John was another student of mine, at Emerson School, who had come out of a Minnesota state institution. He had a strange last name; a French name. You don't hear many of those in Minneapolis; just lots of Olsons, Johnsons, and Petersons. John smiled a lot. His skin was a very yellowish color...he did not look like a healthy fourteen-year-old, but the special group home where he lived assured us it was only due to all the prescription medications John took.
Cognitively, he was quite low-functioning. What he lacked in natural intellect, however, he more than made up for in energy. He was the epitome of perpetual motion. Even when John was medicated, and on his best day, the 1:1 classroom helper assigned to him was constantly on the run. Literally, on the run. John was quick and he was cagey. If something caught his interest, he would find a way to get to it; the fastest way possible. My daughter had been like that, and when she started walking at the age of nine months (running at ten months), I bought a cute little pink canvas harness for her, with a leash on it. I was already expecting our son, so it was the only way I could keep up with her and make sure she was safe. Hindsight tells me that we should have had a harness for John.
One of the best things about teaching in Minneapolis was all the lakes and parks. There was a beautiful lake in Loring Park, only a block from our school, but it didn't have the ice cream counter and fishing dock like Lake Calhoun did. So, our end-of-the-year picnic, with the class of my teacher-friend Brian, was always at Lake Calhoun.
About thirty teenagers with intellectual challenges and pretty close to a dozen staff headed to Lake Calhoun in a caravan of school vans. We had fishing poles in the back of one, along with our picnic lunch and some outside game equipment...including the large colorful parachute the kids loved to bounce playground balls on. It was our first public outing with John. Just to be sure we could keep track of him at the lake, it was decided to have Brian and the associate "double-team" John.
Everything was going quite smoothly and as planned. After all, Brian and I were experienced picnic planners; we would play some games, do a little fishing, eat lunch, get ice cream, and then load a bunch of exhausted kids back into the vans.
I was in line with some of my students to get ice cream, when I heard a big splash, then another big splash immediately followed. I turned around, towards the lake, just in time to see John's 1:1 associate flailing in the water on the south side of the dock, and Brian was on the north side of the dock...also in the water. He had pushed them both into the lake! John was running back up the dock, towards the ice cream stand. As he approached, I could tell he was not going to stop; he appeared to be rushing straight past us..... toward a busy four-lane Lake Street, a well-traveled thoroughfare going past the north side of the lake.
I grabbed an ice cream cone from a nearby student and ran after John, thinking I could convince him to stop his escape by offering him a treat. It worked! He heard me hollering. "Ice cream, John! Ice cream!", and screeched to a halt at the entrance to the parking lot. I caught up with him and handed him the drippy cone.
John had just started licking it when he saw Brian and the associate, dripping wet, striding toward us. He started to run again, but I quickly grabbed his shirt. Brian used his most soothing voice to assure John that he was not angry. We really didn't want him to take off again. I transferred my grip from his shirttail to his belt, just to have a little better control. John seemed to settle down and once again he became intent on consuming the ice cream.
We started walking him back to the group. I let go of his belt so he could hold hands with the associate. They were a great match of student/staff and it was a child/parent sort of hand holding. We three adults were talking as the four of us walked; John was closest to the parked cars. I looked over at John, and the ice cream cone was gone. I looked back and did not see it on the ground, so I figured he had wolfed it down. Wrong.
Just as we got back to the curb of the parking lot, we saw a Minneapolis police car back out a space in the lot. John also looked, screamed, "WAIT", and broke free from the handhold of the associate. The officer did not hear him, and proceeded to pull out of the lot and into the street. That was when we saw what had happened to John's ice cream cone....for some reason, John had turned it upside down on the trunk of the police car!
When I pulled up next to them in the van, Brian had been able to lower John onto the sidewalk, and was trying to get him to relax, but John was becoming more and more frantic, screaming loudly for his ice cream and thrashing all over the sidewalk. The associate and I joined Brian in trying to soothe John and quiet him down.
It was just after noon, and the Uptown area of Minneapolis was bustling with folks having lunch in the cozy cafes and sidewalk patios. We were quite a spectacle. After about five minutes, it became apparent that we needed to get John into the van and back to school. He was totally out of control.
Then I remembered the parachute…maybe it was still in the back seat! I retrieved it, with its rainbow of brightly colored panels. We unfolded it as quickly as we could, scooted one edge under John, and rolled him up in it like a taquito. His head stuck out of the end. He was bundled as tightly as a nursery-blanketed newborn and in less than a minute, he went from screeching to calm; then to a smiling serenity.
“Ice cream?” he asked sweetly.
“We’re going back to school, John. We’ll get ice cream there. You just relax, okay?”
We heard a smattering of applause from the street side bistro tables. All I could think about was how long it was going to take me to write up the incident report for this fiasco. Brian drove the twenty or so blocks back to school, dropped off the three of us, and then drove back to the lake to help retrieve the rest of the students. The policeman must have been oblivious to what was going on behind him, because he never stopped. I have always wondered what he thought when he found the ice cream mess on his trunk.
So, the lesson is all about preparation. Two things I always try to have close by: a good team and a big parachute. Not literally of course, but figuratively, for sure. Everyone needs a few other people they can depend on, and they also need a "Plan B". Plan A does not always go as planned and sometimes the result takes more than one person to clean up.
Also, if you are lucky, the police don’t get involved.