In the course of one year I’ve held 8 different jobs, sometimes four at a time. Most of those were in a progression towards the final goal of landing an art education position. I am almost there. I am an instructional assistant in a special education classroom at an elementary school on the west side of Chicago. I work one-on-one with two early-elementary special needs girls and assist with the slew of special needs children that come in and out of the classroom I share with two other instructors. From the window to the left of my table I can see the entire skyline of downtown Chicago, which in my life is a symbol of God’s blessing. This job was an answer to a prayer, financially and spiritually. I can now afford life and am walking through the most profound lesson in patience I have ever received.
I am an art teacher by degree, but at the heart of what I do with Ezme and Nia is creativity. I create new ways to help those two girls learn. From across the table I journey to open the doors inside their minds. I exhaust myself through repetition, trying new techniques to make things stick to their memories, learning the many different factors that block information from getting in and out.
Every day is spent at the crossroads of life’s cruelty and its great joy. I witness the difficulty, in all its detail and heartbreak, of what it means to have special needs. Words and labels fill my mind, cognitively, socially, and emotionally disabled. Some the result of being born addicted to drugs. Parents with varying degrees of involvement. It hurts to wonder what life will be like once they get older.
The joy comes from victory moments when a new vocabulary word sticks, when they crack me up with the ridiculous things they say, when they are happy to see me and I know that they trust me and feel comfortable in my presence. When Jesus speaks to me through my often-absurd conversations with them as we wander through the hallways. When I look at their faces and see all of humanity as clear as day.
I have no idea how I am good at this job. I am known for my impatience, for choosing to walk several blocks while the bus catches up with me instead of standing in one place to wait for it. For getting exasperated when I’m trapped in a conversation with someone who drags his or her words, and then telling them. For showing my displeasure at Starbucks after waiting more than five minutes for my drink. For wanting to rip someone’s face off when they don’t answer their phone at the exact moment I need them to. My parents can testify more than anyone about my lack. As a child I would come up with projects (like painting my bedroom 7 different colors) and harass them until they took me to the store so I could get materials and finish that night. When they refused, the consequence was my improvisation, like the time they wouldn’t get me blue house paint for my bedroom so I instead used watercolors and markers.
And now, I am to set aside that trait for what is called of me. Ezme will forget a new word the second she looks away from it. Every time she confuses the word “our” with “after” I am crushed because of how many times we have gone over the difference. She reads words better when they are written backwards. Nia, with her docile demeanor, will get distracted and drift to the window to stare at the Chicago skyline. I am uncertain if she understands what she’s looking at when she sees the counters I set out on the table before her to help with addition and subtraction. It often takes half an hour for either of them to get through one picture book. It takes Ezme 15 minutes to use the bathroom and she wants to drink from every single drinking fountain in the school.Their behavior is monitored by the minute and I am constantly redirecting with stickers, smiley faces, checks, snacks, and water breaks. By the end of each day I’m exhausted, my mind filled with observations and mental notes on their progress. I want to make sure that Ezme can tell time by the time she graduates 3rd grade. I want Nia to tap into her uncanny artistic abilities and get used to saying words out loud as she writes them so that she’ll remember them.
I want to be patient. I want them to feel loved. I want them to be loved.