Cult Illustration #44, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"

     This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.    


Life Skills, high school. Ms. X pondered the title, wondering what Life Skills meant. Her first reaction was sewing and cooking. Her second was the type of class where kids learn about careers, but she knew that something was amiss when the Assistant Principal explained that she would love the kids and it would be a very easy day.

When she entered the class room, there were four women assistants. They explained to Ms. X that the students were physically disabled. Ms. X reassured them that she had experience, she volunteered as an Art Teacher at the Adult Activity Center where she taught physically and cognitively challenged adults. She liked saying those words, "physically and cognitively challenged", because, for the first time in her life she really understood what they meant. The women looked at her suspiciously and unimpressed. They did not speak, they nodded. They didn’t speak much to each other, Ms. X noted, but perhaps it was too early in the morning for pleasantries.
Zoe was the first student Ms. X met.  She was a very cute girl, pixyish with pale skin, twinkly green eyes and chestnut brown hair cropped in a crisp bob, though it was clearly uncombed. She chirped when she spoke and though Ms. X couldn’t understand her, the ladies could. Zoe sat next to Ms. X and picked up her hand like a dog might bring its master a stick. Ms. X rubbed her back lovingly and now the girl wanted her to continue. Every time Ms. X felt she should stop, the girl looked her in the eye and picked up her hand. She tried to ignore the girl's stare as she continued to rub her back, but worse, the ladies were staring at her too. More students trickled into the classroom.

There was a tall thin boy with a bit of curly black hair on his chin. He smiled a lot and bellowed “Who?” to which Ms. X eventually fell into an Abbott and Costello routine. "Who?" Ms. X retorted, and "Who do you want?" The ladies were not amused by this as it encouraged him to honk "Who?" all the more. 

There was another teenaged girl named Sherry. She reminded  Ms. X of one of her aged Aunts because she hunched over and shuffled when she walked. Auntie walked like that too but she was old and missing part of her brain. Sherry scuttled around with exuberance, limping and heaving her weight to move with a sort of rhythm. Later the sub would learn that Sherry was prone to screaming spells when she did not get her way, which was most of the time, and that landed her in a sound proof, glass isolation room.

One boy had a walker. Unlike those used by old people, it was positioned on his back side, supporting his behind, with the handle bars curling to the front so that he could grasp them and scoot about. His language was composed of squeaking noises. His large gray eyes seemed to stare at things with curiosity, but then they would roll back in his head and roll forward again vacant. His skin was ashen, his clothing worn out, stiff and smelly, and yet Ms. X found him adorable. He was made to sit in a chair, but when Ms. X came near him he very slowly took one of her hands. He was touching Ms. X to see if she was okay and he shifted in his chair, finally taking her other hand, pulling himself up, out of the chair and then rocked his weight from one foot to the other in a pantomime way. Ms. X became his dance partner. The ladies eyed her and him, apprehensively.
Soon it was time to sit in a circle and ask each student to reflect on what they did last night, and then the four women would take turns transposing the students' actions into words. The ladies prodded first one than the other and then Ms. X. She was caught out, for once, not knowing what to say, where to begin, what to actually share with them. All eyes were on her. Her first thought was to say, "Why, I had a vodka and orange juice, of course," but she knew that would be so wrong. Stammering, she finally found the appropriate words.

“I – ah – went home from school and worked in my garden, pulling weeds and laying down mulch.”

They seemed pleased with this answer, encouraging her, she supposed, and so she added,

“I spent the rest of the evening alone.”

Pause. She looked at their slow, sleepy incomprehension. Analyzing their expressions, Ms. X and blurted out,

“I live alone.”

It seemed now, to her, that this were the greatest most uncomfortable secret she could have shared with them and she felt instantly ashamed for saying it. Everyone stared blankly, giving her a moment to wonder what exactly was anomalous about the statement.

Then she knew. None of the others in this room, healthy, disabled, grown up, teenager, none of them lived alone as she did. The women had spouses and children and pets, and the teens could never be left alone, ever before, or ever after. They were doomed to be dependent on someone to bathe them, change their diapers, feed them, and push them up straight from their involuntarily contorted positions sliding to the left or right. They would always be restrained and watched in every way imaginable.
Now it was an elderly caretaker’s turn and she talked about one of her dogs which had to be taken to the vet for an ongoing illness and the bills were mounting into thousands of dollars. She spoke of giving up on the animal, putting it to sleep. The younger woman concurred, complaining about the strange lengths that her friends take to appease their animals. This set the tone. Appease them, or put them to sleep? Ms. X would put them to sleep but she knew this was a touchy subject and she would not reveal her verdict. Now the young caretaker asked Ms. X if she had any pets. Ms. X decided to share something humorous, by way of introducing herself to these folks. 
“The only pets I have are the wild animals that I see wandering in my yard. I name them, I talk to them,” she said pausing for dramatic affect, “and they listen!”

She used this quip on numerous occasions and it always drew a laugh, in fact she always chuckled herself, as she did that very moment, but when she looked at the women they just stared at her in silence. She composed herself and looked down, thinking.

She drifted now, feeling very alone. In between the stares of the attendants and the incomprehensible mutterings of the students, she thought about what the ancient people would do when a severely disabled baby was born. She was always thinking about the ancients and how they might tackle society’s woes. This was how she analyzed the world, she analyzed it through the precepts of the Foundation and the traditional philosophy they espoused. Even though the ways of her Guru had worn away, the idea that she had a visceral understanding of antiquity had not waned.

They would not have been allowed to live she concluded. The birth mother or the midwife or a family member would have crushed the baby’s skull under foot immediately. She had read it somewhere, maybe in an article or a novel, she wasn’t sure. Invariably, the next question came to mind. Were they correct? She looked around the room. Appease them, or put them to sleep? She felt ashamed for even thinking about it, these are people’s children, she told herself, these are human beings, they are love! She knew that was the correct answer but she couldn’t get the question out of her mind. Appease them, or put them to sleep? Which is better?
She looked at the caretakers who occasionally looked at her and she shuddered to think they could read her mind. She always operated under the assumption that she could tune into the thoughts of others but when she did this sort of thing, it could become a two way street and they too had the opportunity to read her mind. They were experts at reading expressions, interpreting body language, seeing what no one else could see. So, she tried very hard to vanquish her inner dialogue.

She sat very still and scrutinized the women as they went about their work. She was an irrelevant fixture in this classroom, something she was accepting more and more these days as the school year drew to a close and she found herself sitting quietly in the classroom letting the mayhem ensue, as long as no one was in immediate danger.
Now the ladies were busy administering breakfast. They peeled the plastic wrappers off tubs of sugary cereal, broke cellophane packages from chocolate muffins, and iced danishes and laid them in front of the teens. Some were given soda to drink or chocolate milk. Then the ladies took their seats in front of those who had to be spoon fed.

One severely disabled girl, strapped into an elaborate metal structure that one could not convincingly call a wheel chair, was sitting alone, with a bowl of fruit loops and a carton of chocolate milk in front of her. The girl had used a crude computer earlier to converse. It had phrases on keys which she could push with one finger and  an attractive voice would provide a stereotypical answer such as, “I’m finished now” or “I don’t like it.” Ms. X asked no one in particular, just the room, she asked if she could help.
“You could feed Ariel,” a woman advised, indicating the unattended girl, “get some milk from the frig for her cereal.”
Ms. X was glad to have something to do and she retrieved the milk, poured it into the cereal, picked up a white plastic spoon and dipped it in. She looked at the brightly colored circles and decided to take only two. She carefully spooned them into Ariel’s mouth. The girl seemed to have difficulty with the loops in her mouth and Ms. X worried that maybe it was too much.
“How many should I spoon at a time?”
“I usually do two.”
“Oh, good,” said Ms. X relieved.

After several minutes Ariel managed to swallow and Ms. X was ready with two more. She spooned them into her mouth and Ms. X waited. Suddenly the girl began to cough and gag.  Ms. X panicked and jumped to her feet, her chair scoot back with a screech.
 “What do I do?” she called out in a loud voice.
 The girl’s eyes were wide, frightened, and fixed on Ms. X as she continued choking and sputtering.
“What do I do?” she demanded.

Annoyed by the outburst, the ladies stared at Ms. X.
“She’s okay,” someone said.
Ms. X looked at one woman then the other, waiting for some kind of explanation. It seemed to her that the poor child was on the verge of death and Ms. X might very well be accused of murdering her.
“She does that all the time.”
Ms. X was shaken and the girl knew it, so it took longer for her to stop gagging but she did.
One of the ladies said in a kind voice, “You can hold her head forward a little – put your hand behind her neck. And if the cereal gets stuck in the roof of her mouth just use the spoon to pry it down. Don’t let her drink so much chocolate milk and she will eat more.”
Ms. X calmed herself, apologized, and then teased the girl for frightening her. Ariel smiled. Her eyes were a beautiful slate blue. Her skin was white and smooth, her features perfectly chiseled, her dark blonde hair was soft and curly. She was a pretty teenager. Ms. X understood the beauty of youth, the unsuppressed vivaciousness of all teenagers. Even with their bones protruding, and misshapen bodies, they were precious.  It would take all morning for this poor girl to eat a tiny box of candied cereal and drink a half pint of chocolate milk, thought Ms. X, no wonder she looks emaciated and frail. Soon the kind attendant offered to finish feeding Ariel. First she went and retrieved the computer. Ms. X watched and waited. After a few moments Ariel pushed a button indicating that she did not want any more.
No one suggested that Ms. X do anything further and so she took it upon herself to wash the breakfast dishes, sweep the floor, and pick up books. Later she looked at the daily logs the teacher kept for each student. As the stand in, Ms. X decided to write a few phrases. She sensed that the ladies appreciated this effort, but they shrewdly beckoned the teenagers away from Ms. X for the rest of the day.


  Cult Illustration #14, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"


© 2017 Lea Atiq, all rights reserved