I was taking down the Christmas decorations, and my daughter asked me about one of the ornaments, one that didn’t look like the rest. It looks like this:
I remember when my student’s mother gave it to me. She crept around the the corner of the room, shrugged and held it out as though she was embarrassed. “Allie made this for you,” she said. “I know it’s not much but she wanted you to have it.”
I took it with genuine enthusiasm, and have hung it on my tree every year. See, here’s what was special about Allie.* Allie came to me the first day of kindergarten, an incredibly beautiful, angelic little girl with long blond curls and dark brown eyes. She sat down at her desk and smoothed out her nametag, folded her hands and smiled. Beyond that, though, she didn’t move.
Allie couldn’t speak. She was severely autistic, locked deep inside herself. Occasionally she would echo something she heard, but she didn’t communicate. She rocked, smiled and occasionally drew large swirls on a piece of paper. The other children tried to play with her, only to be met with a smile and and an echo before she wandered away. They learned to be kind to her, to speak to her and invite her to play even when they knew she couldn’t, but she couldn’t respond beyond watching them.
Her goal for the year was simply to get used to school and stay near her seat during learning time. She had a marvelous aide who worked wonders with her. Allie enjoyed tracing letters and numbers, seemed to like hearing stories, and listening to people talk. Days and days passed with massive gray swirls on the paper, until late November, when she started coloring pictures with some understanding.
That was my delight when I saw the tree. You can see the yellow tracing on the star, and the green color in the tree. She was showing understanding. And best of all, she made something for me. It was a glimmer that she really knew I was there, and that she enjoyed being in our class.
In February, a miracle happened. We started working on sentences, and making them into simple paragraphs. Allie watched for several days. Then, suddenly, on her paper: I AM ALLIE. I AM FIVE. I LIKE PINK. I LIKE CAT.
She was there. Locked inside this little girl was a brilliant mind. She started to write sentences to communicate when she couldn’t speak. She tried to participate in show and tell, often getting into the chair, saying, “Yesterday, I…” and trailing off, grinning while we applauded. But near the end of the year, a few halting sentences: “Yesterday, I…saw…cat.”
Her prognosis at the end of the year was amazing. Everyone believed with therapy, she’d be able to interact, and live as an adult with help.
Every year I take out that tree and think about the miracle that is Allie, and this little tree that was such a precious gift.