Faces In The Sea

Faces In The Sea #8 – Jonathan the Deep

“File name not found. Command cannot be performed.” he said to me. I’d seen him at the library before, and it was obvious from the first that he had a disability. Today, it was my job to tutor him. Jonathan had an essay to write. We had an essay to write.

Once a week, I volunteer as a tutor at a local library. I don’t do it because I’m remarkably generous. Where it comes to charity, I feel I ought to be doing more. I know a lot of us feel that way. Tutoring is something I do because it helps me. A characteristic of the age in which we live is our tendency to strive incessantly – running ourselves beyond the edge of exhaustion, for a set of priorities which ultimately have little meaning. Awareness of this fact torments me. Tutoring is a struggle, sometimes painfully so, but it’s a good sort of pain, like the sort you feel after exercise.

Jonathan is autistic. I’m no expert on the condition–is it even correct to call it a condition?–but I surmise his version is about a four on a five star scale. I’ve tutored the blind, deaf, dyslexic, and several dozen ESL, but Jonathan is my first autistic. He’s also ESL. In the world of volunteer tutoring, ESL is more or less a given.

“File name not found. Command cannot be performed.” he repeated the Windows-type error message for the fourth time, though the computer before us putted along as smoothly and error free as any half-decade-old library loaner ever could. His weary mother sighed and clutched him by the arm, imploring him to focus on the task at hand. Her English is limited to the degree that I wondered if she was aware of her son’s cleverness. Clearly, this mantra of his was more than just a playful way of putting off homework. His message to me was plain: “I don’t know what to write.” Nothing unusual there. Isn’t that usually the problem?

The assignment was for his seventh grade language arts class – an opinion essay. Jonathan’s teacher had given him a detailed outline. He merely needed to fill in the blanks with some basic details, describing at least two reasons why he did or did not think physician assisted suicide was a good idea. It should have been a simple task; I gleaned immediately that Jonathan was no stranger to doctors. In fact, his familiarity was what created the challenge. To him, the idea that doctors existed for anything aside from recovery was a foreign one. In that way, he was not so different from most of us; in that, we all must eventually face the reality that there are some things a doctor cannot fix. There are some ailments – some pains, no human can fix. And doctors are as human as the rest of us. Funny how often this eludes us.

It took some wading through Jonathan’s internal “system errors,” but I eventually gleaned that he was not in favor of assisted suicide. His reasons were less than complex:
1.) Doctors are there to help people get better. That is a doctor’s job; that is a doctor’s only job.
2.) Once a person is dead, he or she cannot come back. In other words, a person’s decision to commit suicide is too final for Jonathan’s taste.

As Jonathan and I struggled through our task, I couldn’t help marveling at the boy’s mother–a conflicted sphere of exasperation and patience in one body. As weary as she appeared of bearing the burden of supporting her autistic son, she managed to display a warm, motherly grin each time his obsessive nature demanded he go back to correct a grammar error, as Microsoft pointed each of them out with its green, wavy pointer fingers. She laughed audibly as I tried to explain to him that, sometimes, the computer points out grammar errors that aren’t actually errors. To his look of confusion, I responded, “Computers aren’t very smart.”

An hour of pinpoint keyboard tapping with his abnormally long, robotic-looking fingers – an hour of stern focus upon that glowing laptop screen with dark eyes, so deep I found them unnerving–only one simple, fleeting hour, and our task was done. How did Jonathan do? I don’t think anybody would accuse us of changing the world with that little five paragraph piece, but I’ll tell you that Jonathan changed me with his closing line–“…it is important to remember that life should be good.”

Well said, Jonathan. I think you deserve an ‘A’.

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13 replies »

  1. ”…it is important to remember that life should be good.”—So simple and yet so profound, too.

    It’s nice that you offer your time to tutor. I imagine it requires a lot of patience, but I’m sure the rewards make up for it. Most of the time anyway…

  2. I love this boy! I would like to meet him! I have worked with Kindergarteners who were on the Autism spectrum and in spite of sometimes (ok, often) being frustrated with them, I found them to be amazing and very smart kids! Keep up the good work Luke! I’m glad that while helping them you are also helping yourself! It is the principle of sowing and reaping!

  3. So … in my English lit class, we were introduced to the “trickster motif” where children and other unlikely characters are the repositories of wisdom. Looks like Jonathan trumps them all. This is a wonderful story … thanks for sharing … and for the work you do tutoring.

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