Opinion
Special Education Opinion

Final Notes

By Jay Hardwig — October 01, 2003 8 min read
Saying goodbye to a difficult but endearing student.

It was hard to say goodbye to Big Al. We were standing in the hallway outside my classroom on the last day of school. The rest of the students had gone home, but Al stayed for a final farewell. We were both waiting. I was waiting for the pear-sized lump in my throat to pass so that I could tell him what he meant to me. Al was waiting for me to go ahead and blow the damn kazoo—his signal that class was over, that he could go to the dorm and wait for his mom to pick him up.

I tried, once, twice, three times to croak out a few words, but they wouldn’t come.

Al jumped impatiently.

I swallowed hard and stared at the silent kazoo.

“You’re not crying, are you?” he asked in disbelief. He reached his hands toward my face to feel for tears.

“C’mon now, Jay,” he pleaded. His hands found my forehead, traced the ridges of my eyebrows to the corners of my eyes. “You’re not really crying,” he insisted. “Are you? Are you?”

“Yes,” I managed, ducking from his gentle touch, digging a toe into the carpeted floor. “I am.”

If you had heard of Al Lacy—and everyone at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired had—it might be hard to figure out why it was so hard to say goodbye. He was not a young man given to subtlety. The 17-year-old regularly yelled at people, insulted them, accused them of ungodly things. In my years with him, he had tried to get me fired, threatened to call 911 on me, and promised to blackmail me by telling the superintendent that I had murdered another student. He was disruptive, disrespectful, and outright mean at times, particularly if he didn’t get his way. If you gave your heart to him—and I did, on a silver silk-lined platter, every day—he could crush it in an instant, without thinking. He had a chip on his shoulder, a personal behavior plan, and a stack of incident reports in his file an inch and a half thick. He had a reputation, and he deserved it.

On the other hand, if you knew Al Lacy—if you had met him, talked with him, hummed a few bars of Pérez Prado as he jumped excitedly at your side—it was not hard at all to figure out why I was so upset. In spite of his quick temper, Al Lacy was, is, and shall always be one helluva guy. He is caring, witty, genuine, and kind. He is sensitive, smart, and enthusiastic. He spends half his day laughing. He is passionate about his loves, which, for the record, include Dick Clark, coffee with sugar, motorboat engines, chocolate chip pancakes, Tater Tots, radio-controlled airplanes, and prank telephone calls. While he is kind of tall, I started calling him Big Al because of his personality. Besides, he liked it.

Al was born blind—a sliver of light perception gives him only hints of shadows—but Al could have kicked blindness’s tail, and then some, if that’s all there was to it. It wasn’t. An excitable youth, Al was initially diagnosed with ADHD, and Ritalin was prescribed. It helped for a while, but in time he developed a series of behavioral tics—from banging on the table to poking his eyes, from jumping while he walked to being all but unable to sit upright for more than 15 minutes at a stretch—which soon became part of Al’s distinctive rhythm and patter, a syncopated set of compulsions that drive his motor to this day.

Nature, then, had dealt Al a triple whammy: blind, autistic, and saddled with Tourette’s.

Al was 10 years old when a visit to a Houston specialist confirmed the growing suspicion that he had Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive body movements and involuntary vocalizations. The surprise came when the doctor further diagnosed Al with Asperger’s Syndrome, a little-understood condition that falls within the autism spectrum. Asperger’s children are often exceptionally bright, with inquisitive minds and a sometimes obsessive knowledge of minutiae. More socially engaged than most autistic children, Asperger’s kids suffer from a frustrating and often debilitating inability to understand common social cues. Many are egocentric in the extreme and have to be taught the twin arts of empathy and compromise—notions that come slowly to many kids but not at all to those with Asperger’s.

Nature, then, had dealt Al a triple whammy: blind, autistic, and saddled with Tourette’s.

From 1999 to 2001, I was Al’s primary teacher. I spent, on average, five hours a day with him, five days a week. Those days were hard, confusing, and often heartbreaking, and I wouldn’t trade a thing in the world for them. Still, after two years, it was time to say goodbye. I was moving to North Carolina, and he was headed back to Beaumont for the summer; by the time he returned to school in the fall, I would be 1,200 miles away and out of Al’s life.

Many teachers celebrate the last day of school, but I have always found it a bittersweet time. Teaching in a self-contained classroom—I never had more than five students, ranging in age from 15 to 20, and I had them most of the day—is emotionally consuming, for good or ill. I had great luck in my years at TSBVI; my classrooms worked. Everyone involved—myself, my students, my aides—gave wholly of themselves, and the bonds that were built were strong indeed. When the last day of school came and my students left, they took with them a bit of my life tucked into their pockets. The melancholy passed, to be sure, often chased within hours by the comforts of hot queso and cold margaritas. But it was real while it lasted.

It had already been a difficult day. I had said goodbye to Grant, the devilish kid with the maddening brain injury and the love of iced tea, who along with Al had stoked the coals for my trial-by-fire first year of teaching. I had said goodbye to Melissa, as sweet a student as you could ask for, who sang country songs out of tune and never failed to ask after my dog, Pablo. I had walked Benjamin to the dorm, knowing full well that I might never meet another young man who worked as hard as he did, who struggled so much, who sweat through his shirt on a daily basis and smiled about it, who needed so much love and damn near got it on the strength of his effort alone.

In spite of his quick temper, Al Lacy was, is, and shall always be one helluva guy.

But the hardest goodbye, as I knew it would be, was the one meant for Big Al. By prior arrangement, he had come down and fetched me during 7th period, the last period of the day and my planning time. We walked to another classroom, where he popped a CD into a computer and played a song that he had mixed electronically with his drama teacher, Robert Pierson. It was a crazy quilt of loops and rhythms, a digital riff punctuated throughout with those odd, particular phrases that Al will forever associate with me: “Hey whoa whoa whoa (do not install AOL on my computer),” “Hey hey hey hey (that’s a headphone tape),” and, of course, “I asked Anthony!” They were things I had said in the heat of the moment that had somehow caught Al’s fancy, and at his request I’d repeated them, almost daily, until they became our personal koans, rhythmic, poetic, absurd, removed from all context but invested with meaning through the strength of shared experience. The song was more Robert’s doing than Al’s, perhaps, but it choked me up just the same.

The song ended with a final thrilling “Hey whoa whoa whoa,” and I strode down the hall with Big Al. It would be the last time I walked alongside that gait I knew so well—the long loping strides, the bounce in every step, the stop, every so often, to jump and chuckle and push his fingers into his eyes. He was laughing, carefree, as he should be on the last day of school, and as he was most other days as well. Next to him I must have cut a pathetic picture indeed, shuffling sadly along, my steps weighed down with the pain of farewell. “It is never any good dwelling on goodbyes,” Elizabeth Bibesco wrote. “It is not the being together that it prolongs, it is the parting.” I should have remembered that.

We got to the classroom and gathered Al’s things—his bag, his cane, the 96 CDs he carried with him wherever he went—and walked out to the hall to say goodbye. Al wanted one last blast on the kazoo, a signal I had used for two years to help him through difficult transitions in his day. When I blew the kazoo, Al knew it was time to get up off the couch, turn off the oldies station, and get to business; time to eat the last sardine, put away the sack lunch, and go back to work; time to stick out his hand, find my grasp, and say goodbye to the teacher who was leaving for good.

Al wanted the kazoo blown the old-fashioned way: a rising crescendo of notes that ended in a final, triumphant tri-tone, the kind of call that must have stirred Vikings to battle centuries ago. I’d blown that kazoo a thousand times if I had blown it once, but today, the last time, the once-more-for-old-times'-sake time, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t muster enough air through my swelled throat to blow the damn thing decently. I stood in the hall, my eyes brimming with tears, staring at the $2 kazoo, knowing damn well that I’d bury it in my pocket and never use it again.

It was then that Al felt my face and found the tears swelling on my cheeks. “C’mon, Jay,” he pleaded. This wasn’t going as he’d planned. He had to get back to the dorm; his mom was coming; there were still some songs he wanted to listen to before she arrived, and that scoundrel Johnny might claim the stereo if he didn’t get there soon. “It’ll be all right,” he promised me gently, his voice softening. “I know it’s sad—heck, it’s sad for me, too—but you’ll get through it. You’ll be all right.”

Big Al’s farewell came down to a botched song on a $2 kazoo.

And so it had come to this: me beside myself in the hallway, crying over a beaten tin kazoo, while Big Al reached to hug me and assure me I’d make it through.

“I know, Al,” I said. “I’m just sad. That’s all.”

He waited.

“All right,” I said, catching my breath. “I think I’m ready.”

Al stepped back and braced himself for the crowning kazoo blow. “The old-fashioned way,” he reminded me.

I tried. Lord knows I tried. Four times at least, but it was a pitiful performance—a succession of weak, timid toots, with none of the brass and brio that Al had come to expect. He couldn’t hide his disappointment. He asked me to try again, one more time, for him, for old times’ sake, the old-fashioned way. It was the weakest blow yet. Al gave up.

“Oh, well,” he said “I guess that’ll have to do. Goooooodbye, Jardwig,” he intoned, dipping his voice low with his favorite parting words, throwing in my nickname for good measure.

“Goodbye,” I whispered.

And with that, Big Al Lacy hopped off down the hall, jumping and laughing and leaving me standing by the door, the lump still hard in my throat.

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