All Heroes Don't Wear Capes

Submitted into Contest #125 in response to: Write a story about a late bloomer.... view prompt


Friendship Inspirational Kids

This story contains sensitive content

(This story contains the untimely death of a young child.)

All Heroes Don't Wear Capes

All heroes don't wear red capes and tights. Some don't wear uniforms on their muscular bodies and go forth with superhuman powers. Sometimes they are born into bodies as small and frail as any five year old and wear dirty t shirts and grubby sneakers with one shoe lace knotted and the other habitually untied. Sometimes they can't pronounce their own names and stutter substitutions for many letters. Sometimes they reside unnoticed right beside the rest of us, awaiting their call to acts of uncommon heroism. The very principles of our American democracy are forged in the sacrifices and heroic acts of every day people. So every year in classes all over America young folks study American heroes and discuss heroic acts and uncommon lives of courage.

Every year my students write about someone they admire, their own personal hero. I always model that task by writing my essay with them. Gracie is the one I always write about and tell the story about, the one they always want to hear. Her story is one I never tire of telling. And the boys and girls who knew her always shed a tear with me. They know her story. The kids always know to have a hug and some kleenex ready for when I tell the story of my little hero.

I still remember the day she joined our classroom.” Boys and girls, I have some wonderful news. We are getting a new wolf to add to our wolf pack. Her name is Gracie. She's five, almost six, and this is her first time in school. She's probably scared, so what can we all do to help her?”

Hands go up, eager to share. Grady says, “well we need to tell her hi and welcome.”

John chimes in “we need to find a job for her in our wolf pack.”

Angela says,” we need to talk to her and be her friend.”

David adds, “and show her where things are, like the cafeteria and the bathroom, especially the bathroom."

“Tina, do you have any ideas to make Gracie feel part of us?”

“ Sure, just look her in the eyes when you talk to her.”

“ Billy, how about you? “

“We probably need to sit near her and share our crayons and stuff with her. And how about we sing her our welcome song!”

“Good job, wolf pack”, says Alpha Grady.”

“Now Gracie is shy and does not talk just yet.”

“Oh, that's okay,” says Grady,” we wolves don't talk anyway. We just know what one another want.”

My pre entry meeting with her parents had been sensitive and informative. Like most parents of special needs students they wanted to make sure that teacher would treat their child as well as she would treat her own children. I understood. Dad was an educated man, actually a teacher at the local university, and extremely protective of Gracie. Mom was a nurse, well versed on the medical needs of their daughter, concerned with her physical well being.

“ She's never been away from us,” they implore, “not even for a minute ever since she was born.” Mom's guilty burden is evident as she explains the very special needs of a daughter who has not ventured out into our cold, cruel world. Dad just wants to make sure she is safe, that no one will bully her or make fun of her or hurt her feelings.

“On second thought”, Dad says,” maybe she is not ready for this next step.”

“ On second thought”, responds Mom,” maybe dad is not ready for this next step.” Mom explains that Gracie is a modern day miracle, one they never thought would survive past birth. Both parents feel the pain for a child they believe to be living on borrowed time. We pledge to make this the best social and educational experience we can for our Gracie. We all sign the documents and agree on her individual educational plan with objectives, goals, responsibilities. The parents turn to leave. Dad is noticeably hesitant and anxious. Mom is teary eyed and gives me a hug, depositing a weighty manila envelope into my hands.

“Please,” she whispers ,” read this information. It tells all about Gracie. Take your time, it's rather involved.”

It is rather involved, Gracie is rather involved.. I read the pile of medical and psychological records and have a new appreciation for the parents of this precious child. Gracie has been evaluated as nonverbal, but she can understand a lot of what is said to her. She is partially sighted with reduced but functional hearing. She had been born over three months prematurely to a mother who had contracted influenza while at work on a pediatric ward. This explains the problems with hearing and sight. Her weight and height are considerably below those of other children her age. She is frail with skin so translucent she is almost bluish purple with the color of the veins so near the surface. So very fragile, like she could easily chip or crack. And she is fitted with a feeding tube that routes liquid nutrition straight into her stomach. She has been diagnosed bipolar since the age of two because of her refusal to eat; thus, the medical intervention of the feeding tube to prevent her starvation. I cringe to imagine the agony of these parents watching their young child almost starving to death right in front of them. The bipolar diagnosis is just a default, because no other explanation of her inability to eat is found. Because she does not communicate, these frustrated parents must rely on the advice of experts, so they turn her over to the surgical team and stay by her side as the feeding tube is inserted.

There is an indescribable innocence and beauty in some children. Anyone who meets Gracie is immediately drawn into her circle of friends, even though she can't express her feelings in words. Some precious children are angels on this earth and are just sent down to be with us for a brief while. Gracie is one of those. We all come away richer for having known her.

Linda, my classroom aide, is assigned to keep a close eye on Gracie and accompany her on the playground when we mainstream her with the other kindergartners. With Linda's assistance, Gracie is able to walk to the playground and watch from the sidelines. So far she retreats and refuses to participate, but she does watch, sometimes panting with excitement. Every day for three weeks Gracie stands on the sidelines, clinging to Linda, and letting go only long enough to flap her hands.

Until one day we hear her first sounds when she squeals in excitement watching other kids on the swings. Soon she has dropped her clinging grip on Linda's waist and glances longingly towards those same swings. When Linda lets me know of her behavior, we get with the janitor and have him install a safety rigged swing especially for Gracie. The first day she gets to see it in place, she just keeps squealing and then runs over to it. Soon she is petting her swing and looking at it like it's a magic carpet. And when we put her into it and strap her safely into the seat, we're sure she thinks it's her own magical carpet. And we are rewarded with her first word: “Wheee! “

Next day she blesses us with her second word, “High”. Now she is on a roll. Time for the speech therapist to help us. Two days later she comes back with the speech therapist, meets me at the classroom door with a toothy smile and a squeezy hug. Speech therapist winks at me and says,” Just wait, Gracie has something to say to you.”

I hold my breath as I hold Gracie in my arms and look down into her big blue eyes. “ Go on, Gracie, say it to Mrs. N.”

“Mrs. Noffuss, Mrs. Noffuss”, she begins to chant. And there is not a dry eye here at the door and the rooms erupts as the members of our wolf pack cheer and run up to gather around Gracie and celebrate her success. This week Grady is Alpha and seems to take a special interest in Gracie. He has asked to be able to make her his Alpha female for the week and she seems to understand. These kids just warm your heart. Some days Gracie arrives at our door after speech therapy, with a tray of snacks for her good work. She grins widely and presents the treats to this week's alpha male. “For woof pack,” she beams. Her expansive heart would never allow her to not share.

Angela, one of the Omega wolves, takes Gracie into her circle and decides it's time for her to learn to hold a crayon and a pencil. I come upon them one day during quiet time as Angela is pressing a chubby stump crayon into her hand, forming her fingers into a grasp, and telling her to pinch

.” Just pinch it and then wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, Yeah, like that. That's it, now you're coloring. Good Job, Omega”.

And Gracie beams. As these wonderful children share with one another, there is a spirit of love and giving that nourishes them all. And Gracie just seems to spring to life under their tutelage. Sometimes I give my job over to the children who seem to be so good at it and watch in wonder as they work their magic with one another. Yeah, sometimes my eyes are teary and there is a sharp ache in my chest as I feel so privileged to be even a small part of these every day miracles.

Another day Beta John tells Gracie “ wolves don't flap their paws because they need them to walk on”.

And Gracie listens to John and takes it to heart and from then on she tries so very hard to curtail her autistic mannerism of hand flapping. She wants so badly to be a good wolf and she lets us know by holding her hands down at her sides and saying,” Gracie good woof, good woof.”

And John smiles, and says, “But Gracie, you're an Omega this week, and that means you must do everything I tell you to do because I am the Alpha boss”. Gracies just grins and nods her head, her arms glued to her sides.

Gracie continues to blossom in our little wolf pack. The week she is an Omega helper wolf she trips going out to the playground and falls before Linda is able to intercept. A broken tooth requires a trip to the school nurse and then to the dentist. But Dad's confidence is shaken.

“ Maybe it's too hard for Gracie to be out in the world. I think we'd better keep her at home where she's safe from danger. My wife can watch her.”

And it's Mom who calls me the first day she misses. “Can you talk some sense into my husband?”

“Don't worry,” I say, “Gracie will probably have no trouble convincing him.” And I was right. Two days later he arrives in person at my classroom door, with Gracie in hand.

“Here”, he says sheepishly, “she's all yours, well you and your crazy wolf pack's. She's been pestering us half to death. School, School ,Woofs, Woofs is all we've heard for days. You women win. Good luck!” And she rushes in the door to join her pack, thrilled to belong, even though she's low on the totem pole this week.

Grady tells her one day, “Alpha females need to be able to eat their meat, Gracie. You need to get that thing out of your tummy so you can eat like the rest of us wolves." Gracie nods her head in understanding. And it isn't long before her parents call to report Gracie is going in to the hospital to have the feeding tube removed over Spring Break.

" She asked for it", they say, unbelieving. But we wolves in her pack, yeah, we believe it. These kids are always all heroes in my view. In spite of their special needs they get up every morning, get ready to face a day that does not work out for them the way it works out for their schoolmates. They come to school, often under trying circumstances, face pain and disabilities like real troopers, and just keep smiling and keeping on. And that's real heroism. On a daily basis. And I am unutterably honored to be a part of it every day.

When Gracie's parents move to the Midwest to follow dad's new university appointment, I get a call from her new teacher at her new school. I hang up convinced we have placed Gracie in good hands. And I am so relieved, because as devastated as I was to see Gracie move on, I was worried that her progress might not be as appreciated in some other setting.

“What is it Gracie keeps trying to tell us about her pack?” new teacher wants to know. And I tell her about our year spent as wolves learning the inner workings of a cooperative wolf pack. And time passes.

My classroom teaching aide maintains contact with Gracie's family. Several months later, she meets me in the teachers' lounge before school starts, sobbing, clutching a newspaper clipping to her chest. She almost collapses onto the lounge chair and shoves the paper towards me, unable to speak coherently. I take a quick look at the article and see a group picture of strangers I have never seen before.

" Just read it,”she stutters.

And I do and then I take another longer look at that photograph. I am struck by the form of a young man, maybe in his twenties, holding a small child in his arms, surrounded by four other children of various ages. The full weight of this has not impacted me yet. I reread the first two paragraphs and then realize there is more to the story. I check my records to find the telephone number for Gracie's parents.

Later that evening, when I have calmed my tears and salved my heart, I dial their number. I almost dread the moment one of the parents might answer my call.

“Mrs. C, This is Mrs. N, and Linda and I just got your note and saw the newspaper clipping. I 'm so sorry for your loss, for our loss. Our hearts are broken." Big gulp and deep breath. "How are you all doing?”

“Oh, Mrs. N.,” and she begins to sob. “It was just as we feared it would be. Just like we had been dreading these past 8 almost 9 years. Gracie came home from school one day that last week. She was walking slowly, dragging her feet like she did when she was tired. I asked her, How's it going, Sweetie” and she just shook her head. Big tears rolled down her cheeks. She put her hands up to her head and said, “ Head hurts, Mommy.” I put my arms around her and led her back into her bedroom. I had just gotten her laid down and the covers pulled up the way she liked them when she sat upright, said “Ouch, Mommy,” and then dropped back to the pillow. And then I knew. I just knew. It was just like the doctors always said it would be. Quick and over. It was a massive brain aneurysm. Just like we knew it would be. I held my precious in my arms, but I knew I had to hurry and get the ambulance here right away.”

“ I am so sorry, so very sorry. Is there anything we can do? “

“Actually, you can tell everyone in her class that we thank them all for giving Gracie such a wonderful three years with them. She never forgot becoming an Alpha female for Grady's wolf pack. She just blossomed. We were so proud.”

“And she had made such progress with her speech and language. I don't know if we ever told you, but before we moved we had discussed the concepts of dying and leaving your body to join your angels and Maker in heaven. Gracie seemed to understand and said she would want to help other little boys and girls the way her friends and classmates had helped her. “Like woofs,” she said. So her dad and I had vowed to make her wishes known and signed papers to make her a full organ donor.”

And now I understand the picture. I go back and study the faces of the fortunate young people who have been helped or saved by Gracie's sacrifice.

Heroic little girl and unbelievably heroic parents had donated her organs. The young man in the picture received Gracie's liver; the child he was holding was the son he survived to see. One young girl received her corneas, one boy received her lungs and another her kidney.

The little girl, smiling so brightly into the camera, and holding up a sign with the words “Thank you, Gracie”, in childish scroll, was the recipient of Gracie's expansive heart. The six year old had been close to death when she was offered the heart of our angel and a miraculous chance to blossom into health once again. Anyone looking at the picture can see the huge smile and the bloom of good health all over her happy face. And maybe it was just the lighting by the photographer or a reflection on the lens but I swear I see a brightness around the little girl's head. Another angel?

December 24, 2021 20:51

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