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Lessons from a caterpillar

September 02, 2008|Jeff Lantos | Jeff Lantos teaches at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles.

One year ago, a tall, dark, tousle-haired boy named Noah walked into my fifth-grade classroom. He was accompanied by his mother and by a burly man with a shaved head. This was Leo, age 29, and he would be at Noah's side for the next 10 months.

Noah needed a "shadow" because he was operating with a handicap. Three weeks into his life, he had suffered a traumatic brain injury that had, in effect, rerouted some of the cerebral wiring. After 20 years of teaching, I've had my share of students with special needs. I was familiar with autism, Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit disorder. But I'd never met a kid like Noah.

He could recite most of his multiplication facts. With Leo's help, he would learn to make his way through long division and triple-digit multiplication. He loved to listen to the stories that I read aloud, and he spent hours trying to learn some challenging vocabulary words.

Writing did not come easily, and reading out loud was a struggle. During class discussions, Noah could be attentive enough to ask questions ("What do you mean by 'cheap labor?' ") or he'd tune out and draw intricate pictures of naval battles. There were days when Noah would get so agitated, he'd stand and say, "I can't take this anymore. I'm leaving!" After those outbursts, Leo would walk him outside or take him to visit my colleague, Ms. Conn, who would ask Noah if she could see his latest drawings.

By November, Noah felt comfortable enough to get up and go hang with Ms. Conn. He didn't ask for permission, and I didn't stop him. Soon Ms. Conn had a gallery of Noah's pirate ships on her wall. Noah had a detailed narrative for every picture.

One day, after teaching a math lesson on the order of operations, I said to Noah, "Would you like to do a problem on the board?" He nodded.

I wrote 5 x 4 + 3. Noah looked at it, said, "Simple," and wrote the correct answer. His classmates cheered. Noah smiled. "How about another one?" he asked. I wrote another problem and he nailed it again. More cheering. Noah had no intention of sitting down. Then I said, "Do you think you can hit my fastball?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm speaking metaphorically. My 'fastball' means a really tough problem."

"Bring it on," said Noah.

So I wrote this problem on the board: 3 + 9 x 7 + 2. Noah did some thinking, then some computing and then he wrote 86. The class was silent. Noah quickly turned back to the board and said, "I know that 3 + 9 is 12, but in this problem the first thing you have to do is multiply 9 x 7." He looked at me for confirmation. I nodded. "And so the real answer is 68." That's how it would go with Noah. He'd ask for fastballs and then take us all through his thinking process.

One day a classmate tried to correct him, and Noah said, "Be quiet or I'll kill you."

I said, "Noah, you don't really mean that, do you?"

"I was speaking metaphorically," he said.

In early December, I had a conference with Noah's mom, and I told her that he was making good progress and even doing grade-level work in math. "And when he can't sit still, he either walks next door or he wanders around the room and gives neck and shoulder massages to his classmates."

"He does?"

"Yes, to boys and girls."

"What do they do?"

"They thank him."

"Do you think he's completely aware of what's going on around him?" asked his mom. "Do you see him picking up visual cues?"

"He's pretty much in his own orbit, but it's not even Christmas. That might change," I said.

And change it did, shortly after a student we'll call Angela walked into the class.

A midyear transfer student, Angela was a brown-eyed, British beauty with a peaches-and-cream complexion and a lilting accent. She took the empty desk next to Noah. For several weeks, they said nothing to each other. Then we had a class discussion about immigration, and Noah suddenly looked up from his doodling and said, "We're talking about you, Angela." What a giant leap that was. He'd made the connection -- with the topic and with her.

After that, I often saw them talking to each other. Instead of taking his drawings to Ms. Conn, Noah would explain them to Angela. He never gave her a neck massage, though. On some level he must have sensed that such intimacy would cross a line he wasn't ready to cross.

When spring rolled around, Noah not only recited a Whitman poem in front of the class, he played a small part in a musical we performed. I asked him if he'd like to speak at our graduation. He talked about it with his parents and then told me that he would accept that challenge.

In the first draft of his speech, which he read to the class, Noah said that what he'd always remember about fifth grade (among other things) was hitting my fastballs and meeting Angela, "because I like meeting people from other countries." I thought that was perfect. It was heartfelt, but general enough not to leave him vulnerable. I was wrong.

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