Chapter 5 Ole Charley
A great man is he who has not lost the heart of a child.
It’s been forty years, and I can still see him meandering down the long hill from the adult psychiatric ward to our Acorns’ cottage backyard where we took the kids with autism out to play. His name was Charley, or “Charwee” as he’d say it. I saw him nearly every weekday for three years, and he’d always approach me with, “Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” He’d shake my hand and extend his diminutive frame as high as he could to pat me on the head. “Hello Joe!” was his childlike response, always with a hearty laugh and a warm smile, not to mention a wad of “Bakker” in his mouth, minus a tooth or two.
Charley rarely missed our afternoon recess. He loved to play with the kids and they loved him too. He was a gentle ol’ soul, and his hearty laugh and smile were contagious.
Ole Charley ’bout cost me my job one crisp autumn morn. My teacher’s aide was out sick, and I had no back-up until noon. I was left to fend for myself with four kids, ages four to eight, two of them not even toilet trained. It was destined to be the longest four hours of my life.
It was nine in the morning and we were in our small classroom, which also doubled as the cottage kitchen. I rearranged our half-moon table so that the kids were, in essence, blocked in from the exit doors. I took my usual seat inside of the half-moon table where I could face each child.
I started our initial academic activity — practicing eye contact. I would call each child’s name, and reinforce verbally and, in some cases, with those who struggled with looking up at me when their name was called, I would pair verbal praise with a food treat.
Without Pam (teacher’s aide) standing behind them to encourage, redirect, prompt and whatnot, the kids sensed the kill. Even though they were in a state psychiatric hospital and acutely autistic, they were keenly aware of the fact that I could not possibly handle all four of them by myself. So, why not pay me back for all those times…
I was about to explode when suddenly a loud knock came from our side door. “Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” After our usual exchange, Charley, who rarely spoke, whispered in my ear, “Got an itchin’ you needed help.”
I was stunned. Before I could question him, he was off rubbing the kids’ heads and laughing that irresistible laugh. Within minutes, our classroom went from, “let’s get him!” to “let’s show Charley what we’re learning.” It was amazing!
Charley had the kids eating out of the palm of his hand, so much so that I decided to take a quick bathroom break, and…
I was gone less than a minute. I raced back into the classroom to find my boss, along with the CEO of Children and Youth Services, and a high-ranking hospital administrator, “taking a tour of the outstanding program we have for special needs kids…” My boss looked at me with eyes that cried out, “What is going on here?”
“Yes, we met Charwee.” our CEO sternly replied, glaring at me with eyes that could kill.
It seemed Charley and the gang couldn’t resist the combination of my absence and our old sink, not to mention four rolls of toilet paper and… It’s amazing what four autistic children and one jolly old man can do with a faucet, toilet paper, and forty-five seconds.
“Is Charley one of ours, or one of yours?” the hospital administrator asked.
“He’s a joint effort,” I quickly chimed in as Charley and the kids sheepishly sat down around the table.
“A what effort?” my boss muttered, perhaps wondering if I’d been dipping into Charley’s Skoal can.
“I’m Joe’s helper,” Charley said. “We were seeing how they’d do in his absence.”
“Absence?” my boss questioned, dumbfounded.
“Bathroom break,” I replied.
“Pooh Pooh!” six-year-old Donnie, the ringleader of the gang, cried, raising his hand.
“Good boy Donnie!” Charley beamed as he grabbed Donnie’s hand and led him to the bathroom.
“A joint effort, huh,” the hospital administrator said, turning to our CEO. “Looks like another one of your innovative programs. You guys never cease to amaze me with your creative teaching methods.”
“Amazing indeed,” my boss muttered.
Charley looked back at me with a gleam in his eye that was both heartwarming and haunting. He’d almost buried me in one moment and saved my hide in another.
“Joe’s helper?” I questioned him later. “Seeing how they’d do in my absence? You’ve never talked before. What’s going on?”
“Hi, I’m Charwee,” he said. “What’s your name?”
At that moment, it dawned on me that I didn’t really know this jolly old man, even though I’d spent countless hours with him out back on our playground. Where did he come from, and why was he here in a state mental institute?
That same afternoon I visited Charley’s other world — his fourth floor ward in one of the archaic adult psychiatric buildings overlooking the sprawling acres and children and youth cottages below. Behind an old, glassed-in nurses station remnant of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I read his chart. Charley was fifty-two years old. At the age of twenty-six, his father had died suddenly, and Charley, who was reportedly mentally challenged, was dropped off by his mother. She never came back to get him.
In the blink of an eye, Charley lost his family. Twenty-six years gone by, and not one visitor from the outside world. His best friend was an old Black woman named Irene, who sang “Amazing Grace” with amazing clarity and grit. Forty years later, long after the demise of the mental institute, its former patients long-since sent out into the de-institutionalized world, and I can still hear her raspy yet heavenly voice above the helter-skelter sounds of that eerie ward Charley called home.
And what about Ole Charley? He continued to meander down to our autistic neighborhood.
“Hi, I’m Charwee. What’s your name?” he’d say and eagerly await my reply. “Hello Joe!” he’d reply, shake my hand, and pat me on the head.
Ole Charley never used big words again around me. He kept things simple. And the kids… They didn’t care about his words. They simply loved his laughter and playfulness, his zest for joy and toilet paper and old faucets.
I’d catch him watching me every now and then with that gleam in his eye, as if to say, “I saved your hide that day.”
I knew that he knew…
My teacher’s aide.
My loyal friend.
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