I recently started tutoring a second grade girl who was thought to have autism or some sort of intellectual disability.
Tina is wide-eyed, bright, full of laughter, and loves to repeat (word for word and with stunning precision) lines from her favorite movies and tv shows. She’ll squeeze in these quotes anywhere she can even if it doesn’t really make sense…“I rest my case! ” Tina also loves icecream and if she could, would spend her entire life splashing and floating around in a pool with an icecream bar in hand.
Our times together are Monday and Friday evenings, right when the sun is going down. When I arrive, I am met by Tina and her two-year-old sister who come racing up to me for a hug. I scoop them up as I try to guess what they just had for dinner by breathing in the delicious smells that are still floating around the room. Then right behind them comes their mother from the kitchen with a warm smile and apron around her waist, but I can hardly finish saying hello before I am dragged away by a giggling Tina into her room as her captured tutor.
The main focus during our sessions is on writing skills and reading, but what I love most about tutoring sweet Tina is having conversation and teaching her any little thing I can about life that may somehow help her along the way. For example, she somehow got into the habit of calling me “Mrs. Tell-You-What-To-Do.” When I asked her why she was calling me that, she explained it’s because I keep telling her what to do.
Figures. Fair enough. Usually she says this when she’s frustrated with my instructions and will snap at me with something like, “Stop telling me what to do, Mrs. Tell-You-What-To-Do!” to which I finally had to address after the 100th time. I brought her close and looking square into her eyes told her, “You can keep calling me “Mrs. Tell-You-What-To-Do” all you want, but I’m going to keep telling you what to do because if I don’t tell you what to do, you’re going to grow up not knowing what to do and someone’s going to ask you why you don’t know what to do and you’ll just have to say it’s because I didn’t listen to Mrs. Tell-You-What-To-Do when I tried sooooOOOooOOo many times to tell you what to do.”
Thankfully, she took that well, and rather amused, looked up at me and smiled to softly whisper, “okkkkk,” followed by a quick, ”can I please come live at your house pretty, pretty, pleaseeeee?” She always asks me that when I say something that makes her smile.
When our sessions are over, Tina’s father is usually there to walk me to the car while Tina skips along right in between us. He speaks in his broken English while I try to speak in broken Korean, all regarding Tina’s progress. But one day as we were walking out of their apartment, I noticed a crack along their stone doorpost. When Tina’s father saw me look at it, he paused and let out a nervous chuckle, explaining that it was an accident. I wanted to tell him he didn’t have to explain because by the look in his eyes, I knew that it was probably his doing and something he was embarrassed about and most likely regretted.
As we continued walking down the long hallway leading out of their cozy luxury apartment building, he began telling me a little bit about the challenges he has faced as Tina’s father. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to. I’ve worked with many kids with special needs and their families before and have listened to countless stories from parents pouring out their hearts to me about their struggle. We all know these children are a blessing, but the challenges can also be so difficult and real.
So I just listened and tried to tell Tina’s dad with my eyes that I understood and held no judgement. God knows that even with my own kids, I’ve been there before–a point of such brokenness and frustration that really, you just want to break something and sometimes you do. Special needs or not, as parents, we are stretched to our limit and there are times we question, what… is… wrong. Your parenting feels broken, your ability to love, your ability to stay calm, your child’s ability to listen…nothing is working and everything seems just utterly.. broken. I can only imagine how all of this must be heightened when there is one with special needs involved.
It takes time and patience to understand their world because the fact is, their worlds, their paradigm, their perspectives, and their experiences are so completely and drastically different–foreign, in fact, to most. But they are not broken.
One day I was working with Tina and I saw in the far corner of her table a plastic container full of broken crayons. Pushed to the side, they were deemed useless and she was now using a fresh pack of new ones. When I asked her why she didn’t want to use those over there (mostly because I hate wasting anything), she gave the obvious answer, “because they’re broken.”
Doesn’t she know broken crayons work just as well as the others, I thought? Of course she did, but that wasn’t the point. What I was really thinking about was the long journey ahead of her and the different obstacles that would most likely come. I knew she would be ok, but I couldn’t help but to worry a bit and just hoped she would never lose the sparkle in her eye, should she one day feel like one of those useless broken crayons pushed and trapped into a small corner of this world.
I wanted to tell her she’s not broken although in a way, she is, just as we all are. I wanted to tell her there is a great purpose in the life that she’s been given, even though life may one day (or perhaps many days) seem like nothing but a big pile of broken pieces of crayons you just want to throw away. I wanted to tell her that many times, even greater beauty happens to be born out of these broken places, but it just takes a little longer to see, and that her life is, was, and always will be just as valuable and useful and beautiful as any other “crayon.”
But for the time being, I said nothing and just marveled at the precious girl sitting in front of me and watched her color. She is such a gift, I thought, an angel really.
When she was done, I picked up a small broken one and told her, “I love broken crayons.”