|I knew him even though I'd never seen him before in my life. It wasn’t so much his odd mannerisms, his disheveled look, or how his eyes wouldn’t meet mine; it was the other students’ reactions to him. Not the giggling and pointing you might expect from pre-teenagers, but rather the avoidance and closed-off body language. I would come to find out their behavior resulted from years of learning not only reading, math, and science, but social skills in a variety of situations.
“You just have to figure out what kind of mood he’s in, Ms. Tucker,” whispered a little girl that reminded me of a Raggedy-Ann doll I had as a child.
Smiling, I touched her red braids, impressed with her observation. “I think I just have to figure out what mood all of you are in,” I whispered back with a teasing smile.
“Alright, class. You may choose where you sit. I don’t believe in assigning a seating chart before first giving you a chance at freedom.” I waited for the mad rush to the desks as if there would be a magical one, a desk in which you were invisible or never had to do fractions. However, no one moved. That is, no one but Henry. I looked questioningly at my new red-headed ally.
“Henry is very particular about where he sits. It’s better if we just let him decide first. In third grade there was a chair-throwing incident,” she explained in hushed tones.
Henry marched right up to the front desk to my left. And I do mean “marched”. West Point Academy cadets couldn’t hold a candle to his posture and technique. Without a word, he saluted and sat in what would from then on be known as “Henry’s desk”. The milling around began as the students strategically placed themselves by their friends. They didn’t avoid sitting next to or behind Henry; some even spoke, though I could tell they expected no response. Constantly, we hear how children can be mean, and while I won’t disagree with that, I was seeing an instance of children being considerate.
Trying to prepare myself for the challenge I would be facing, the evening before I had researched Asperger Syndrome.
“Asperger syndrome is often considered a high functioning form of autism. Persons with this syndrome have impaired social interactions, limited repetitive patterns of behavior, and often are clumsy.”
I prayed I would have the ability to properly educate not only a child afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, but everyone else in the class as well. It's a fine line a teacher must walk, being able to address special needs and not neglect others while doing so. In this case I thought it might be easier because despite having Asperger Syndrome, Henry’s i.q. was off the charts. It wasn’t long before I found this could be a blessing or curse depending on the day, assignment, weather, or lunch menu. Dealing with kids most of my adult life, I knew predictability was never something you could count on. And with Henry, the word didn’t even exist.
Attempting to start the year out on a positive note, I had ordered pencils engraved with “Welcome to Sunset Middle School” for all the students. I began passing them out giving each student a smile and a welcoming comment. I was smiled back at, ignored, glared at, and even thanked. As I handed Henry his pencil, he met my eyes for the first time, holding the stare a little longer than was comfortable. Never looking away, he took it, broke it in two pieces, handed them back to me, and responded dryly, “I have my own pencil, ma’am.”
It wasn’t an act of defiance; his green eyes held no malice. In fact, the only thing I could read from his expression was, perhaps, bewilderment as to why everyone else had not behaved the way he had.
“Henry, you could have kept it as an extra one.” My tone was calm, though I felt uneasy.
“This is the only pencil I write with.” He was matter-of-fact as he pulled out a green mechanical pencil as if it were the Holy Grail. As the year progressed, I understood he was not exaggerating. Instances occured throughout the coming months where the school was practically on lock-down, searching for Henry’s green, mechanical pencil.
“Very well, then,” I continued, as I tried to nonchalantly throw the rejected pencil in the waste basket. “Being the first day of school, I think it would be a great idea if we got to know each other better. How about we take turns saying our name and telling three things about ourselves? It can be anything, as long as it’s appropriate. For instance, your hobbies, favorite subject, what you want to be when you grow up. I’ll go first. My name is Ms. Tucker. I have an eight-year-old son named Reese. I love to write stories. And my favorite book is Where the Red Fern Grows. Who would like to be next?”
Hands shot up throughout the room. Kids like nothing better than to talk about themselves in front of a captive audience. Come to think about it, adults like that pretty well, too.
“Let’s just go down the row then. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, just say ‘No thank you, not today'. You may start us out.” I gestured to a fidgeting boy to my right.
“I’m David. I like summer break, mashed potatoes, and I wish I were asleep.”
“Tina, ummm that’s my name. I have a hamster, my brother's in college, and . . . and . . . I love horses!”
“Jake here. I dig skateboarding, getting girls’ phone numbers, and I think burping is hilarious.”
On and on it went. Some answering from the heart, some for effect, and some to impress others. I smiled seeing their various personalities appear. Inevitably, it was Henry’s turn. I admit my interest was piqued.
Henry stood as if it were role call in the army. “I am Master Charles Henry Davis. I enjoy military history. I think most the people in here are idiots, and I will not do word-find worksheets.” Without batting an eye, he resumed his seat.
“Henry, it is not polite to call your peers idiots.”
“I speak only the truth, ma’am. Do you not think it is idiotic to find amusement in burps?” His stare was penetrating, yet also amusing.
“Well, honestly Henry. I think finding burps funny shows immaturity rather than lack of an ability to learn.”
He paused for a moment. I saw a few students ducking, apparently taking cover from possible flying desks.
“Point well made, ma’am,” Henry answered flatly as the class breathed a sigh of relief.
And so began my year with Master Charles Henry Davis. I learned as much that year as I taught. Early in my career I had been given the advice to 'pick your battles’, but Henry taught me the importance of the battle is different depending on who’s waging it.
Did we always get along? No.
Did he quit calling the students idiots? Not always.
Did he do word find worksheets? Nope, if he’d rather write me a story about WWII than search for words on a grid, I was more than happy to read it.
A few books were thrown throughout the year, but no desks. I adjusted teaching techniques on a daily basis that year, and not just for Henry. Though there were days I would hope he would be absent, there was never a day I didn’t enjoy seeing him take his seat. I envied his commitment and passion for the military and told him so one day.
“Thank you. But ma’am, can’t you see you have that same passion for us?”
I could have cried. Rarely do children at the ages of twelve and thirteen see beyond themselves. And here was one that not only saw something, but reminded me of it as well. Henry made me a better teacher, person, and student of life.
We didn’t end the year with sappy hugs. He couldn’t stand touching someone else. Instead, he saluted me and said, “I respect you, ma’am.”
“And, I respect you, Henry. Thanks for teaching me this year.”