Every year when the yellow butterflies start to dot the landscape, I know that it is getting time for back to school. Stores fill their shelves with teacher requested school supplies and children clamor over the newest and best back pack. The local discount store sections off an area for school uniforms in sizes to fit kindergarten to high school seniors. I stand back and watch as families shop and think about being a young mom getting my son ready for his first day of school. I also remember being a first grader with my fat pencil and writing tablet, new English sandals and plaid skirt my mom made for my special day as a first grade student. Most of all, I remember Malcolm and the life lessons he taught me my first year of school.
It was the end of the first school day and the bell signaled for us to head home. Walkers went first and school bus riders second. I was a bus rider, a county girl who lived on a dirt road where other bus riders lived. I walked the isle of the school bus looking for a place to sit down but the front few seats were already taken, so I headed for the middle of the bus. A voiced called out, “You may sit by me, here.” I looked up to see where the voice came from. For a minute I was puzzled by its owner. The voice came from not a child, but a man, a full grown man. He was sitting against the window and held his hand over the open spot on the seat next to him. He smiled a warm caring smile, one that said everything is fine, I am a friend. His face was old, not like college age old but older, as in young man married with a family kind of old. He sported an afternoon shadow of a beard, but something in me told me he was safe.
I knew and understood this development thing called mental retardation. I had spend a great deal of my childhood days helping keep up with a severely retarded young man in our area who sat on a bike he couldn’t ride and spoke of how much he wanted to be Matt Dillon off Gunsmoke. We, the neighborhood kids pitched in to help his seamstress mother when she needed to work and he was making it impossible. But this man was different; he was smart, well composted, impeccably dressed, I fully suspected because he was allowed to ride the school bus, he was a student at the school across the street from mine, the Kine-Lake school for the mentally challenged.
Kine-Lake was private and yet public at the same time, it shared the same school board beside its special school board, and if students where in good standing and not a behavioral problem, they shared the public school bus system as well. The difference with Kine-Lake was you never graduated, you never had to leave school no matter your age, if you needed school, you attended end of the story. As I studied the warm friendly caring face of the man who offered to share his bus seat with me, I knew he had to be a Kine-Lake student, one in good standing.
I slid down on the edge of the seat and put my book satchel in my lap. “Hi, I am Malcolm, and you are a first grader aren’t you.” He spoke soft and kind.
“How did you know?” I asked turning toward him suddenly feeling safe and protected in his presence.
“Oh several ways. You have on new buckle shoes not ones that tie, you carry a book satchel and only first graders carry a book satchel and you looked scared, like you didn’t have a friend on the bus. Everyone needs a friend, so new friend what is your name?”
“Cheryl and I am a first grader, I have never been to school before.”
Malcolm smiled and continued talking. “Well everything will be okay. See, I carry my school work in a brief case, it’s just like the one my daddy carries to his office.” He flipped open the case and picked up a sixth grade spelling book, opening it mid way into the middle of the school year area. “See this is my school book, it’s my spelling words, they are very hard, but I am learning them. I have had this book for a year now, and I am learning. That’s what you do in school, you learn as you are ready to learn, it’s not hard because you are ready now, and you are ready to learn so you will.”
The bus started and pulled out of the parking lot, Malcolm pressed his nose into the window lightly as if he needed to see home as soon as the bus moved. A few city blocks later and the bus stopped. Malcolm said to me, “This is my stop, I have to go now, but the driver will take you to your stop where your momma will be waiting. That’s my momma over there.” Malcolm pointed to a short plump lady with snow white hair, she reminded me more of a grandmother. She wore a lilac colored sensible dress with a pretty shell shaped pin at the tip of the white collar. I said goodbye to Malcolm and watched him walk up to this Mother. She was all smiles and so happy to see her son at the end of the school day. They hugged and I could tell he was excited to share with her all he had learned that day.
I sat by Malcolm most of the time the rest of the school year. Everyday whether I sat with him or not he asked about my day. Sometimes he showed me his test papers, he always got good marks and seldom missed a spelling word as he worked his way slowly oh so slowly through that sixth grade spelling book. The school year ended for me and we parted as friends.
That summer the winds of change swept across the South. When fall came and it was time to return to school I did not go to the school across the street from Kine-Lake, I was sent to the newly integrated school across town, were I met a new group of friends and soon understood just how much more grow up second grade children are from first. I switched out English sandals for saddle oxfords like the cheerleaders wore. I abandoned my book satchel for the cooler way of carrying my books and papers in my arms, again like the older girls did. I learned how to braid my stick straight thin hair into a dozen or more braids thanks to my new best friend who shared a seat on the school bus with me as we rode home together.
I never forgot Malcolm, and thought about him a lot my sixth grade year. I ran my hand across the pages of those spelling words and wondered how many years it took for him to complete the book. I wondered if he still went to school or did he stay home with his parents now. I worried about where he would live when they were gone. I grew up and graduated high school and moved on.
Now I am that Mom at the bus stop. Oh no, my son does not attend school, but I am her. With wisp of graying hair and a thicker middle, I have come to except being home with a special needs son as my full time job. I learned how to cope with life because I was ready to learn, just as Malcolm told me all those years ago, “You will learn because you are ready to learn, it’s not hard because you are ready now.”
Malcolm taught me the most important lesson in life; you only learn when you are ready to learn. I keep that tucked in my mind as I struggle to teach my grown son a new skill. I know in my heart he will get it…when he is ready.
Thank you Malcolm, wherever you are.
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