Alexander was 16 years old when he became my student. Wheelchair bound with a severe case of cerebral palsy, he was functioning at an 18 to 24 month level. His school program 'had not worked out', I was told, so depite his age, Alexander came to be in my classroom. I was assured that he would be no trouble, that he would just sit quietly in his chair and do nothing at all.
I did my best to prepare my class of thirty 5 and 6 year olds for Alexander's arrival. We talked about his disabilities, his wheelchair and the fact that he could not talk. We read stories about children with handicapping conditions and tried to find the common ground that might exist between this 16-year-old boy in a wheelchair and my children.
The first day Alexander was wheeled into my room, most of my children were ready. Although they stared, they tried to smile and did not seem stressed by Alexander's presence. However, one little girl ran crying and hid in the back of the room. After much comforting, she was able to join the group but she avoided being anywhere near Alexander.
At first, Alexander did sit quietly wherever we put him. He did not move, he rarely vocalized, and he did not look at anyone or anything. He was, for all intents and purposes, not really there. Then one day, I noticed that Alexander had begun tracking the children's movements with his eyes as they crossed in front of his chair. I found out he had never been in a group situation with such young children before and I wondered if the activity level of the 5 and 6 year olds in my room had stimulated some part of his brain that had previously gone unstimulated. We moved Alexander out from his corner and put him right in the middle of the room. The tracking behavior increased. Soon he began to move his head to try to follow the children's movements. Not long after that, he began to vocalize more frequently. Then his vocalizations seemed to take on a pattern.
One day, one of my girls approached me and said that she thought Alexander wanted to draw. I watched him as he sat in the art center and it did seem as though he was interested in the drawing activities going on there. So we rigged a board up to his wheelchair and taped a large crayon to his hand. Alexander drew! He scribbled all over that paper! When he seemed done, I took the paper from him and told him how wonderful I thought it was. Suddenly he vocalized loudly and threw both arms up in the air. It was hug time, and hug we did!
From that day on, Alexander blossomed. He seemed to like being in the center of the hubbub as the children moved around him. He vocalized a lot, and loudly too! He smiled and even seemed to laugh. The children became his coaches and his most enthusiastic cheerleaders. The day that Alexander suddenly tried to move his wheelchair on his own, I almost lost control of my classroom as we jubilantly celebrated. From that day forward, Alexander was unstoppable. We rearranged the room to make it easier for him to maneuver his way from one center to another. The children learned how to push his wheelchair, as he was not strong enough to move it very far on his own.
As Alexander blossomed, my children blossomed too. They learned that they were capable and creative and kind and strong and tolerant and a million other things as they helped Alexander throughout the day. Alexander became my best buddy. He would enter the building, and as he passed the front desk, the receptionist would say, “Are you going to see Ms. Jeanie, Alexander?” His vocalizations as he reacted to that question could be heard all the way down the hall to my room. The children would look up from their activities and say “Alexander's here, Ms. Jeanie”. When Alexander entered our room he threw up his arms for a big hug every day.
One day, we were all out on our large playground. Alexander was, I thought, safe under the porch overhang occupied with the large blocks we had put out for him. Suddenly I heard a loud scream. You know how children have different kinds of screams? This one was the “come right now before someone dies” scream, and I went running in the direction of the sound. I was amazed by what I saw. Alexander had managed to, on his own, maneuver his wheelchair out from under the overhang and onto the sidewalk that circled our play equipment. He had started to fall off the sidewalk into the sand, the only thing preventing him from going over, face first, into the sand was this:
Phillip had seen Alexander wheeling around on his own. He had seen him start to fall off the sidewalk so he grabbed on to the wheelchairs handles and tried to pull Alexander back. Alexander was heavy, and he was stimulated by this new situation so he was waving his hands around like crazy. His weight and hand movements were causing the chair to tip forward toward the sand. This caused Phillip's feet to leave the ground as he hung from the back of the chair, legs flailing, screaming his head off. He was the counterweight keeping Alexander from being tumbled out into the sand. I pulled them both back and made sure both boys were okay. Then we all just burst out laughing, including Alexander. From that day on, a child stayed with Alexander at all times to make sure he remained safe as he wheeled himself around the sidewalk. Yes, the children took care of him. They were capable, they were able and more importantly, they cared.Alexander stayed with us for nine wonderful months, and then his family moved from the area. We learned so much from him during that time, and we saw that he was learning too. No huge miracles--he did not suddenly just start walking and talking. However, small miracles happened every day as Alexander became more aware of his surroundings and began to interact with his environment. He did more in those nine months than he had ever done before. The day he left us we all cried.
That little girl
who ran crying
the first day Alexander arrived soon became accustomed to him, then
him and, after that, was one of the first to volunteer to push his
around the room. You could always find her leaning over the arm of
wheelchair as she showed him a new toy or book. Alexander taught her
and kindness; attributes she will carry with her the rest of her
Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468
updated: September 23, 2007