, was warped. The bottom was not flat. Kyle didn’t look perturbed, though. Kids could get used to anything, she thought.
Looking around the room, she could see other, similar stools, in different sizes. They were the lucky kids, she guessed. One poor kid didn’t even have a stool; he was standing at a tall desk, a box of crayons out, his tongue protruding between his lips as he labored away at something.
A couple students sat not on chairs or stools at all but on balls. Looking closer, Ellie thought they looked a lot like the therapy balls she used at the gym, only smaller. Some seemed to have rubber protrusions on the bottom. Maybe to keep them from rolling away? A girl sat reading in a child-sized rocking chair.
There seemed to be an awful lot of movement in this classroom with kids rocking and wiggling and moving but there was surprisingly little noise. The kids had returned to the classroom and had taken up where they left off with their work. Even Kyle. Ellie was amazed at the calm in the room. Her heart rate was just starting to approach normal after the horrid screams that had come from this very room.
A voice spoke directly behind her. “So, what do you think?”
She just looked at Mr. Sells. She didn’t know what to say.
“It’s a bit much, isn’t it, when you’re not used to it. Today’s classroom does not look like the ones we used when we were in school, does it?”
Ellie looked at Kyle’s teacher. He was close to her age, possibly a bit older. He was pleasant-looking, with scuffed runners, cargo pants and a polo shirt. He did not look like any grade one teacher she remembered.
Without thinking, she said, “What are you doing teaching first grade?”
“I’m good at it.”
“But don’t usually women teach the elementary grades.”
“Yeah. I actually trained for high school English, but needed a job as soon as college was out in April. The only teaching jobs open at that time of year were for substitute teachers. I spent a couple days in a high school then the next call I got was for an elementary school. I accepted, expecting to feel like a fish out of water. But, I loved it. And, the kids responded well to me. So, here I am.”
She was sounding like her father who believed that only men should be in charge of businesses. She knew how much it galled her that her father didn’t believe she could run the bakery simply because she was female. Now she was making the same sort of assumption about a guy who wanted to teach little kids.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just different. But, different is okay,” she hurried to assure him.
Mr. Sells nodded, then moved to the front of the class. He circulated up and down the rows, checking work and exchanging comments with his students.
There was a light knock at the open door. A woman stood there, her brow furrowed, her shoulders sagging as if the weight of her hand bag was dragging her down. As Mr. Sells approached, her hushed voice asked, “Is Ethan here?”
“Hi, Mrs. Fellows. Come on in. He’s right here, reading a book.” He turned to Ellie. “Mrs. Fellows, this is Ms. Wickens, the aunt of one of our students. Ms. Wickens, this is Mrs. Fellows.”
As the women said hello, a little head peaked out from the opening of a tent Ellie hadn’t even noticed. It blended into a nook by the book shelves, a taupe kid-sized tent with the door flaps tied open. The floor of the tent held scattered pillows, some hand-sized soft balls, a couple bean bags and one small boy.
The child crawled out of the tent with a book in his extended hand. He gave the woman no hello, no hug or any other sign of recognition. The expression on his face did not change. But, he held the book out to her, immediately launching into a detailed explanation about the giant sawfly butterfly and how in its pupa stage, the caterpillar looked like bird poop. The woman tried to shush the child with a hand over his mouth and pressed him to her side, but he resisted and continued on with his spiel. The next page of the book covered buckeye butterfly, whose larva exactly matched the color of toadflax, its favorite meal. Ellie was impressed with the kid’s knowledge, but the corners of his mother’s mouth drooped. In fact, everything about her seemed to sag.
Ignoring what Ethan was saying, the woman looked to Mr. Sells. “He seems all right now,” she said.
“Yes, he’s calmed. The quiet of the tent helped settle him. We’ll work on this some more tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? You mean he can come back tomorrow?”
Mr. Sells looked confused. “Didn’t I understand that you had moved to our area and Ethan would be attending school here now?
“Well, yes, but I thought that after this afternoon you might not want him back.”
The teacher looked concerned. He gave her a warning look and knelt in front of Ethan. When he placed his hand covering the page of the book, the child’s mother took in a sharp breath and tensed. Mr. Sells ignored that and continued.
“Ethan, it’s time to go home now with your mom. But you’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll start a new day. I’m going to give your mother a copy of our visual calendar. Will you explain it to her? She’s new to this so you’ll have to help her. Please go get the copy off my desk.”
As Ethan walked to his desk, Mr. Sells turned back to Mrs. Fellows. “This was your son’s first day and new experiences are hard. It will get better each day.
“It will help if he has an idea of what he’ll be doing during the day. Actually, that helps all of us, including you and I. Ah, here it is. Thanks, Ethan.”
He spread the page on a nearby table and the three of them hunched over it. Mr. Sells explained that the pictures in this list represented the overview of the activities they would do the next morning. On the back of the page was the schedule of afternoon activities. Each picture depicted another subject or assignment. “Let’s tell your mom what these pictures mean.”
One by one he pointed to each line drawing and Ethan said the word associated with the picture. He only stumbled once, needing Mr. Sells help with the picture for music period. His teacher beamed at Ethan. “After only one day you already know these so well. Good job, Ethan.” Again, Ethan’s face didn’t change in response to the praise, but he didn’t look upset either.
“Why don’t you show your mom where you hang your coat and you can get ready to go home.”
Ethan and Mrs. Fellows were almost out of the door. “Wait,” the teacher called. “We have a routine in this room.” Mrs. Fellows stood hesitantly by the door; Ethan stood impassive.
Mr. Sells turned to the students. “Class, Ethan is leaving now. What do we say to him?”
Not quite in perfect unison, the kids said, “Good-bye, Ethan. See you tomorrow.” The last tomorrows echoed.
Mrs. Fellows` eyes brimmed. Ethan turned to go through the door.
“Not so fast,” his teacher said. “Wait. What do you say back to the class?”
His mom put a hand on her son’s shoulder and tried to hustle him into the hall. “Oh, that’s all right. You know what he means. Thanks for the sentiment and all.”
Mr. Sells stood firm. “No. We have rules here. No student leaves for the day without saying good-bye.” He stood waiting, his gaze locked on Ethan’s. “Ethan, the class said good-bye to you. Now, what do you say?”
“But he doesn’t talk much. You know what he means. We need to get going.”
Mr. Sells was unmoved. His eyes never left Ethan’s face other than to give Mrs. Fellows one warning glance. He looked like he could wait there all day. The class waited calmly as well. Only Mrs. Fellows looked uneasy. And Ellie. Ellie definitely did not want a repeat of that god-awful caterwauling Ethan had produced earlier. How could this teacher risk starting that up all over again?
As everyone waited and his mom squirmed, a small word came from Ethan’s mouth. “Bye.”
His teacher beamed as if Ethan had delivered the valedictory address. He waved. “See you tomorrow.”
From Kyle’s seat a voice said, “See you soon raccoon.”
Ethan turned his back as he said, “After a while crocodile.” Then they were gone.
Ellie let out her breath. “Well, that was risky. What would you have done if he’d started screaming again?”
Mr. Sells shrugged. “I don’t know. Wait it out, I suppose, like we did the last time. He left to continue his walk up and down the rows of students. Despite the strange seating, the kids worked well, most on their own, some conferring with neighbors.
Ellie thought about what the teacher had said. Wait it out. She shook her head. She knew how things could go, having witnessed some of Kyle’s upsets.
When the teacher’s path took him back to where she was standing, Ellie asked, “Don’t you worry about impressionable young children seeing such things? God, I’d do anything to prevent Kyle from having one of these upsets.”
“Is that good for Kyle?”
Ellie didn’t know what to say. “He’s my nephew. I love him. I can’t stand to see him upset.”
“I’m glad he has you for a champion but are you doing him any favors if you tiptoe around him? Look. Life is full of challenges and frustrations. Part of growing up is in learning how to handle them and how to handle ourselves.”
“Yeah, but you don’t get it. Kyle’s just a kid and he’s different. He has autism - an official diagnosis and everything.”
“Yes, I understand that. But, so what?”
“So what? Autistic kids are different. They don’t get the sorts of stuff that come naturally to other people.”
“Yes, all true. But what are you doing to help him?”
“I try to keep his life as calm as possible. Have you ever seen Kyle in a meltdown?”
“As a matter of fact, I have,” his teacher admitted.
“And what did you do?”
“I waited it out. Then when he was calm we went over what happened, what his choices would be the next time and what was expected of him.”
“Yeah, right. You make it sound so simple. I’m ready to crawl into bed and put the covers over my head when one of these are over. Or have a good stiff drink,” said Ellie.
“I can’t say that I’ve never felt the same way but that wouldn’t help the kids.”
“Maybe not, but it would help me,” muttered Ellie.
“I admit that watching a meltdown came be draining.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” came out of Ellie’s mouth before she could stop it. She put up a hand, too late, to cover her face. Her fingers partially obscured her eyes so she missed the grin the teacher turned away to hide.
She was rescued by a chime that sounded from the hallway. In a minute she could hear the sound of children’s voices and the movement of many sneakered feet. She looked at her watch and saw that school was over for the day.
“Sorry. Looks like I’d better get out of the way before I get trampled.” She remembered the end-of-the-day mass exodus from her own childhood.
“There is no trampling in my classroom. Watch. You’ll see. We have a routine for everything.”
To the class he said, “Time to get ready to go home. Jenny, please bring up on the SMART Board the picture that shows what our desk should look like at the end of the day.”
A little girl rose from her seat and went to the screen at the front of the room. She looked at the little pictures on the bottom, then put her finger on the one she wanted. The screen filled with a picture of an organized desk, pencils in the slot at the front, books neatly stacked along the side, crayons, scissors and glue in their plastic container. The kids busied themselves at their desks, some glancing often at the picture on the board, others tidying up without that visual reminder.
Mr. Sells gave the next instruction. “Put your hand up when your desk matches the picture on the board.”
The teacher checked each child’s desk with an approving word or smile, then had them get their things from their cubicles at the back. Each child lined up with their jackets on, their back packs over their shoulders. Ellie watched as each child approached the back of the line, with one arm held in front of them. When he was an arm’s length from the child in front, he lowered that arm and crossed his arms in front of his chest. The teacher waited at the door, saying to each child, “Tell me in one sentence something you learned today?” After each response, he asked “Handshake or high five?” After Kyle’s turn, he waited just outside the door with Ellie.
When the last handshake or high five had been exchanged, Ellie asked Mr. Sells, “What was that all about? I thought it was supposed to be a hug, handshake or high five?”
He grinned at her. “Maybe it’s part of that gender thing you were referring to earlier. I don’t like it, but it’s probably better for me career-wise to keep some physical distance from my kids. A couple students in the room have witnessed spousal abuse and have not always had positive associations with men. Plus, some of these kids, like those with autism, need years to get used to certain rules. I’m safe and it would be okay to give me a hug but not all children have a sense of stranger danger and would over-generalize, thinking it’s all right to hug any man. It’s a sad comment on my gender, but that would not be a safe habit to get into. It was different in kindergarten but now they’re a whole year older and we’re working on behaviors that will carry them through the next years. We practice high fives or handshakes because that’s a cultural norm they need to get used to.”
“There’s more to all this than meets the eye,” Ellie said, but she was thinking that there was actually more to this guy than met the eye. Interesting. She’d ask Mel about him.tart writing here…