Note: All names have either been omitted or changed.
I encountered Caleb in May of 2014, and it was a very big thing. He was eight and one third years old when I walked into his classroom as an elementary school substitute teacher. Between his dirty t-shirt and lunch box I counted a sum of nine superheroes. The lenses of his glasses were scratched, and the first thing that he said to me was: “Who are you?” – which was a fair question. There was a red folder on my desk that said Strategies on it.
I remember 6:30 a.m., and I remember heat that was unusual for an April morning in Maine. My friend poured me a cup of black coffee in a large ceramic mug that said “Mrs. Always Right” on it. I didn’t ask. We were standing in the kitchen of his dilapidated cabin on the lake, lease-details unclear and most certainly un-investigated by me. The hellish sounds of a Mortal Kombat fatality and the subsequent talking of certain trash could be heard, unmistakably, from the other room.
The spring following the second year of my privileged undergraduate schooling was this specific you could say “time” – a real sort of American experience in which I had to reconcile with some former life axioms that were just as it happens wickedly incorrect. One of these childish ideas was a white knuckled certainty that this is all about Me, which I think is a common fallacy shared by nearly every single one of today’s youth at one point or another. The social hideousness of this presumption causes us to leave it in the private back corners of thought, where it remains unchallenged for longer than it otherwise would. I’m willing to argue that this ego fallacy’s origin is twofold –
1) The gen-inclusive: Nature. Young people must feel that their life is of ultimate importance. A “who cares?” mentality re: self worth surely did not fly when freezing to death and/or being eaten by tigers were things to actually worry about. Selfishness is a personality trait linked to our species’ survival – which by the way so far so good; 2) The gen-exclusive: I think that young people’s ego-centrism is a response to the 21st century stress (and/or – depending on the degree of knuckle whiteness we’re talking about – full on psychic bludgeoning) that social media has had on the young brain’s idea of Self. This becomes extremely obvious when you think about it a little. The human mind adapts to the technological landscape of its time, and ours requires communicative expression in the form of witty Tweets, pretty Instagram posts, socially nuanced public interactions (the skill of by which you navigate pretty much dictating your placement on the wedgie giving/getting binary), and other pre-packaged demos of how easy it is to be so effortlessly happy and funny and pretty and cool.
Internet-induced identity crises notwithstanding, I submit to you that it is the same unavoidable question for all of us that, at the point of post-adolescence, severely weakens the totalitarian illusion of Me. The question, when finally asked, is simple and all at once tangible and completely obvious: What about everybody else?
It was a weekday. Like he did every single weekday morning for the past month, my friend stood by the coffee machine in his kitchen.
“How much money do they give you?”
“For molding the young minds of America? My services are invaluable.”
“Jesus, how about what do they charge you?”
There was no running water at this point, thus all required oral hygiene tasks were conducted with a splash of bottled water and a repurposed cereal bowl, yet another reminder that we were twenty-year old kids from the foothills of Central Maine, both on reprieve from many months of urban living, and we were shit broke. Like, I’m pretty sure the coffee was a gift from someone. I needed exactly what he had: a job.
“So what, like 65?”
Turning and spitting. Tilting the ceramic lip to his own for a cleansing mouthful. A charming grin from behind the white bowl, whose underbelly was decorated with a lingering piece of dried bran flake. Gargle, spit, etc.
“75 bucks every day?”
“For six hours of work, dude. I’m into it.” Immediately so was I.
My background check went through a week later, and I was good to go. My first day as a substitute ed-tech at a public high school was of a tedium level rivaled only by 62 million+ seconds as a student there and yes I did the math, but the work was about as easy as I could ask for, and for the most part I was enjoying myself. I was in truly unprecedented territory, effort-to-payoff-wise. The mindlessness was occasionally rough, but I was working with my friend, and it was all tamed by reminders of the job’s brevity. I’d be back to school in September. Life was good for Me.
I was midway through my second week on the job when I received an unexpected call to substitute at the elementary school. This made me a little nervous, because unlike the high school, this was a place I’d never attended as I switched school districts in the fifth grade. Little kids are a wholly different story, but they are mostly all right in my book. I was subbing for a third grade ed tech for the next three days, and I had one job, which happened to be approx. two thousand miles above my pay grade.
Caleb was eight and one-third, and he had high-functioning autism. That basically means that although he was intellectually similar to his peers, his ability to read social cues was only a little higher than next to nothing.
“Who are you?” Caleb said as I pulled up a miniature orange plastic chair to sit next to him in his. On his desk was a children’s chapter book about the origins of peanut butter. “You’re not my teacher.”
I think the biggest difference between Caleb and me is that he was honest with people.
He was wearing a dirty Marvel Comics t-shirt with a bunch of superheroes on it. I asked him who his favorite was. He said it was the Hulk, and that “everybody knows that.” He asked me “Who is your favorite?” I said “Wolverine.”
He pushed his lips together very tightly and made a breathing sound that did not seem like it was coming from his own mouth and then asked me “Do you know about Iron Man?” in a tone that sounded like if in my stupidity I had not heard about Iron Man then he’d allow me to reconsider my obviously inferior decision.
I said that “Yes I’ve heard about Iron Man,” but I thought Wolverine was better. There was a bit of a pause after that, and then he asked me “Are you a grown up?”
I said “I don’t know.” He gave me a hug and told me ten quick facts about tarantulas.
I was given a red folder called Strategies, I remember. There was a whole laminated page, front and back, detailing what to do if Caleb became distressed. There was an entire packet of phrases and communication styles that work best with children who have high functioning autism. I was not supposed to ask him questions. Clear and concise statements are preferred, I remember.
At recess we would lean against the brick wall of the school building and roll a tennis ball back and forth. I’d watch as he analyzed the systematic play going on in front of him. A lot of times if the other kids would get too loud in the classroom, Caleb would cover his ears and scream. I’d take him outside into the hallway for a walk around the school, which he really liked. Caleb was friends with all the teachers. We’d stand outside the library and he would have me guess the book he was going to sign out. It was always this “For Kids” encyclopedia on tarantulas. Caleb would be silent as we looked at the close-up photos of flies and other bugs snarled up in their final webbed destinations. I wondered if he could relate to those poor bugs, with being bound by a foreign web of impossibly intricate design, trapped in a life spent waiting waiting waiting for someone to come along and show him all the ways that he was a square peg in a round hole. Caleb didn’t seem to care much about the fact that the world is unfair. I wondered if that made him free.
It was May of 2014, I remember. Twenty of what various authority figures had led me to believe were at least reasonably awake years of life along with four semesters of heavy duty academic sweat are what it took to produce this idea that I was not the center of the universe, and Caleb was just as important as I, and also more socially liberated, in “touch”, etc. – which, as probably goes without saying, wreaked some interesting havoc on my mechanics, white knuckled grip-wise.
I still think about Caleb a lot. Two brand new Very Big Things became immediately clear during my time with him, things that our American education in many ways fails to deliver to us. V.B.Th. #1 – It was time to resign myself to the fact that there are literally billions of lives that carry on in just as rich and important ways as my own (to call the significance of my individual existence even borderline negligible in the grand scheme would be like beyond Mother Teresa-level generous, just by mathematical logic). V.B.Th. #2 – The adult mind’s graduation into serious abstract thought is a real bitch.
The last day I saw Caleb, we were standing in the cafeteria. Along the walls sat rows of young kids, sectioned apart by which bus they took after school. I was in charge of one, and his oval shaped lenses were dirty and scratched. He hadn’t changed his shirt in three days.
When Caleb’s bus arrived, he gave me a hug. He asked me if he would ever see me again. Every single one of my laminated Strategies were upstairs in the classroom.
I told him that I don’t know, and I told him that I had lied to him before. He asked me “Why?” so I told him the truth. My favorite superhero could not be Wolverine, or even Iron Man, because it was him.
Caleb was of course skeptical. He furrowed his young brow in suspicion, sending his specs down the bridge of his nose where he caught them before they dropped.
He asked me about his power. I saw something real in Caleb – all eleven and 2/3 years my junior – and he was to know what it was, then, that instant.
So I thought about it. I still think about it.
“You aren’t afraid to be exactly who you are. You’re in your own league.” When I said this, he smiled. “You also know how to pay attention to people, and you enjoy it. That sets you apart, I think.”
Every day I’m realizing more and more how true that really is.
Aren Robinson LeBrun is a 21 year old student journalist, writer & award winning amateur filmmaker currently in pursuit of semi-adulthood in Boston, Massachusetts. Originally he hails from a tiny town in the Great White North of rural Maine. He loves (in no particular order of importance) basketball, black coffee, movies, writing, kayaking, hiking, Hawaiian shirts, a good beer, and Nintendo 64. He has never had a Lunchable.