Corey’s first day was trying, but by and large unexceptional. The ordeal with the parents took a toll on Celia that she wouldn’t have liked to admit. The range of feelings that they inspired in her—from curiosity to rage to pity—was exhausting. And it was depressing to have to preside over yet another goodbye in which the child had no concept of what was happening.
With no volunteers working in the home that day, Caroline managed the other twelve children on her own while Celia met with the parents. At age 32, Caroline Gray was seven years younger than Celia. She was in many ways unlike her employer, which both women knew was a key reason they worked well together. Physically, where Celia was small and thin, with fine features and red hair cropped short, Caroline was tall and obese, her black hair tied in a perpetual bun. Her nose was a plump red bulb, and her face was lined by eyes and a mouth that were quick to smile, and a forehead that was quick to furrow. Caroline was the jolly one of the pair, as well as the quick-tempered one, where Celia was slow to respond emotionally to any situation; her even temper was a good fit for the administrator’s job.
The children were not unaware of the disruption in their routine. With the rain preventing them from venturing outside, and with the lack of staff preventing them from breaking out into more specialized activities, they were all forced to spend the day together in the common room. Four-year-old Grace was curious about the new boy, and kept asking who he was and when she was going to get to meet him. Caroline had abandoned an arts and crafts project, papier-mâché hand-puppets, in favor of reading from The Wind in the Willows to Grace along with three of the older girls, Alice, Judy, and Bettina, while the rest of the children, ostensibly listening along, pursued their own activities independently.
Grace was restless, and kept turning around in her chair to look in the direction of Celia’s office door. She would occasionally interrupt Caroline’s reading and ask her to repeat the part just read—although she was paying no attention—and to ask to be allowed to see the new boy. Following Grace’s lead (as they always did), the older girls also began asking about him. They wouldn’t leave the subject alone, in spite of Caroline’s repeated attempts to return to the book, and her insistence that there would be plenty of time to meet him and get to know him later.
At sixteen, Alice was the oldest child currently residing in the home. She was always the first to repeat whatever Grace said. She was less outspoken than Judy, who (at thirteen) continually tried to assert herself as the Head Girl. Though one girl was white and the other was black, there was an odd family resemblance between them. Both girls bore what had until recently been termed mongoloid facial characteristics—the folds of flesh encroaching on the eyes and flattened bridge of the nose were now recognized as indicators of Down Syndrome. Bettina was twelve, a year younger than Judy, and she was considerably smaller and quieter than the other two girls. She had a Raggedy Ann doll, whom she had named Baby Lucy after one of the younger girls, and which she held close to her at all times.
Meanwhile Raymond and Joey, who were eleven and fourteen years old, respectively, and who constantly vied for the position of ringleader of the home’s boy contingent, spent the afternoon bowling in an over-wide lane defined by masking tape on the floor, using a plastic blue ball and multi-colored pins designed for much younger children. The three other boys—Robert, Andrew, and Todd—were younger and less prone to agitation. Robert and Andrew were both eight years old, a year younger than Todd. They played quietly together as they did every day. There was a soberness, a severity to their play. Today their game was trading baseball cards. They could not read the cards, which were in a well-worn deck of about 100 (mostly obscure players with quite a few duplicates), and had no real idea of what they were for, but Robert had picked up from Raymond the notion that they were for trading, and so trade them they did. The boys were content to play this game all day, and in fact did so for hours, waiting for a return to the home’s normal routine.
Todd, who could neither hear nor speak, and who never interacted with any of the other children, sat at the same table with his crayons and coloring book, adding garish red and green and purple strokes to the pages with no regard to the pictures outlined there. Todd resembled Alice and Judy; like them, he had Down Syndrome. He would stop coloring every now and then and reach down to the floor to make sure that his battered, wheel-less Tonka truck was still there. This was a ritual that he performed several times every day.
Meanwhile, the home’s remaining children, Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda, worked quietly in a far corner. Like Todd, Kathy was deaf. Her mental disability was much less severe than his, however, and Celia had considered from time to time that Kathy might be an example of misdiagnosis, and that she might be better off in a home for the hearing impaired.
Kathy’s best friend was Estelle, who was two years younger than, but almost the same size as, her friend. Estelle was Kathy’s protector, had been so for years. The two girls spent the day crocheting: Kathy working on a blue and silver hat, Estelle making a matching scarf. As the day proceeded, Estelle would not allow the girls to get comfortable working in any one place. She was restless, probably because of the change in routine, and she kept insisting they move to another spot every half hour or so. By the end of the day, they had encircled the common room twice.
Lucinda tagged along with Kathy and Estelle, her crochet efforts limited to one long braided strand of orange yarn. Lucinda’s eyes were lively, her nose was turned up slightly, and her mouth was missing two teeth in the front. She was only six, but was a special favorite of Grace’s, which made her an important person according to home’s peculiar pecking order. For there was no question in anyone’s mind, be they Celia, Caroline, one of the other children, or Grace herself—at age four, Grace was the children’s undisputed leader. She was in charge, she knew it, and she bore the office—by and large— with amazing dignity and kindness.
But dignity or no, Grace could have bad days like any other child of four. And today was one of those. The weather, the lack of things to do, and the attention given to the new boy all served to make her sulky. Her repeated pleas that she be allowed to see him eventually turned to whines, and it wasn’t long before Caroline was at the end of her patience.
She consigned Grace to Time Out, a punishment all too familiar to the home’s youngest resident. But on this particular day, Grace took the sentence badly, and sat at her chair in a far corner of the common room moaning at the injustice of it all. "It’s not fair," she said, over and over again, dragging out the word fair. To Caroline’s utter bemusement, the older girls began to join in, parroting "not fair, not fair, not fair." Caroline was considering a group time-out, and wondering what even more severe measures might be required, when Celia saved the day by walking back into the house with the new boy.
"Children, I would like you all to meet Corey," she said, standing with him roughly facing the common room, though of course not really looking at any of them. The room went silent.
"Say hello to our new friend," Celia said.
"Hello Corey," Grace said loudly, with a delayed echo from most of the other children.
"Corey is seven years old. He’ll be having his birthday in just a few days."
Judy raised her hand. Several of the other children followed suit.
"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice said desperately, her own hand shooting up. She hated it when Judy spoke first.
"Judy?" Celia said placidly.
"Um…" said Judy, indicating that she had been more concerned with the order of her question than its content. "Um…how old will he be?"
Alice snorted. It took a moment, and then Raymond and Joey laughed, too.
"That’s a good question," said Celia. "If Corey is seven now, how old will he be after his birthday?"
"Eight," several voices answered together, followed by an inevitable echo from Bettina, Judy, and Grace.
"That’ right," said Celia. "He’ll be eight."
"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice was for the moment the only child with her hand raised.
"Will we have a birthday party for the new boy?"
The answer to this question was almost as obvious as the answer to Judy’s. Every birthday in the home was celebrated with a cake and ice cream and whatever party games could be arranged.
"What do you think, Alice?" Caroline interjected. "Don’t we always have a party?"
Alice nodded. There were smiles and excited whispers among some of the other children. There’s going to be a party!
"What other questions do we have for Corey?" asked Celia.
There was no response. Having established that there would, in fact, be a birthday party, it seemed the children had nothing more to talk about.
"Now, I think we’ve had enough of story and play time. Why don’t we put everything away and we’ll have Show and Tell. Miss Gray, will you help Corey get settled in? And then he can join us when he’s ready."
Caroline gave Celia a quick, grateful nod as she took the boy’s hand and led him towards the stairs. The children began putting their things away: Raymond and Joey loudly dropping the bowling ball and pins into the toy box; Robert and Andrew placing the baseball cards back in their tattered gray shoe box; Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda returning their yarn work to the wicker basket; Todd registering no reaction at all as Alice took away his coloring book and crayons. Amid this reorganizing of the home’s activities, a voice rang out.
"Wait! Where are you taking him? I want to see the new boy!"
Grace had at some point abandoned all pretense of facing the wall, and had turned her chair to face the front of the room. She remained seated, however—the notion of Time Out was apparently strong enough to keep her from getting up.
Caroline was proceeding up the stairs, the boy and his small suitcase in tow.
"I want to see Corey," Grace demanded.
At the mention of his name, Corey stopped climbing the steps. Before Caroline realized what was happening, he had let go of her hand and started back down towards the common room.
"Hey," said Caroline, startled that he would show this kind of initiative, "where do you think you’re going?" She followed him down the stairs. Celia looked on with interest. She motioned to Caroline, letting her know that it was all right, that she should leave the situation alone for a moment.
Reaching the landing, Corey stood perfectly still and stared intently in the direction of Grace. He didn’t look right at her, but this was as close as Celia had seen him come to looking at anyone, closer than he had come with his own parents.
He stood there for a moment, looking in Grace’s direction, seeming indecisive about what he was to do next. The other children were meanwhile oblivious; they continued putting their things away, and began arranging chairs in a circle for show and tell.
But Grace beamed with delight at the boy’s return.
"Corey!" she exclaimed, as though he were her oldest friend, just returned after a long absence. "Come here."
Still staring not quite directly at her, Corey started towards her and then stopped. The other children saw him now, and knew that something was up. Rather than continuing towards Grace, he started in their direction, towards the circle of chairs they had just finished putting in place. He took one of the chairs out of the circle, folded it, and turned back towards Grace.
"Hey!" Alice, Judy, Joey, and Raymond all said at once, their unified voice quickly dissolving into a cacophony of he can’t do that, bring that back, Miss Crawford!
Corey continued on, either not hearing or not interested in these protests. He stopped in front of where Grace was sitting. He unfolded his chair and seated himself, facing her. He did not look at her, but chose a comfortable spot over her left shoulder on which to fix his gaze.
Celia remembered what the boy’s mother had said: sometimes he’ll come when you call.
Where most children would be intimidated, Grace was delighted.
"I’m glad you came back, Corey," she said earnestly. "I got a lot to tell you. My name is Grace and I’ll be your friend. We got lots of friends here for you. See? That’s Todd, and that’s Alice, and there’s Estelle…"
She proceeded with naming all the children, pointing at each as she went. It didn’t matter that Corey’s back was to them or that his gaze never wavered from that fixed point on the far wall. Grace spoke, and perhaps he listened
Thus began a routine that over the next few days would make Corey as much a part of the home as any of them. His time was divided between the boys and Grace, who made a point of spending an hour or so "playing with the new boy" each day. She would fill up the time telling Corey "stories," which were rambling monologues on any and every subject that was on her mind. Corey would give these stories his undivided attention (or lack thereof, it was impossible to tell) as long as Grace was inclined to tell them. He never sought her out, but always came when she called. So far, he would not respond to a call from Celia or Caroline, or any of the other children. At any other time, he had to be led wherever he needed to go next.
Corey would sit with Grace, usually facing her, until she announced that she was finished. Then one or both of them would leave: Grace to some other pressing interest; Corey back to wherever he had been summoned from. When not "talking to" Grace, he would sit near where the older boys were playing, as Todd often did, and (like him) would not interact with them in any way.
Each time Grace insisted on playing with the new boy, Celia assumed it would be the last. For the most part, Grace had the same attention span as any other child her age; after making her initial point about getting access to the new boy, Celia expected that her interest in him would wane. But that didn’t seem to be the case. The little girl renewed her interest in Corey each day, and he responded to her as he did to no one else in the home. It was an extraordinary friendship, and the fact that the novelty was bound to wear off eventually, that Grace would surely lose interest sooner or later, did not make it any less so.
Corey’s fifth day at the home was the day before his birthday, the eve of the much-anticipated party. The rain that had accompanied his arrival had hung in for three days, an unusually long time. The fourth day the rain had stopped, but it was still too cool and windy, and the backyard was still too muddy, to allow the children to spend any of the day outside. So this day represented the first outdoor day for the home in quite some time, which was a relief both for the children and the adults.
After finishing up some bill-paying, Celia decided to join Caroline and Sheila, the volunteer girl from the university, in watching the children. She stepped out the back door to see the usual panoply of children swinging, climbing, and digging. Todd sat in the sandbox with Kathy, Lucinda and Estelle. For once, he was actually playing with his truck: scooping sand into the back of it and occasionally dumping it out, while the girls worked on what appeared to be an entire town of sand castles. Raymond, Joey, Andrew, and Robert were playing Army, with the jungle gym serving as their Fort. Alice and Judy were on the two working swings in the swing set, while Bettina stood nearby and looked on, waiting for a turn that would never come without some prompting.
Corey was seated at the red picnic table opposite Grace, whose height made it necessary for her to stand in the table’s built-in bench. Celia was surprised to see that they weren’t "talking;" they were playing a board game. Intrigued, she moved in to observe. It was Chutes and Ladders. There were two tokens on the tattered game board, one blue and one orange, both near the finish line.
"There," Grace said, completing a spin of the wheel, "that’s three for you. One, two, three." She moved the orange token, apparently Corey’s, three spaces on the board. It seemed that Corey was only "playing" the game through the good offices of his younger friend. Grace was actually spinning the wheel and moving the game tokens for both of them.
"Uh, oh. Chute!" Grace exclaimed. She slid the orange token down the chute, which was one space short of the finish line, to a position considerably behind hers on the board.
"Too bad, Corey," she said. "looks like I’m in first place now." It was difficult, Celia noted, to reconcile a desire to win the game with sympathy for a friend. Corey stared at the table, a little to the right of the center of the game board. He registered no reaction to his change of fortune.
Grace picked up the spinning wheel and spun again.
"Five," she announced. She picked up the blue token and began counting out the spaces. "One, two, three, four, five." Celia noticed the mistake: Grace counted the space she started from as "one," and therefore moved the token only four spaces on the board. This landed her on the same chute that had just sent Corey back.
"Oh, no," said Grace. "Chute." She dutifully slid her token down the chute and set it on the space next to Corey’s.
Celia was wondering whether it was worth mentioning the mistake, when something remarkable happened. Corey, his eyes never moving from their fixed spot, reached out and picked up the blue token and placed it on the Finish line where it belonged.
"Hey," Grace said, "You shouldn’t do that." She looked at the board again, and her four-year-old nature got the better of her. "Oh, I won! I won!"
She looked up and beamed at Celia.
"Miss Crawford, I won!" she exclaimed. "Thank you, Corey."
Grace apparently had no idea that she really had won the game, that Corey had caught her mistake and corrected it.
"Good for you, Grace," Celia said. "It’s fun to win, isn’t it? Now will you do me a favor and put the game back where it goes?"
"Yes ma’am," Grace answered, dropping the game pieces haphazardly back into the box, and closing the folded board over them. She took the box and started back into the house.
Celia looked at Corey, sitting there perfectly still, his gaze having not moved from the spot to the right of the now-absent game board. He doesn't fight, the mother had said. He doesn't play.
What else, she wondered, did his parents get wrong?Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack