Chapter Seven

My new school was farther away. I was picked up by a bus each morning. We went through heavy traffic, including a stretch of freeway, to get there.

This school was not a school specifically for autistic kids. It was the Special Ed part  of our public school district.

Everything about it was different. The color of the building, the paint on the walls, the parking lot. I felt very strange there.

The teachers were different too. I was drawing a picture in a coloring book when a teacher came over and said, “No, Max! Not like that. Let me show you.”

No one in school had ever said “No” to me. They had more tactful ways of disciplining us. Usually it took the form of,  “That’s great, Max, but let’s try it this other way too.”

This teacher’s name was Miss Greco. She was very attractive. She had beautiful skin, the color of coffee with lots of cream. When her face was at rest it looked very mild,

almost sleepy.

But her manner with us was harsh. I heard her going around the room and saying “No!” to all of us. “Not that way, Corinne. Let me show you.” She also had a way of taking the crayons out of our hands and making the drawing herself. “See? That’s how to do it.”

On my third day of school I saw her take a crayon from Brian Laker and slap his hand.

I was next in line for this. I was drawing a picture of my bedroom when the crayon was pulled from my hand.

“I said an animal, Max, not a room!” She slapped my hand.

I was trying to figure this out, to think of some way to please her, when I overheard another teacher saying to her, “You can’t talk to them that way.”

“They need discipline,” Miss Greco replied. “Coddling them is the worst thing you can do.”

I noticed she was always a little more harsh when there were no other teachers around. One time she slapped my ear when I dropped a pencil on the floor. I screamed bloody murder. All the other teachers came rushing into the room.

“What happened?”

“Max hurt himself,” Miss Greco said. “He’ll be fine. He’s just a little upset.”

Kathy, the head of the school, put her arm around me and asked, “What’s wrong, Max?”

I couldn’t tell Kathy what had happened. Eventually the room cleared and we went back to work.

I saw Miss Greco grab the ear of one of the kids and twist it until the kid whimpered. She was a terror. She would pace around the room in silence, watching us work, and suddenly she would slam her hand down on one of our desks.

“Pay attention!” she said.

There was a boy in the class named James Davidson. He was very quiet, and not very smart. Miss Greco would tell him what to do, and he would sit silently. He was either too dumb or too afraid to obey her commands.

This maddened her. She would approach him five or ten times in a day and slam her hand down on his desk. “Wake up, James!” she shouted.

One day I saw her standing behind him, pulling at his ear. Tears welled in his eyes, but he didn’t utter a sound. She pulled harder, a little hiss sounding in her mouth. He didn’t move.

She was something. I had come a long way from Audrey, I thought. This was not education, this was a kind of terrorism.

Miss Greco gave me a bad report on my report card. “Max needs to try harder to follow instructions. He needs to learn cooperation and obedience. I hope to see Max do a lot better next semester.”

My parents were alarmed by this. I had never had anything but glowing reports from my teachers. They had a conference with Miss Greco. I wasn’t there, I was home with a babysitter. When they got home they seemed worried.

“She’s nice enough,” Mother said. “I don’t think she really meant what she wrote.”

“She meant it,” Dad contradicted her. “I could see it in her eyes. She doesn’t like him, and she doesn’t like us.”

“Could it be ethnic?” my mother asked with a glance at me.

“You mean us being white?” Dad said. “Maybe a little, but I think she’s just a bitch.”

“Oh, you don’t mean that!”

“I think I do mean it. I didn’t like what I saw.”

My father came into my room that night. He sat on the edge of my bed and took my hand, as he always did when he kissed me goodnight.

“Max,” he asked, “Did anything happen with Miss Greco? Anything bad?”

I couldn’t answer. I can’t talk. He was looking searchingly into my eyes.

“If anything bad did happen, Max, we’ll take care of it, I promise you,” he said. “Remember, Mom and I are on your side.”

He touched my hair in that gentle way of his. He paused at the doorway to give me a last look.

My parents called Audrey and asked her to come over and have a consultation with us.

Audrey arrived, jingling loudly and smiling all over the place.

“Max, I’ve missed you so much!” she said, crushing me against her breast. “It’s not the same without you.”

Her cheerfulness was so relentless that it was only my parents’ expression of concern over Miss Greco got her smile to fade.

“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully. “Uh-huh. Well, things do happen now and then.”

She asked to be alone with me. My parents went to the kitchen.

She got out my crayons and my pad.

“Max, tell me what’s been going on.”

I drew a picture of Miss Greco.

“She’s very pretty, isn’t she?” Audrey asked.

Then I drew a kid beside Miss Greco, and Miss Greco slapping the kid’s head.

“I see,” Audrey said. “Has this happened often?”

I nodded.

“To more than one child?”

I drew pictures of James Davidson and two other kids that Miss Greco had hit. I also showed her pulling a kid’s ear.

“Does this happen every day?” Audrey asked.

I nodded.

“How many times a day?”

I drew the number 10.

Audrey looked closely into my eyes.

“And you’re telling me the truth about this?”

I nodded.

“Okay, Max,” she said. “I’ll do something about it.”

The next week Sherry Smith appeared in our school.

Her mother brought her in and Sharon introduced her around. I had a big smile, because I already knew Sherry and the other kids didn’t. She looked a bit uncomfortable until she saw me. Then she brightened.

We sat together at lunch and talked, in our wordless way. We were both relieved. There was at least one good thing about this new school.

But Miss Greco’s antics soon had Sherry as scared as the rest of us. She would move from one desk to another, slamming her hand down to shock the child sitting there. She would pinch us, pull our ears, hit us on the side of our heads. None of us could talk, so we didn’t know what to do.

Finally I saw her hit Sherry. “Pay attention, Sherry!”

This made me see red.

I got up from my desk and grabbed Miss Greco’s hand. She tried to pull free, but I wouldn’t let go.

“Max, what are you doing?” Her pretty face was distorted by rage.

With her other hand she punched me in the stomach so hard that the wind was knocked out of me. The kids watched this in silence.

But Audrey kept her promise.

School was cancelled the following Monday for a teachers’ conference. When I went back Tuesday, Miss Greco was gone. Another teacher, a young man, had replaced her.

“Hi, kids,” he said brightly. “My name is Damon. I’m going to be your new teacher.”

He want around the room shaking our hands and calling each of us by name. He was amazingly tall, taller than any person I had ever seen. And skinny. He wore thick glasses which made him look peculiar, like someone from another race.

He already knew something about each of us.

“Max, I hear you’re a great creative artist. And a Mozartian,” he said to me.

And to James Davidson, “I’m glad to meet you, James. I’ll bet you didn’t know that my middle name is James.”

And to Sherry, “I’ve heard all about you. You’re quite a celebrity around here. The rumors about your beauty are not exaggerated.”

He went to the blackboard and wrote his full name in huge capital letters.


He smiled at us. “If that name makes you think I can bake cakes, you’re wrong,” he said. “But I do make a mean chocolate chip cookie. I also play the guitar, and I sing in the shower. Have you ever done that?” He looked at me. “Max, do you sing in the shower?”

I shook my head.

“Well, you should start,” he said. “All you kids should sing in the shower. It’s good for your lungs, and the best part is, no one can hear you. You can be as far off key as you like, and no one will know.”
  He walked around the desk and gave us a serious look. The he took a deep breath and began to sing.

“Home, home on the range,” he sang very loud, “where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all daaaay…” He held the last word so long that we started to laugh. A moment later there was a knock on the door. It was one of the other teachers.

“Everything okay in here?” she asked.

“We’re just learning to sing in the shower,” Damon told her.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s a good idea.”  And she closed the door.

The next day Damon brought a large box of homemade chocolate cookies. He walked slowly around the room, letting each kid take a cookie.

“Alouette, gentille alouette,” he sang quietly. “Allouete, je te plumerai.

When he was finished passing around the cookies he looked in the tupperware container.

“For heaven’s sake, we didn’t finish them!” He popped one into his mouth with an abrupt motion.

Mumbling because of the cookie in his mouth, he said “We’ll have to get rid of them. How are we going to get rid of them? Who has an idea?”

James Davidson raised his hand. This was a first. James had never raised his hand since I knew him.

“James, are you going to save us from this dilemma?” Mr. Bakewell asked.

James nodded. He got up and drew a picture on the blackboard. It showed Mr. Bakewell giving a kid a cookie and patting the kid on the head.

“Oh, you mean a sort of reward?” Mr. Bakewell asked, as though surprised. “A reward for a student who does something well? What a brilliant idea, James. I wouldn’t have thought of that in a million years.”

He looked at the rest of us. “What do you think of James’s idea?”

Everybody nodded.

“It’s settled,” he said firmly. “Whoever does something correctly gets a chocolate chip cookie. But James will have to be the cookie-giver. I have to stay up here and teach you stuff. I can’t be walking around the room, I’m too old for that.” He looked at James. “You up for that, James?”

James nodded, smiling.

Our first exercise was to name all the parts of the body in “Alouette.”

Alouette, gentille alouette,

Alouette, je te plumerai la tête.

Je te plumerai la tête,

Je te plumerai la tête,

Et la tête

Et la tête,


Alouette,gentille alouette

Alouette,  je te plumerai.

As Damon sang he pointed to his head, then walked among us pointing to our heads. He motioned for us to point at our own heads. When he came to the refrain “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” he motioned for us to sing along. A few of the kids, then more kids, sang “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

Then Damon did “Je te plumerai le nez,” pointing to his nose and to our noses, and again he sang “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” so long and so loud that a lot of us chimed in, laughing.

After le nez came les yeux, le cou, les ailes (he flapped his arms and pretend to fly for this one), le dos, les mains, les doigts.

When he came to les pieds he abruptly crouched down and stood on his hands, still singing madly. He walked around the whole room, change falling out of his pockets, as well as his wallet and his pens and his car keys.

“I hate it when that happens!” he said, finally standing on his feet again. “Who can give me back my change?

We all got up from our desks, picked up the coins, and handed them to him.

“Merci, merci, merci Mademoiselle, Merci Monsieur,” he said, putting the coins back in his pockets.

Mr. Bakewell taught us a lot of interesting things that day, some of them difficult, humming as he wrote words on the blackboard. When one of us got the right answer he said in a loud voice to James, “Cookie-giver, give Cynthia a cookie!”

From that day on peals of laughter came from our room. Mr. Bakewell kept us in stitches. Occasionally, when our laughter got too loud, another teacher would look in the door suspiciously. But, seeing the happy looks on our faces, she would quietly close the door.

Mr. Bakewell became the most popular teacher in the school. Sometimes he would come to class wearing a costume, such as that of a toreador, and speak with a Spanish accent throughout the class. Other times he would bring something unusual in, like one of those metal sculptures that is perpetually in motion. He could tap dance, he could do card tricks, he could juggle four balls, he could do hilarious impersonations of the other teachers (“Don’t breathe a word of this, any of you.”)

Sometimes he would sit down next to one of us, scrunching his tall body with great difficulty into the desk next to the kid. He would whisper things into the kid’s ear, gesticulate, point his finger, look uneasily behind him. When he got up he would say to the rest of us, “Confidential!”

Every day was different. And the best part was that he made us learn. All of his stunts and games had an educational point in them somewhere. Most of all, he never said a harsh word to any of us. He treated us like adults. He himself often acted like a child, dropping things, spilling things, and always saying “I hate it when that happens!” He would appeal to us to clean up the messes he made. We didn’t realize he was working on our physical dexterity as well as our sense of responsibility.

The bad times were over. Kids being kids, we quickly forgot about Miss Greco. Our excitement over Mr. Bakewell made her disappear.