I was assigned Shawn-Bey because it was my first summer. For the veteran staff, he was an undesirable—low-functioning, non-verbal, visibly dirty. I assumed that anyone who had worked with him in the past hadn’t cared enough, or just didn’t possess the level of patience a student like that required. I admit that I was naive. The previous semester I had been told by a professor that my general demeanor had a calming effect on those around me, and that it would do wonders for me in the classroom. I was certain that I’d be able to make progress.
On the first day, I spent the morning scraping feces and diaper-stuffing out from under Shawn-Bey’s fingernails. In the afternoon, he threw his desk at the wall and punched me a few times in the neck. In both instances, he laughed so loud that my ears ached.
On the second day, we worked on hand-washing. He still threw his desk, but I avoided his punches. It felt like a step in the right direction.
Still, no matter how many strides we made in the classroom, he’d arrive every morning in the same unwashed clothes. When I’d greet him at the bus stop, the driver would take the time to tell me how horrific he smelled, and that she was certain he’d soiled himself on the ride in. “Our pal over here keeps staining the one set of clothes he’s got,” she’d say with a chuckle, and for some reason I’d thank her.
“Imagine what happens on weekends,” one of the other aides said. I asked if we should call social services, but the lead teacher assured me they had already visited the house several times the summer before. Impossibly, the report said there had been no signs of neglect.
On the Friday of the second week of the summer, I decided I needed to take action. At the end of the day, I told the teacher I was sickened by everything I had seen; I’d be sending a note home on Monday. She nodded, waiting for me to finish my explanation about the injustice of the situation. “Just don’t be surprised if you don’t like the response,” she said and then packed up her things for the weekend.
I wanted to be as direct as possible while maintaining the air of formal authority. I mentioned what I had seen in delicate terms—”dirty clothes and soiled undergarments”—and warned his parents that if things didn’t change I would “be forced to contact the state.” In truth, I had no idea where to find the paperwork, let alone file it, but I figured it wouldn’t get that far. I pinned the note to Shawn-Bey’s backpack so it wouldn’t go missing and went home feeling like I was finally having an impact.
He was absent that Tuesday, and I started to worry that I might have made things worse. When the classroom’s phone rang, I knew that it was for me. Another aide answered, glancing over after only a few seconds on the line. “It’s the dad,” she said.
I took the phone and turned to the wall, trying to hide my conversation.
“You don’t tell me,” the voice on the other line said through a slur. “That’s my son.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, but I felt it needed to be addressed,” I said. All of the muscles in my chest tensed.
I had overstepped. Maybe I had even broken a law. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t know that I was, but I wanted the call to end.
“You don’t tell me about my son. You hear me?” I tried to respond but couldn’t find my voice. I didn’t remember the last time I had cried in public, but I suddenly recalled the onslaught of shame and fear that preceded it. I held a hand to my forehead like the brim of a hat, trying to hide my eyes from the rest of the room.
The line clicked and laughter erupted in the classroom next door. The aide who had handed me the phone chuckled and slapped me on the back. “You fell hard,” she said.
In the moment I smiled, relieved that I appeared to be in the clear. I even went next door and complimented the caller’s prank, hoping that everyone would remember how well I took it.
The next day, Shawn-Bey was back on the bus. When I greeted him at the door, the driver complained that we were back to “business as usual.” Later that summer, I found a dead cockroach in one of his tattered Velcro shoes. I told him we’d find him another pair, but in the meantime, he’d have to spend the rest of the day in his socks. He laughed a few times, and then he threw his desk.
I never heard from his dad, so at the end of the summer I filed a report with social services, though I never heard from them, either. The following summer I returned to the school and worked in a different classroom, with a different student. I still saw Shawn-Bey in the mornings out at the bus stop, his aide listening intently as the bus driver explained that it was another typical morning.
Kevin M. Kearney’s writing has appeared in Hobart, Qu Literary Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and elsewhere. He’s a fiction editor at Rejection Letters and a staff writer for PopMatters. He lives and teaches in Philadelphia. More of his work can be found at kevinmkearney.com