Friday, March 13, 2009

Way to Go, Antonio!

I met her in 1975. I was a new teacher, and she was a vivacious, busy, excellent senior. Since then we've been friends. But she's not the topic of the story. It's her son, about 11 years old or so. I have always been fascinated by positive thinkers. Maybe it's the fact I was brought up in a home rather sharply divided on that issue. While most, if not all, of our homelife could be termed "positive," there was a lot of time (still to this day) spent dwelling in the negative Never-Never land of "what if? Be so very careful? You'll fall...." type of world. It always amazed me to be around someone who simply verbalized the positive "thing" that might never happen as if... it truly would occur. This woman was that kind of person, even as a younger girl. She remained unmarried for a long, long time. And who could ever figure out why? She's beautiful, happy, busy, Italian-charming, and smart. So, she filled her life with cousins and parties, ballgames and teaching, happiness and hope. I once heard her state emphatically when there was absolutely NO boyfriend on the horizon at all, "I will be married and have children some day. I know my mother will have grandchilren. It's just not a possibility that it won't happen." I was impressed at the time.

About a year later she met someone, married, and the two of them had two beautiful children, a son and a daughter. I am privileged to teach their amazing, charming, good-hearted daughter who reminds me of her mother.... and I feel so honored. When her son was born, we learned he was going to be a bit different than the daughter, than the mother, than we'd expected. Antonio is autistic. I hadn't been around an autistic person, and I didn't understand the implications. For the first six or seven years, nobody communicated with him much although his family worked constantly and took him to specialists and monitored his diet closely. Again, instead of any morsel of self-pity I heard this woman announce matter-of-factly one day: "When Antonio learns to communicate with me, we'll have a lot of catching up to do." I kind of felt a little awkward as the room took a quiet turn. None of us felt that was going to be an option for our friend and her beautiful son. She gave up her teaching and became her son's advocate, tutor, mentor, and "coach."

During the first few years of Antonio's schooling, a breakthough miracle occurred. While to us, the behavior remained the same, we learned he could spell, could write to his mother, could actually communicate. I remember crying as she told me the story. I was so very grateful that she could talk to him. He wrote their Christmas letter, and I saw his fifth grade state tests. Somewhere in there, they could find this child and communicate an assignment. He could work it through and come up with solid work. But this news didn't truly permeate my mind. I didn't see a change really, so I decided it might be cooperation between him and his mother only.

Where am I headed with this? Well, here. Last night I was the reader at Academic Bowl, a kind of quiz-bowl type format for junior and senior high school students. During the second quarter I heard the coach say, "Antonio, go in for ....." I was puzzled. Antonio? Could that be possible? Ah... my dear blogland friends, let me tell you what happened. The coach explained to the visiting team (and to me) that Antonio was a special-needs child and he uses a computer keyboard to "talk" to his team and to me. He buzzes in on his own. The questions are read exactly the same when he is IN the game as they are when he is OUT. He does get five extra seconds to finish typing his answer... 5-count-them-seconds. That's it. And he was amazing. He was able to factor difficult math, spell complicated words, whip out the trivia fact that Leonard Nimoy played Spock on Star Trek... more and more information flew from his little the keyboard... to me. I was undone. I truly think I did an amazing job of covering the load of emotion this evoked. But I know my voice betrayed me a little. I hadn't realized how much I had wished to communicate with this little guy. When he actually answered a question that I had given for the first time, and then again and again, I was so completely honored and happy for his mother, his sister, his little self... and for me.

"Way to Go, Antonio!" the team and the coach encouraged. No sign of recognition flickered across his face. I believed he did have more of a happy look the whole night, but the same shell of autism is very much in place. Yet, a beautiful world opened up to me. I am so happy to finally believe he is "living well and dreaming big" inside his own beautiful exterior. I cannot explain this as well as I'd like, but being there last night and witnessing such a miracle, I will never be the same. I just have to breathe along with the rest: "Way to Go, Antonio!"


Lisa said...

Wow...I love this post. Especiallly since I know who you of speaking of personally. Way to go Antonio, good things happen to good people...

Jackie said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Helen said...

Your post has touched a place in my heart. Thank you so very much for sharing this.

Allidink said...

Oh wow, I can only imagine how it must have been for her at first. That is such a sweet post :)

All the best,

Laurie said...

What a lovely story! Autism is such a mystery. You are very honest with your emotions in this post, not always an easy thing when talking about a disability. Your friend and her family sound really amazing and dedicated.

Laurie S.