Every Wednesday I visit Christian’s fourth-grade class to do creative writing with them. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and usually leave each week blown away by their eager minds and their willingness to embrace creative thoughts. Yes, we spend our fair amount of time reading what they have to say about poop and farts; but overall, it’s been fulfilling.
Yesterday in class, I had them do an exercise that I’ve used a few times in my adult writing groups: write a Dear Abby letter, then switch notebooks with someone else and write a response to that person’s letter.
Sitting at the table closest to the teacher’s desk sits a boy I’ll call Kevin. Kevin is autistic. Most of the time during my visits, he nervously folds scraps of paper into tiny shapes in his lap. I’ve never been able to engage him in the exercises. I’ve knelt down next to his desk time after time, trying to explain the assignment, only to feel his anxious displeasure. My invitations into the creative world seem to cause him extreme anxiety.
“I–I–I–I don’t know how to do this. I–I–I–I can’t think of what to say,” he’ll stammer as he fidgets in his seat.
And to prove that I would never have made a good school teacher, I usually respond by saying, “It’s okay, sweetie. You don’t have to.”
Which is exactly what I said to him yesterday. I walked away from his desk with my usual ambivalence, wishing to help him but not knowing how.
I began leading the class through the exercise when I noticed that the teacher was talking to Kevin and giving him a warm but firm push to participate.
The class was just finishing up their responses to their classmate’s letter, so I began passing around the little microphone we use and had the kids read. Right before we ended, the teacher came up to me and whispered that Kevin had written a Dear Abby letter and another girl in the class, Chloe, was writing a response and would read as soon as she finished.
I was….delighted! Delirious! Kevin had written something!
I passed Chloe the microphone and listened to her read (and I’m writing this as close to memory as I can recall):
I absolutely, positively, really, really, really, really, really, really want a dragon of my own, just like the kind on Eragon. I don’t want a fake dragon or a stuffed animal. I want a REAL dragon. Every night before I go to bed, I pray to Heavenly Father to give me a dragon. So, can you tell me, will I get one?
I felt flimsy, like I was made of Jell-O. Not only was I stunned at his letter—that he was capable of expressing himself so clearly—but I was also heavy as I heard his plea, so simple, for something that doesn’t exist.
As Chloe began reading her response, I glanced at Kevin. The look on his face was a mix of anger and panic. I, in turn, began to panic. Was he embarrassed? Did he not know that we were going to read it aloud? My insides flip-flopped. I was concentrating on him, wondering if there was something I could do to comfort him.
Completely distracted with watching Kevin I heard Chloe read:
I can tell that you really, really love dragons, but I don’t know anywhere to get one. I am thinking that maybe every night before you go to sleep, you can think about dragons. If you think about them enough, you will dream about them, and maybe that’s the way that you can have a dragon, every night in your dreams. I don’t know, but it might work.
I glanced at Kevin. He took no comfort in her beautiful and wise-beyond-her-years advice. He was physically trembling now.
“You didn’t tell me!” he shouted. “I just want to know—will I get a dragon?!”
The kids laughed a little.
“WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT, ANDREW?” he yelled at one of them.
I don’t really remember the next few minutes. I guess I got the class started on something else and the teacher kneeled next to Kevin as his shoulders shook and tears fell from his face. I was talking to the class, probably incoherently, as I listened as well as I could to the teacher whispering to Kevin. Did you listen to what Chloe wrote? I think it was a great idea…
After a few more inconsolable minutes, the teacher led him out of the room and to his special Resource teacher.
It was time for me to go. Part of me wanted to chase after Kevin and apologize. And I’ll be honest when I say that there was a significant percentage of my brain trying to figure out if there was some way I could get this kid a dragon. (The name Steven Spielberg kept coming to mind.) Another part of me wanted to take Chloe in my arms and thank her for writing what, in my humble opinion, was the most perfect thing to say and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
And then another part of me, the dominant cowardly part of me, wanted to run out the door and into the quiet seat behind the steering wheel in my car. Too much emotion. Too much of me imagining a world that will undoubtedly continue to misunderstand and disappoint such a precious little boy.
I went home and went about the rest of my day, haunted by a fourth-grade Dear Abby column. Haunted by the cold, hard reality that life can be so hard. Wishing there were ways to make it all better.
And as a side note, if you happen to see a breaking news story someday—an unimaginable discovery of a real, live dragon flying around the Salt Lake Valley—you will know that God, our Heavenly Father, couldn’t handle the heartbreak one more day and had to give in. If he’s listening to this kid every night, I don’t see how he won’t.