“Sometimes. I call Mr. Hines Mr. Clean.”
“Jack! That isn’t very nice. He’s your teacher.”
We were standing in the cleaning aisle of Hannaford’s picking up Windex.
“It’s a joke. I was making a joke.”
I watched him push his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and I noticed the glint in his eye, the quick grin that flashed across his face.
“Huh,” I said, pushing the cart forward. “Well, okay. Let’s go pick out some ice cream.”
Jokes did not always come easily for Jack. When he was six and in a mainstreamed classroom for the first time, he came home from school confused one afternoon. Eating snack at the counter with his older brother Joey, he asked, “At school they say stuck with it. What is it. Stuck with it.”
Joey hopped off the kitchen stool and stood before his brother.
“Well, it’s a joke, Jack. They’re making a joke. The last person to say stuck with it wins. Get it? Stuck with it is a joke.”
“No. No joke,” Jack said sadly.
But by the fourth grade he understood comedy a little better, and he also learned to tell a few jokes here and there. Progress, right? Yes, but as usual, autism stepped in and blurred the victory.
Indeed, Jack loves to tell jokes. Over and over and over, without any consideration to his audience or how annoying he is. He’s oblivious to the, “It’s not funny when you say it eleven times” or “Enough, Jack!”
In other words, he can be a Mr. Tells A Joke Too Much.
You know the type. The guy who tells a knock-knock joke thirty times in a row or the server at the restaurant who booms out, “I can’t believe you ATE THE WHOLE THING! Hahahah! You were very hungry!”
And now, Mr. Tells A Joke Too Much was unleashing his funny on Mr. Hines.
(Back story: Mr. Hines teaches fourth grade. He is the head coach for the high school football team, the Bedford Bulldogs. In his class, the kids sit on yoga balls instead of chairs. He is considered the coolest of the cool when it comes to teachers.
And yes, he is bald like Mr. Clean. But in a good way.)
Oh, how Jack tormented this man all year.
Once a week Mr. Hines put a quote on the board, and students were supposed to copy it down in their notebooks and write about what it means to them. He expected insightful, creative responses; pretty much the opposite of Jack’s answers.
Here are some examples:
“Just do it.”
“To me, this quote makes me fall asleep.”
“No one is useless in the world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else.”
“To me, this quote means take me out of this school it’s boring.”
Or, this charmer from about halfway through the year:
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
“To me, this quote means I need to exercise.”
But frankly, the quotes paled in comparison to the “I can” campaign.
See, Jack’s not exactly known for his positive attitude or his can-do spirit. He’s a little on the negative side, to be honest. Mr. Hines, being an upbeat and optimistic person, started to challenge Jack’s way of thinking by countering him with the phrase “I can” whenever Jack whined, “I can’t.”
Which I imagine was about fifty million times a day.
Before long, “I can” took on a life of its own and the whole class was in on it. There was banter, there were teams; “I Can” vs. “I Can’t”. Jack made lists on the back of his homework folder and added an apostrophe and “t” whenever Mr. Hines wrote “I can” on his spelling list or math sheet.
I wasn’t crazy about the whole thing. I was afraid Mr. Tells A Joke Too Much had reared his unfunny head again, and I also thought everyone–Jack included–was missing the point. The purpose behind Mr. Hines’ “I can” was to inspire and motivate, encourage and support. It was not so half the class could divide into teams and chant “I can’t.”
But then I noticed something. By late November, the phrase began showing up regularly in Jack’s own speech.
I can stir the pancakes.
I will go down the driveway on my bike.
Let me try, I can do it.
I also noticed something else. For the first time ever, Jack began mentioning kids in his class, to name them during dinner or when we were running errands. He even used the word friend, as in “My friend Claire loves to say I can’t with me.”
He was connecting, he was building, he was engaging.Even more than that, he was leading. You know, all the things people with autism are not expected to do.
A few weeks before school ended, Mr. Hines sent the quote books home for good. I stood in the kitchen, chuckling over Jack’s entries; the messy handwriting and the misspelled words and the attempts at humor. But one from early January struck me:
Jack: “I am who I am.”
It’s not exactly the most creative or original thought in the world. Basically, he just tacked on three extra words to the quote. But it lingered in the back of my mind for a few days.
I am who I am.
I asked him about it when he was playing outside one afternoon.
“I am me. I am good and I can,” he said matter-of-factly.
“But those quotes. They stinked,” he smirked as he took off down the driveway on his bike.
Watching him sail downhill, I felt like celebrating. I wanted to celebrate humor and quotes and yoga balls and fourth grade.
But more than that, I wanted to celebrate this teacher, for showing my son the power of two tiny words–four letters total–and how they can change his world.
For tolerating Mr. Tells a Joke Too Much long enough to reveal the boy underneath; the boy who is grateful to make a friend and be a friend and share a laugh. The boy who has autism, but does not want to be stuck with it.
The boy who can.
I wanted to say all of this, and I thought about writing it in a nice note with my favorite felt-tipped pen. But it seemed as though a thank you card wouldn’t have been quite enough. It wouldn’t have done the year justice.
Jack agreed. And so in the end, we decided on red t-shirts.
I’ve never seen Jack smile so wide.