The Third Copy

The girl in the wheelchair pointed as the door to the small classroom opened. “Larry,” she said, though it sounded like ‘Airy.’

9:35. Right on time for Larry. His mother dropped him off at the storefront school about 9:30 each school day. It was more convenient for his mother to drop him off on her way to work instead of riding the bus with the 12 other students. Each day Larry arrived as if he were late to a critical business meeting. He came in with a smile, a wonderful attitude, and, except for football jersey days, he dressed as if he were in charge of that meeting. Dark casual pants. Long sleeve button-down dress shirt. Necktie properly in place. Trimmed dark black hair neatly combed to one side. Stylish black glasses. Larry dressed the part of an up-and-coming businessman. He was a good-looking 19 year old. He had the body and strength of a running back complemented by a ‘life of the party’ personality.

He also has a third copy of human chromosome number 21. Larry, like about 400,000 other people in the U.S., has Down Syndrome. According to the file provided by the local school district, he was ‘mildly retarded,’ with severe speech difficulties.

Each day after hanging his black leather jacket on a coat rack he grabbed his notebook, crammed his lunch into an overflowing refrigerator, and tried to slip into the classroom without disturbing the other students. Each day the girl in the wheelchair happily welcomed him while the other students, all with various levels of mental disabilities, waited for him to slide into a chair at a table near the front of the room.

With the distraction of Larry’s arrival over the lesson continued. Larry, like all the students, copied vocabulary words and a daily work schedule, and participated in classroom discussions about daily living. Larry’s speech was difficult to understand and during times of extreme frustration this ‘learning disabled’ student quickly and easily used American Sign Language to answer questions and offer opinions on the topics being discussed by his classmates. He attended a school where disabled students, after graduating from high school, were given additional classes that would help them transition from high school to adults.

Larry, and the other students, spent four hours each day learning how to write a résumé, look for a job, prepare for a job interview, ride a bus, walk safely down a busy street, prepare a budget, shop, cook simple meals, and a myriad of other details that most of us long ago delegated to our subsconscious self. The students also, depending on where they were in the school curricula and the limitations of their disabilities, practiced various menial job training activities in the school and at businesses in the community – doing laundry for a hair salon and dog grooming shop, janitorial duties for the chamber of commerce, sign spinning to advertise fast food restaurants, monitoring students on a school bus or at a dance academy, etc.

Larry wasn’t ready to volunteer his time at a business yet. He spent most of his days learning and practicing simple tasks, that would, with a little luck and an understanding employer, help him find a job.

Today’s task was for Larry to sort dozens of quarter-sized colored plastic discs according to the alphanumeric code on the disc. On the table in front of him was a large, square wood box with slots to place the discs in. Beneath the slots were the same colors and codes as on the discs. Larry’s job was to pick up a colored disc, read the code on it and place it in the matching slot. He was timed as he did this and was given a score based on the number of discs sorted correctly and the time it took. He carefully studied each disc he picked up. Red disc with code AG6547 he placed in the correct slot. Blue disc BD3490 was placed correctly. As was another red AG6547. Yellow 9872? Got it. Green 2396? No problem. Another red AG6547 was slipped into the correct opening in the box. Black 4302? Got it. White 7863? Quickly dropped into the matching slot.

The fourth time he picked up red disc AG6547 he held it at eye level and stared at it for several seconds. He turned it over and looked at the blank back of the disc. With his left index finger he searched for the correct slot on the board, the same place he had already correctly placed three identical discs. His finger moved slowly over the board trying to find the correct letter/color combination he had last identified less than one minute earlier. ‘Hmmm,” he said loudly as he turned the disc upside down and studied the letters again. Again he searched for the correct opening to drop the disc into before deciding belonged in the yellow 5418 slot.

As I watched he quickly sorted several more discs before again becoming stumped on a disc color and number he had correctly placed seconds before picking up the identical disc. Again he studied the disc and the board. Again he reacted as if he had neither seen the same color nor had any comprehension of the disc’s code. Again he dropped the disc into the wrong slot. He continued sorting until he was finished at which time he slapped his hands together one time.  “There!” he said, “I’m finished.”

Yes, Larry, you did finish this and several other similar tasks while I watched and wondered what happens in a brain that does not allow the recognition of identical objects seconds apart? What is it in the mind of a ‘learning disabled’ person that doesn’t allow reading or the formation of a clear written or spoken sentence, yet uses the intricacies of sign language to express complex thoughts? And, how can we unlock and share the secret of the happiness inside of you?



Please sign in or sign up to comment.