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Connecting with Jacob

During our selection process we were observing several kindergartners. Jacob stood out among the almost 140 that we had met. He was a sharp kid; intelligent, quick and a lightning fast reader. Along with his talents, he had his struggles.

Jacob suffers from a degenerative muscle condition that causes the muscles in his legs to tighten and spasm, causing him considerable discomfort. Understandably, he gets frustrated easily. Because of this, his communication skills are affected; he rarely makes eye contact, often doesn't respond to questions or redirection, and has a hard time telling others what he needs.

For the first 4 weeks that I was in Jacob's classroom I made several attempts to get to know him. Few of my attempts were successful. Whether I was in the classroom asking him what he was diligently working on, or on the playground trying to find out about his favorite games, I wasn't making much headway. Each question I asked might have earned me a grunt or a shrug, but rarely could I get a straight answer. Jacob had a lot of potential, and he was also facing a lot of circumstances that would make him a candidate for our program. But for myself, honestly, I was getting discouraged.

What if Jacob was selected and joined Friends of the Children and he was paired with me? How was I going to be able to mentor and befriend a child who would barely look at me, much less talk? I didn't know if I would be able to give him what he needed.

The Thursday of our fourth week of observation I was again in Jacob's classroom. I had seen him act out before, but he was in rare form today. He was walking around on his tiptoes, a telltale sign that his legs were really hurting him. Jacob was shouting across the room, throwing crayons and markers into the air, and ignoring his teachers prompts to calm down. Several times his teacher had to physically restrain him to keep him from running around the room. I felt hopeless, nothing I said to Jacob to try to distract or comfort him had any affect. It was as if I wasn't there at all.

I went home again, feeling deflated. I didn't know how we were going to be successful with a child who's needs were so great and his ability to communicate so diminished.

The next day I decided that I was going to give it one more shot. Coincidentally Jacob's teacher was absent leaving the class with a substitute. I knew she probably didn't know what she was in for with Jacob, so I decided to be his shadow. I sat right next to him at his table. I rubbed his back and told him he did a good job whenever he met expectations and coaxed him to joining the group when he would start to wander off.

We were off to a decent start. After an hour of me being glued to his hip, Jacob even started to respond to some of my prompts. Maybe we were getting somewhere. The substitute gathered the kids on the rug and read a book about different shapes. Then the teacher asked the kids to look around the room for different shapes. I was hugely impressed when Jacob pointed out to me that you could fold a square in half and then you'd have a triangle. For a kindergartner that was pretty advanced.

When the teacher asked the students to look around the classroom to find any circles I decided to get creative. I asked Jacob to look at my glasses, which happen to have round lenses.

"Do you see any circles on my face, Jacob?" He stole a quick glance and then looked away. "Yeah, your glasses." I decided to push a little further. "What about my eyes, Jacob? Can you see any other circles?"

He managed to look me in the face a little longer. "Yeah, your eyes." He held my gaze for two whole seconds before looking away this time. I decided to run with this small success. "You mean the colored part of my eyes?" Jacob nodded at the ground. "What color are my eyes, Jacob?" Jacob looked up at me again, this time for several seconds. "They're blue." My eyes are green but close enough.

"What color are your eyes, Jacob?" I was surprised when he looked up at me again. "I think they're brown." They were indeed brown. And what was that in the corner of Jacob's mouth? The tiniest curl of a smile. I had never seen Jacob smile. And here we were, comparing our eye color and smiling together.

From that point we were up and running. Jacob and I went from one math activity to the next, talking and laughing and counting sums. Jacob asked me to help him get dressed in his winter gear before the class set off for lunch and then a much-needed recess. We walked together down the hall, sat in the cafeteria and talked over baby carrots and apple juice. Before they ran out to the playground I said goodbye to Jacob. I told him that I had a lot of fun working with him today and that I was proud of all the good choices that he had made that day. For the first time in four weeks he said goodbye to me.

And for the first time in four weeks I knew that we had really connected.