fourth graders

Years ago when Michael and I first met in San Francisco, besides taking thousands of photographs, putting them into collage or varnishing them under a layer of wax, he had begun dabbling in paint. For hours he'd sit at a table in the center of his Mission District living room and put brush to canvas. One of my favorite was a series of three flash cards which he displayed together on one wall. Now, one of them hangs in our home and Calvin loves to bang on it with his drooly fingers. I think he likes the contrast of the large black shapes (he doesn't know they are numbers) against the white background.

Last week I visited Calvin’s fourth grade class. It’s a class he doesn’t spend any time with beyond recess, because the focus is on curriculum such as reading, writing and arithmetic, none of which Calvin has the capacity to learn. Entering the class, I wondered if the children still use flashcards to practice their multiplication. I'm fairly certain they don't.

I went to talk to the kids about Calvin, explain his disabilities, discuss epilepsy and answer their questions, which were many and varied:

can calvin talk? when do people get epilepsy? why doesn’t he spend time in this class? what is his favorite thing to do? if he gets to come off of the drugs, will his vision improve? can Calvin brush his teeth?

When I mentioned disability, one boy piped up and bravely shared with his classmates for the first time that he has autism. When another boy asked if Calvin rode the bus, I told him yes and explained that he could get up its steps all by himself, to which a girl across the room exclaimed, “That’s so cool!” She went on to say how great it was that disabled people can learn to do things.

I told the group that Calvin once said, “mama,” when he was eighteen months old, right before the seizures and the drugs began, but that he hasn't said it since. I mentioned that Calvin knows one sign using sign language, and I asked them to guess which one.

“Mama?” one girl asked.
“More?” another piped.
"To ask to go to the bathroom?" said one boy, and I decided not to mention that Calvin still wears diapers.
“No?” the teacher guessed.

Finally, I told them that Calvin’s one sign is for the word hug, and several of the children cooed, “Oh, that’s so cute!”

I told the students that not all people with epilepsy appear or act like Calvin, told them that they might not know if someone had epilepsy unless they saw them having a seizure. I explained that many people with epilepsy are afraid to tell others that they have it.

"Do you know why some people hide it?" I asked.
"Because they might get teased," one girl answered.
"That's right," I replied, "because they might get bullied."

I made sure, as I always do at these class visits, to tell the kids that Calvin doesn’t have a mean bone in his body and that he always tries to do the right thing. I tell them that Calvin is the best person I know. This time when I said it, though I felt the urge, I managed to hold back the tears. I went on to encourage the children to be kind to others who might look or seem different than them, like people who may wear glasses or have uncommon hair or who use a wheelchair or who might behave differently.

"Inside," I said, "we all have the same heart," and I thought of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Then I thought of the Blacks and other minorities in this country who are often vilified, demonized, harassed and killed, and I hoped my message would get through so these children won't grow up to be haters.

At the end, when students were readying to go home, a boy nicknamed TJ approached and asked me if I would give Calvin something.

“It’s a Pok√©mon card,” he said.

I asked TJ to sign his name on the back and thanked him for his thoughtfulness. He took care to write in neat letters. Then he gave it to me and smiled, and I knew Calvin would have one more friend, knew the world would have at least one more person to help make it a better place.

Michael's flash card hangs on walls with three photographs he's taken of Calvin