NON-FICTION, 820 words. One day last fall at Brothers deli, I became acquainted with a charming lady in her seventies. I had plenty of free time and she said she did as well, being recently retired. I sat with her for a few minutes and as we talked, I learned a little something about someone she’d known, who had been one of my high school classmates.
I’d never met this retiree, but she was cheerful and talkative. When I told her I was from the class of 1983 she said she’d been an administrator at that time. She had been in charge of the special needs children at my school.
Back in the day, I’d known one of the children, Shawn. I’d known him by name only. I’m sorry to say I’d been an immature high-schooler and had no regard for Shawn, or the other special needs kids.
My recollections of Shawn’s group are clear but very short, like a once-packed reel of film with thousands of feet edited out by Father Time. This lady’s special needs children would walk together as a group of eight or so. They were always supervised. I’d see them in the hallways, quietly heading to their classroom, or to the cafeteria. As I said, in those days I’d never given these children much allowance or accommodation. In fact I mocked them, a true testament to my being insensitive and callous.
I asked the administrator at the deli if she had known Shawn. For whatever reason, my mind had retained his name, his face, and even his demeanor and gait. Her eyes lit up. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “Shawn was one of the students in my personal charge. In fact, he was my favorite.”
Let me say that I’m not usually eating lunch at this deli. Most days, I’m at the Market Basket near my workplace, picking up a few things for lunch or for what may be needed at home. There’s even a little room at the front of the store where you can sit and eat if you want. I enjoy a break from my day in that store.
Sometimes when I’m shopping I’ll see a small group of special needs adults, walking closely together through the aisles. They are always carefully supervised by a social worker, someone whom I have deemed near saintly. She drives her people to that store mid-day, just about every day. The half-dozen stick together in a line that is understood by them and everyone else to be a cluster of need and trust. The social worker, the only one who handles the shopping carriage, buys a few items and checks out at the register. Behind her—obedient, and completely dependent—her folks keep close.
They are thirty, forty, and fifty years old. I’ve watched them and have seen many things. Mostly though, I see Shawn. I see the type of man I imagine Shawn had become. I see a bald man with a neat haircut, tucked button-down shirt, and a dark brown belt. I see a man who didn’t arrange for any of those things, he didn’t call for the haircut, or pay for it; he didn’t iron his shirt or select his belt based on the palette of the day. If you think I may be assuming a discredit to the man then I invite you to be a patron alongside me. Those dear people are doing the best they can, and are in need of care on a momentary basis.
In the high school hallways, Shawn was the tall one. Like most fifteen-year-old boys, his facial hair was beginning to fill his upper lip. He could be boisterous but controlled himself well, perhaps because he recognized he was the tallest one in his group. Perhaps with the height, he sensed his stature with his peers. Another thing I remember is the concentrative look on his face as he moved about his day.
My elderly deli friend, the one who supervised Shawn, said, “Shawn was my favorite because he was so gentle. He was the sweetest, nicest kid. He made my days at school an absolute delight.”
I asked her if she kept up with him. She told me the sad news that Shawn had passed away. From her tone, and how she said it, my impression was he had died some time ago.
I told her I was sorry. She’d cared for a boy she’d known well. Her affection carried right through to today. She was one special public schools administrator.
Mostly though, I felt hollow. I’d done nothing to contribute to my classmate’s life. I think that even a little kindness would have gone a long way with him. Shawn was described to me as a sweet boy. I hope he filled his parents with that goodness, for the limited time he was with us. It took a while, but he most certainly reached me.
Ara Hagopian’s latest book is out now: http://www.LeavesOfYouth.com