"She's gone, Deb," said the voice on the phone. Gone? I couldn't comprehend. On a trip? On a vacation?
"She's gone," the voice belonging to a long time aide, Mrs. T said. "Her son called me this morning."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I felt like I had been sucker punched.This wasn't a vacation or a trip to the hospital.This was permanent.
Ms. AK, as she was known, the woman who had taken me under her wing for the past two years, had passed away two months practically to the day after she had retired.
"She asked me to find out if the kids were OK," Mrs T continued. Even at the end Ms. AK worried about her kids.
The kids were all right, but at that moment I was not. My first thought was how was I going to tell Kid O that her beloved teacher was no more. My second thought was a feeling of betrayal. Why hadn't she told me that she wasn't going to be around in the fall as she had promised? I wondered. And continue to wonder. Maybe there wasn't enough time. Or maybe she didn't want to have to comfort me on top of her own struggles. All I knew was that there was not going to be that fall meeting that would have eased the transition from her to this new teacher. No team building. No assurances that Kid O would continue to get what she needed.
Mrs. T and I talked some more. She told me that Ms. AK had even contacted McCormick Place about the Special Ed conference she wanted to hold. She and I had spoken one night about that in the spring when she confirmed for me that, yes, she was retiring in June. I realized that her work of educating educators about Special Ed kids was at least as important as staying in the classroom and doing what she did best: loving the kids in her classroom.
And she did love those kids. Fiercely. Gently. Her huge heart accepted all. I used to come and watch her interact with those kids.The Severe to Profound kids are probably the most hard to reach kids because they are very deep inside of themselves. She touched their minds. I am sure of it. She taught me as much about love and acceptance as about advocacy. I'll never forget the look of love on her face as she interacted with one of those kids. It's a calm look. Look of connection. Heart to heart. Soul to soul.
The first time I met Ms AK was when she invited me to meet with her in her classroom towards the end of the school year. This woman, who was half Irish, half Italian and married to a Palestinian Muslim, seemed larger than life to me. As she told me about her educational philosophy, I stood there flabbergasted. After two years of having Kid O with a substandard teacher, this woman was more than a lifeline. She was a lush oasis in the middle of an educational desert. No, she wasn't a mirage. And, for the first time in six years, I could speak frankly with someone about what I had observed about Special Education.
She insisted that Kid O attend ESY in her classroom instead of at the school she would soon be leaving. In the middle of summer, she called me in and we redid Kid O's IEP. Ms AK had a fine legal mind, and she went through the IEP line by line. She explained to me that some things were CYA. Some were illegal. I was astonished. And a bit embarrassed. I have a Master's degree, but I never really went through the wording of these IEPs. I assumed, incorrectly, that the wording was straight forward. I had been bamboozled, and I am certain that I am far from the only parent who is.
Kid O started to thrive under Ms AK's guidance. She was happy to go to school again. Although kids were mentally disabled, most of them were not physically disabled. Kid O loved the attention she received from her new, ablebodied friends. The girls in particular wanted to nurture her, something that Kid O just loved.
One girl became her partner in crime. Ms AK would pair them up for computer time. "I don't know how they do it," she'd confide in me, "but they manage to get out of the program." I could just imagine Kid O giggling mischievously. Whether it was through spastic happenstance or if Kid O really knew what she was doing, I just loved the idea of these two girls who had been written off doing something unexpected. I would imagine that Kid O was the ringleader in any mischief making.
Kid O was mislabeled, but I didn't care because she was in Ms AK's class, and I knew that Ms AK recognized her intelligence. Ms AK gave me access to her, as she did with all of her parents. I had her cell number as well as her home phone number.
I would call Ms AK up about a question about Kid O, and we would talk about gardening, redecorating her house, her husband, her sons, and, in the final months of her mother's life, she would vent to me about her brothers. No matter what we talked about she would always interject humor into the conversation. We both had a strong sense of the absurd.
When her mother died, I went to the wake. It was abundantly clear to me Ms AK had never left her Irish Catholic roots. She took my hand and led me to the open casket. She was proud of the dress she had chosen for her mother, and all the pictures surrounding the casket. It all made me uneasy, but I didn't let on. She needed my support then, and so I murmured something approving. Little could I have known that approximately six months later, I'd be taking Kid O to that same funeral home to view a mercifully closed casket to be used to lay her beloved teacher to rest.
Even at the wake, Kid O was very social. She was mad when I started to wheel her back to the minivan. We saw the principal and assistant principal arrive. We saw the case manager. We spoke to Kid O's occupational therapist. I had rolled her around the room two, three times. Gazed at all the pictures. Met one of Ms AK's brothers. We extended our condolences to Ms AK's sons and her husband. I had signed the guestbook. There was nothing left to do on that warm August evening but to go home. Ms AK's elder son helped me get Kid O back into her carseat, as she was being especially difficult about it. In the middle of his grief, he gave his warmth.
Ms AK had been looking forward to retirement. I was envious of the tickets she had to see Buddy Guy. I doubt she ever got to use them, as I imagine that the cancer and heart disease she had worked rapidly. I had wondered why she was at the doctors as often as she was. Staring at that closed casket, I finally had some inkling about why.
When I envision Ms AK, it is with coffee and cigarettes and wearing what I came to think of as her Johnny Cash outfit: a black pantsuit stretched out over that large frame of hers. The first day I saw her she was wearing that pantsuit, and the very last time I saw her alive she was wearing that pantsuit.
No matter what was going on in her life, a smile always played about her lips. Ms AK would tell me, her eyes filled with mischief, how she was skipping the staff development day. The principal would give her dispensation, she explained, because she was so invaluable to the school. No one could deny that she was a devoted teacher. She took about as much time with her parents as she did with her kids. And, if there was time, she'd tell you a story. Once, she told me with great relish, about her Italian grandfather who built a landmark condominium in Rogers Park and who had smoked expensive cigars. I imagined it was he who inspired her joie de vivre, but the twinkle in her eyes and the way she had of telling a story was pure Irish.
That is how I prefer to think of her. Cup of coffee in one hand. Cigarette in the other. Her voice low from years of smoking. Laughing at some absurdity and twinkle in her eyes.
I don't know if you are around Ms AK, but Kid O is all right. And I am not too much the worst for wear.