Years ago I had a student named Joseph who was deaf and mute and on the autism spectrum. He was 9 years-old, with big brown eyes, and sandy hair. I loved him and I knew he trusted me. When it was time to come in from the playground, he could not hear the bell, so I would stretch my arms wide and he would run across the yard to hug me. If he didn’t want to come in he would pointedly cover his eyes with his hand and pretend not to see me.
He liked to draw and his favorite thing to draw was wagons. He drew them over and over and over again. Wagons to Joseph were like the Cathedral to Monet, like the steer’s skull to O’Keefe. Sometimes he drew a single wagon alone in the center of an 11 by 17 piece of construction paper. The wagon would hover like an airplane in a foggy sky. Other times he drew six or ten or a dozen or more wagons, evenly spread on the paper like pips on a playing card. Then he began to draw wagons floating atop blue water. Heavy red wagons with black tires, posed atop a large circle of blue. One wagon on water, two, maybe three. Sometimes there’d be a white duck with the wagon, just hanging out, enjoying the pond.
One day the first-grade teacher and her class planted pumpkin seeds in a shallow layer of potting soil they’d emptied into a red wagon, which they wheeled into the sunny hallway outside their classroom. At recess when Joseph ran over to the boys’ bathroom, he spotted the wagon and recognized it as his wagon. Perhaps he’d been asking the Universe for this wagon all along. He calmly walked over, tipped it to dispose of the seemingly useless dirt, then dragged it proudly behind him out to the yard to show us. He’d manifested it. It belonged to him.
He had been able to do this because he spent many dark hours before dawn exploring the porous boundaries between the school yard and the imagination. Because he knew where all the back roads were, he could paint a summer vacation on a mountain above the smoke, red roses bleeding across the sky at sunset.
I don’t know why I think of him now as I strum the chords of chaos in this Corona Summer. I woke at 3 AM this morning, and immediately thought, Jeez, I feel good, so grateful the antidepressants are working. But my anxiety has been growing all day as the smell of smoke seeps through the walls. I see tiny white specks swirl in the breeze outside my window. For a moment they appear to be an infestation of gnats, but no: it is ash from nearby fires.
I have been told that if you want you can manifest anything with the power of thought. But we did not allow Joseph to keep the wagon of course. After school I drove to Capital Nursery and bought another bag of soil and a packet of seeds for the first-grade class. All was forgiven. For a brief moment he had the wagon. Undaunted, he went back to drawing wagons. The first-grade teacher had her students pull the wagon out the other door toward the front of the school where Joseph would not see it.
I don’t know where Joseph is now. I don’t remember the first-grade teacher’s name. I am happy to be retired. I am grateful that long ago I became familiar with chaos, though I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable with it.
Photo by Blake Meyer on Unsplash.