Saturday, February 16, 2013

There Are Worse Things Than Being Hungry

         I don't really know quite where to start, so I will simply introduce you to Mark. Mark was a student in my "higher functioning" classroom of intellectually challenged teenagers. Back then, in the early 1970s, these kids were labelled as EMR, Educable Mentally Retarded. In short, Mark looked normal, but he was smart enough to know he wasn't normal.
      Mark's mother was a prostitute. They lived in the high-rise "projects" on the north side of Minneapolis. He was a little short for seventeen (about 5'4"), very slender, and looked even more slender in his too-small jeans and plaid shirts. He had shoulder-length brown hair with bangs. (it WAS the 1970s) He had a pleasant face with round brown eyes, but rarely smiled. Life was rough for him.
      He had been traumatized, I figured, by living in a situation where his mother would answer their door, let a man in, tell Mark to stay in the living room with the TV blaring, and take her "john" back to the bedroom. One time, early in the fall, Mark missed a whole week of school. The school social worker told me that Mark had been staying in a temporary foster home for the week and was getting some counseling. When Mark returned to class, he calmly relayed the story of what had happened; apparently, he witnessed the suicide of his mother's pimp. The man simply jumped out of the window in Mark's fifth floor apartment.
But now, Mom was back in business and Mark was back at home.
       This created another problem. That now-deceased pimp had been Mark's transportation to and from school. There should have been a school bus, but his mother had been very unreliable at getting Mark up and ready for school in time to keep the bus on schedule, so she agreed to get him there without the help of the school system. Now, he had no ride to school. The social worker was a short-term solution. I needed to teach Mark to ride the city bus. He would need to know how to ride it when he graduated and got a job, so now was a good time to learn.
       Well, I grew up on a farm. I had never really spent much time even walking on a city sidewalk, let alone riding a city bus. Mark and I learned together. He caught on quickly, even doing a great job asking the driver  for a transfer, but he had one looming fear. People in his project neighborhood were regularly mugged. His mother wasn't worried. She was confident that "the folks who live here won't mess with my boy. They know better."  She forgot her enforcer was dead, and sure enough, Mark was robbed of his watch and wallet the first time he rode home alone from school. It was just after Thanksgiving, and Mark's holiday season was about to get worse.
        There was a horrible flu going around. Mark became ill two weeks before Christmas vacation started. Joyce, the social worker, checked on him a couple times a week. She reported to me that although he was over the worst of it, he was still weak and recovering slowly.
         Mark would miss the big Santa Party we had every year.  Our special school had about 200 special education students attending. Right before vacation, a wonderful Santa would enter the gym, where we had gathered all the children. It was chaos. Santa would read each name from a list. The students would take their turns walking up on the stage (or be taken up there in their wheelchair) where Santa was seated on his throne. Santa would bestow each child with a large bag of wrapped gifts for them to take home and open.  The social worker planned to take Mark's gifts to his apartment, so I quit worrying.
        I started worrying again, right after lunch that day, when Mark showed up for school. He could barely walk. We had already finished gathering the other kids around the edge of the gym. The other children were being led in a raucous chorus of holiday songs, so I seated Mark on one of the staff chairs and waited with him for the singing to end and the present distribution to begin. When Santa called his name, Mark struggled to his feet, nearly knocking over the folding chair where he was sitting. I stood up to reach for him, but he fainted, falling at my feet. Miss Pauline, who was the school nurse, along with Joyce and the principal, helped me carry him to the nurse's office. We placed him gently on her padded wooden cot and applied damp cloths to his clammy forehead.
        He awakened after a short time, and had no idea where he was. When he saw the four of us there together, he said, "I came to school."
       Mark was lying on that cot, looking so very pale and incredibly frail. He truly looked like he should have been in the hospital. We phoned his mother, who had no idea he was not in his room at home. We discussed taking him to the hospital across the street, but Pauline concluded that he was not dehydrated or in need of emergency care, so Joyce and I agreed to give him a ride home. I went down to the gym to get Mark's bag of presents and put them in my car. When I returned to the nurse's office to get Mark, he was asleep. We let him rest for about an hour.
        When Mark woke up, I gave him some graham crackers and juice. He sat on the edge of the cot, eating slowly, and we spent a few minutes talking about what had been going on at school while he had been out sick. He mostly listened and ate, then he apologized for being "so much trouble." I assured him that we did not consider him any trouble and that we were the ones who felt badly. I explained that we had hoped he would regain his strength over the two weeks of Christmas Break.
       Then I asked the question. To this day, I  have not forgotten this. It was innocent enough and really, a natural question to ask. I was expressing concern over the possibility that he could have collapsed on the city bus, or on the street....that he could have been injured.
       "Mark, why did you try to come to school when you were so weak?"
       He replied, "I knew this was the only Christmas I would have,"
       Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.  I didn't have a minute. It hit all of us in the room like a brick. The social worker, the nurse, and I. We all moved straight to Mark and embraced him. He was so physically delicate at this point, let me assure you it was a light embrace; much lighter than we would have preferred to have given him.
       Mark said, through his tears, "I love you."
       We replied that we loved him, and the four of us just stood there, together, for a bit longer. Feeling that love.
       Pauline got him bundled up in his coat, adding a warm scarf, hat, and mittens from her closet. Joyce went to her office pantry to get some extra food for Mark to take home. I went to warm up my car.
       It was a quick ride to the near-north side of Minneapolis. I told Mark to stay inside over the break and to rest up. Then, I waited in the car while Joyce helped Mark get inside, and then take in the presents and the food. 
      That was the last time I saw Mark. When Joyce tried to contact them during break, she discovered they had left the day after we dropped him off. The neighbor said they "went to Chicago for Christmas." Despite several attempts, Joyce could never locate them after that.
        Mark, wherever you are, I hope that awful Christmas has faded from your memory. The only part I don't want you to forget is that you are loved. Love can get you through being ill, being lonely, being neglected, even being hungry.  I hope that wherever you are now, you are wanted, fed, cared for, and loved by those around you.
        Mark, wherever you are now, I want to thank you for this lesson in life. It's not the presents, the food, or the festivities that make Christmas or any occasion important. It's love....simply the human love we have for each other. Without love, as the famous book says, we are nothing.