“Rickey needs a break. Can you come get him?”
The text comes from Odell in the Bio classroom. I grab my lanyard and my walkie talkie; I take the stairs. I go to perp walk Rickey to the Reflection Room, again.
When I get there Odell seems to have regained control. The ninth graders in their ripped jeans are rotating from lab station to lab station, setting up wet slides and adjusting microscope platforms. I spot Rickey’s felt-and-feather form. He is in the corner, deposited on the teacher’s rolly chair with the big, broad desk separating him from the other children.
We never had a puppet student before Rickey. He is sitting on his glove-hands, maybe to keep himself still. His fuschia felt torso is breathless. He spins silently in the chair. The paler pink feathers around his neck flounce.
“That’s five more pipettes,” Odell whispers. I clock the sparkling glass remains in the plastic bin on his desk. I nod. I am here to help. I wonder if there are other schools that would be more supportive learning environments for Rickey. I don’t think we can keep this up.
We call them “outbursts,” and invent terminology to express our acceptance and patience. We assign him to “Tiered Support Services,” write him a “504 Behavioral Plan,” and grant him a “Health Exemption” from swimming. Some of the faculty assume he is mocking them when his felt eyelids stretch way back, his eyes full circles of awe, as he learns something new. Sensitivity training helped them with that, to a degree. In staff meetings, we remind ourselves: he doesn’t mean any harm, but we are already making so many accommodations. At lunch he picks up a special tray piled with the wax fruit and vegetables from a child’s play kitchen.
Every student deserves an education, deserves to thrive. I believe this. But no student can be allowed to interrupt the schooling of their peers, and that’s where I come in.
I crouch down next to Rickey, who is engulfed by the chair. Now he is swinging his stick-thin blue velvet legs and his puppy monster paws. He doesn’t want to look at me at first; he considers the windows. We’ve had this conversation many times before. I fear I’m just following the empathy script now: get down on the child’s level, lead with questions, lay out clear next steps.
“Rickey, come with me for a minute.”
He ruffles and turns to me. As I kneel next to him, up close, I can see the scratches on his ping-pong eyeballs. I’ll need to remind the other boys about that. They don’t mean anything by it. It is tricky, I know; Rickey enjoys the rough play. His body can take a beating. He invented a game where the others throw him through things: alley-oop him over the bathroom stalls or into a dumpster or out the open second-floor window, once. He loves the slapstick; he can be bashed and tossed and emerge unscathed—theatrically sailing like a kickball with his limbs trailing limply behind. He pops back up; he laughs. Yet, he is vulnerable to the littlest pricks and snags: scissors, sharp corners, fingernails, even. These little marks sink in and stay sunk; he doesn’t bleed or bruise, but the rips in his felt won’t just mend themselves. His sparkles come away on our hands and we wash them down the schoolhouse drain with stubborn pink industrial soap.
At my request, Rickey hunches his shoulders, hangs his head, and plop-hops down from the rolly chair. I sigh; so dramatic. He shuffles his large fluffy feet against the linoleum. The other kids stop their chatter to watch. They get distracted by his perpetual performance. That’s the root of the whole issue. Rickey loves class, but too much. He sucks up all the air, all the attention. The other ninth-graders give Rickey a covert little wave before they return to their pond scum. They have adopted Rickey as a kind of mascot; I worry this is an unhealthy attachment. They validate Rickey’s behavior, which is the last thing he needs. I’ve seen some kids start to imitate him, maybe unconsciously, speaking in his exaggerated sing-song cadence.
It is just the two of us in the hallway, and I guide Rickey toward the Reflection Room, though it’s not like he needs directions. Rickey and I have spent many hours there together. We are a progressive school; the Reflection Room has a painting of a butterfly on the door, a thrift-store couch, acrylic paints, and a lamp I brought from home to soften the light. Rickey made the garlands that decorate the room himself, those colorful chains of interlocking circles that are really a more appropriate project for younger students.
Yet Rickey does not want to come with me. He slows his steps and swivels his head to and fro.
“Tell me what happened,” I say. I’m holding his hand, which I wouldn’t do for the other ninth graders, but he likes it. His hand is soft and the exact temperature of the air.
Last time, it was singing during the state exams; the time before that, gnawing playfully on his classmates’ hair and fingers; another time doing elaborate jigs during Silent Sustained Reading—his reading level is highest in the grade, so we know that’s not the issue. Perhaps a combo processing-and-attention disorder.
“Did you know that euglena have both plant and animal characteristics? They have their own chloroplasts, and also a tail. They hunt, too.” Rickey gives me this knowledge like a gift. At least he was paying attention in class. Perhaps he relates to the euglena, not-quite-this and not-quite-that. “How much sand do you think it would take to bury me? Or what about you?” Rickey asks.
“A whole lot,” I answer, to keep him moving.
Worse, once during Spanish Groupwork, Señora Garfield heard shrieking and found Rickey sitting in the center of his assigned cultural research project team (Guatemala), pulling back the fabric of his midsection to show the students what lies underneath. Later, we rationalized: he forgets the others aren’t built like him, how shocking it can be for them. That day, though, Señora Garfield told us how Rickey was laughing with his mouth wide open in joy as he used his nubby hands to pull back the curtain on the vacancy inside him: nada, nada, just air, popsicle-stick scaffolding, and some seams of hot-glue. He apologized the next Monday in front of the whole class. He said he thought they’d like to see.
Of course, the other kids in his group were pretty shaken, and of course, it got around the whole school. Sophomore Shirley Abramson came in for counseling, saying sometimes she suspected, sometimes she was so sure that she was full of emptiness, too. She had thought it was just her, till Rickey went around showing everyone. Now she was less alone. Now she could not ignore it.
I try again. “Why,” I ask Ricky when we are walking in parallel, “are we here?”
“We are here to learn.” Rickey answers. He swings my hand in his. He has already forgotten to be sullen. He is looking all around with curiosity, though this is the same hall he walks every day.
We pass a poster that just says YET in big green letters. Yet, I think, we are all working too hard to keep having this conversation; Rickey is not progressing as he should. There are other students who need our attention, too. I’m thinking we should put him on a discipline contract, maybe try different incentives. Something needs to give. This situation is good for no one. I’ll speak to the principal about alternative placements, perhaps a school with a no-nonsense approach, or one that is arts-enriched.
A senior, Andie, walks by, huffing under the weight of her backpack, wearing her world weariness like a coat from the wrong era, all the buttons and seams and buckles just slightly off. When he sees her, Rickey ignores my questioning and waves to her. He drops my hand and scuffles over to her. He comes up to her knees. The senior’s face inflates with joy.
“What do you like in your tacos?” Rickey asks.
I learn that Andie’s favorite is sweet potato. She must be running late for something, some class or appointment, but doesn’t seem hurried anymore.
Watching them, I don’t think they are particular friends, even, but in that instant there is a sense that the two of them might just, any second now, shed their bookbags, abandon the building, and walk through the hilly woods. They might continue, pointing out the insects, the birds, the fungus, the names of colors, pausing to read every historical marker and plaque, an odd impromptu traveling pair till they get to the train station, its vibrant map, and then emerge and join the raucous chorus of the city. Or maybe they will go to the shore and take turns burying each other in sand.
This is what happens so often in Rickey’s classes. As if he rips a skylight into the popcorn ceiling. And the sky distracts from the lesson plan. There’s a reason we have roofs.
“Rickey,” I say seriously and low. He walks away from Andie and joins me, reaching up to grasp my hand.
The Reflection Room is in sight now. Beyond the door, Rickey can sit alone and pick from a jar of colored gel pens and some blank paper to write letters of anger or apology. Then, maybe, after enough time and contrition, he will be allowed back to class. Some students like the Reflection Room so much they try to sneak in here, to stay. But not Rickey. He tries to be penitent, to earn his way out. He writes long eloquent apologies filled with figurative language; he regrets saying and doing the wrong thing; he wants to be better; he does not understand what he is doing wrong.
That means, I know, that he is not listening, for I’ve told him many times what he is doing wrong. To look at his peers, see how they are, try mimicking them. Don’t reinvent everything. Don’t show off. Don’t stand up from your desk and walk to the windows when your favorite garbage truck goes by. That the teachers have his best interests at heart, and their directions will be his guide. That I am here to help, but I can’t do it for him.
We walk through the especially-quiet of an empty school hallway that will soon be echoing with sneaker-squeaks and shouts.
“Miss, I need—”
Ricky seems to slow. He is apprehensive about his consequences. His hand drags in mine.
“Consequences are part of learning, and I know you love learning,” I tell him. I keep pulling. He must go. I am already behind.
“Miss…” Ricky’s voice sounds soft and distant.
“Rickey, let’s get a move on.”
I am walking along holding Ricky’s hand and then two things happen at once: I hear a soft collapse—the falling of something very soft and slight to the floor—and Rickey’s hand goes loose in mine.
Looking back I see—strung out across the long hallway—all the pieces of him. I do not see what snag Ricky has gotten caught on, but I have been pulling. In frustration, I tugged too hard, noticed too little.
Soundlessly and quickly I scramble to the floor, hands and knees. Andrea is on her hands and knees too. There are little bits of glitter stuck to my hands, I see, as I wave her away. She shouldn’t see this. She is gripping her laminated hall pass so hard she might slice herself open. She is bending over to pick up some of the trim that was once Rickey’s shoulder. She is calling for help but there is only me.
I crawl to gather all the pieces of Rickey before the bell rings. I worry he will be trod underfoot, scattered, before the other kids even see.
I reach for the limp sequined fabric, the ping pong balls, the empty gloves, the popsicle sticks, the twine that acted as a pulley for Rickey’s elbows, knees, and wrists. Loose feathers float across the linoleum floor. I grasp at them.
I can only hold so much at once. One of the balls that were his eyes goes bouncing away, down a stairwell.
I try to make a cradle out of my lap, sitting on the floor. I press my fistfuls together, willing them to stick, to reconnect, to move, to flex and shimmy and shiver. But when I pull my hands apart his materials fall through and down. The feathers drift the slowest and land on top of the pile—soft, still, and finally silent in my waiting lap.