Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Johnny

After a hiatus from employment of five years, I started working again this year. I substituted in food service at our district's schools last year, and this year I took on a semi-full time position at the alternative high school, serving lunch to the 200 or so kids there.

"It'll take just the right kind of person," the food service director had told me when I interviewed for the job. "It's a bunch of kids who, for one reason or another, can't go to the regular high school. Kids who aren't like other kids."

Kind of vague, but I nodded. I got the gist.

"My kids aren't like other kids," I replied. I understood. And I do think I'm the right fit for this job, at least for right now.

The school is kind of split into two parts; one side has kids with some special needs, the other side schools kids who've had problems. Behavior problems, in many cases. I'm guessing some of them have been expelled from the general high school. Some have had babies or are pregnant. Most of them, I have no idea why they are here, and it's none of my business. My business is just to serve them lunch.

But I don't judge anyone for being there. A huge majority of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches.  Their home lives have probably not been the most supportive or stable.

Anyway, on the special needs side of the school, there was this boy I'll call Johnny. He reminded me of my boys, Zack in particular. He could be sweet and funny, but he also had a lot of behavior problems. He was tall, taller than me, with shaggy brown hair and glasses, and a very innocent face. And more often than the other kids, he had meltdowns. Once I walked by a side room where Johnny was sitting on the floor, screaming. His face showed great distress. He was a big kid, so when he screamed, it was very loud and alarming. Not like when my kids scream. The aides were asking him what would make him feel better. Music? Would music help him calm down? I saw them bring in a small stereo.

Johnny didn't come to lunch that day.

Another day I walked by several times and saw him sitting at a small table in that same room, an aide sitting by him, rubbing his back and shoulders as he laid his head down on the table.

One day while hauling all the food and supplies on a rolling cart down the hall, I came upon Johnny and two aides. You could see how upset he was. Johnny was making a lot of noise and trying to run down the hallway toward me, and the two aides were blocking him. As he took off, one of them grabbed the back of his shirt to stop him. They stepped quickly around to place themselves between Johnny and me.

"Go ahead, we'll protect you,"one of them said.
"It's not me I'm worried about," I said. I got around them as quickly as possible. I just didn't want to cause Johnny any more stress. I don't think he really wanted to do anything to me. Because I've seen the same look in Zack. He was just overwhelmed and probably overstimulated and something had set him off, and he couldn't rein himself back in.

I wanted to ask if he was on any medication, but I also didn't want to seem nosy. One of the aides told me that Johnny's parents were having a really tough time with him. He kept running away, he seemed to think it was funny (although, those of us with kids with autism know that inappropriate laughter is a sign of overstimulation and stress) and once the police had actually put him in jail. His parents were close to their wit's end.

In just a few weeks I grew to really like Johnny. One day he came though the lunch line and tried to take two packets of barbecue sauce. The kids are supposed to just take one, and the aides admonished him. "No Johnny, just one barbecue."

He held onto two and looked up. "Just in case?" He said smiling, his eyes twinkling. His sweet talk totally worked on me. "He can have two, there's plenty."

He exuded such a vulnerability and a lack of control that is so much like my own boys. But I could also see how much work he was for the aides. He needed more one-on-one time (and often two- or three- on one) than any of the other kids. And last week, he was gone.

I asked about him, and wasn't told specifically where he'd gone, but I was assured he was fine and he'd be back, next year. And of course, again, it's none of my business where he went. Or what will happen to him. I just served him lunch. But I miss him.

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