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Lessons with Thomas

THE class sat hushed and expectant as I entered the room that chill morning in '73. Shuffling feet, scraping chairs, and furtive whispers of ``honky'' and ``white girl'' soon let me know that I had been assessed and stamped.

Thomas, Willie, Betty, and Terry stared, their faces betraying the anger and mistrust each felt. Their wary eyes darted from me to their teacher, waiting and hoping for some prearranged cue; none came. Fifteen inner-city, special-ed students were introduced. Thus began my student teaching assignment with these pre-adolescents.

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The school took a unique approach to its integration. Half of the students were black and labeled ``mentally handicapped'' by the school system. They were bused miles from the downtown sector of this small Midwestern city. Their home school, lacking in every amenity, had been closed, creating the uncomfortable need for change. The rest of the student body was very white, very middle class, and very suburban.

The stark differences were accentuated as one entered the halls of this hallowed building. ``To your right, please note the clean, healthy, Dutch-blond children -- our beloved and talented hope for the future. To your left, well . . . these classrooms are for our other, more unfortunate students. They closed their other school downtown, you know. So sad. . . .''

As I contemplated the class and school, I recalled times when I had longed for a 48-hour day, a day in which all could be accomplished. Not so with this beginning day. My attempts to chip away at their closed circle resulted only in frustration on my part. As that one day stretched into a week, it became obvious that the anger would not go away quickly, if at all. Slowly, though, with small, steady steps, we began to see progress.

Thomas, not ``Tom'' or ``Tommy,'' was in large part the key to this unsolved puzzle. A hefty boy, well on his way to puberty, Thomas had known only a life of rejection and hardship. Shuffled from relative to relative, family to family, Thomas had concluded long ago that the street, with its sundry characters and challenges, offered perhaps his best and only bet at life. Though I had 10 years on him, his experiences far surpassed anything I had ever encountered.

His anger flared fast and often, cushioned ironically by periods of sweetness and caring. We drew on that; ever so slowly, he began to invest in some minimal bond with me. He tugged at the others, leading in his own way toward cooperation and truce. Trust paved the way and we settled into our roles with self-satisfaction.

The class could not become too comfortable, however. Just as complacency would seemingly set in, Thomas would rebel, suddenly returning to past ways. Fear again invaded our midst, daring us to face the brutal rawness of his actions.

An art class set the backdrop for one such incident. Valentine's Day promised a bright spot in an otherwise dreary February. We toiled to create some holiday marvels for the bulletin board.

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Willie kept me busy sticking jagged, pink hearts to lace doilies. Terry, often off in his own world of twirling fingers and flashing lights, had borrowed Thomas's glue. He sat quietly talking to the cow on the label when a cry of rage signaled Thomas's discovery.

Within seconds, violence invaded our scene as Thomas lunged, scissors aimed at Terry. Silver points cut the air, then clattered to the floor, felled by Willie's quick jab to Thomas's wrist.

We stood frozen with the moment. A pencil slowly rolling off of a desk distracted us. We turned tentatively to the task of cleaning up, minds already trying to blot out the terror.

We began to build again, each day bringing us small delights as we watched ourselves grow to an increasingly cohesive group. Thomas thrived as he piled success upon success.

Too quickly, my experience was drawing to a close. I felt constantly warmed by thoughts of how far we'd come. Thomas, my pride, stood out from the others as I congratulated myself. Humility, though, was never far off.

The next-to-the-last day arrived. Our routine dictated saying the pledge and singing ``My Country 'Tis of Thee.'' A faded flag, most of its life spent propped in a front corner, was carried from its place of safety each day at 8:45. On this morning, Betty, selected to hold the pole, stood proudly as Thomas displayed the banner.

As our voices droned our allegiance, brass knuckles peeked and glistened from behind the cloth's edges. The exercise drew to a close abruptly as Thomas leaped over a desk toward Willie, ready to right some previous wrong. The principal was summoned and he shuffled Thomas off to the hidden recesses of the office.

The day plodded on with empty usualness. A part of us had been lost.

My final day at last. The class sat tense and hushed as Thomas now entered the room. Shuffling feet and scraping chairs told him that he, too, had been assessed and stamped. Our day began. I started the dreary routine, clutching at normalcy. Tensed jaws hinted at the anxiety we all felt. A bit of color on my desk caught my eye. There lay a bedraggled daffodil, faded and weary. ``Who from?'' No response. One pair of lowered eyes gave me all the answer I needed.

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