Cheryl Baker was the teacher of a special needs class - and the year I broke my foot I couldn't participate in gym class. At first I was overjoyed at the lack of gym, but when I was informed that they would be putting me into the special needs class instead I threw a fit. I might have been temporarily handicapped, but I was anything but special needs. My crutches and determination meant I didn't even need a ramp to get up the steps to the school. Why in the world would they put me in the special needs class? The stigma that was sure to accompany my being placed into that class would destroy what little reputation I had gained in the year since moving there. I longed to be one of the cool kids. I'd never be a cool kid if they put me in a class with "retards" I thought. It was an unfair way of thinking but I was a selfish 14 year old kid and I didn't care. My reputation at that point meant everything to me.
The teacher was overwhelmed. Cheryl Baker was her name, and all the students loved her. The degree of special needs varied widely from children who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder to severe physical handicap disabilities rendering the children incapable of feeding themselves or even eating solid foods. My mother had this phobia of people grinding their teeth. Through her panic attacks when it would occur, she passed that deep seeded hatred of the noise on to me. Mandy, one particular little girl who was fed through a tube and would never be able to stand on her own or form a sentence had a never ending habit of grinding her teeth. At the time, I went by Mandy because that's what my family had always called me. I instantly hated the name and, though I'd decided years before to go by "Amanda" at school, at home I hadn't quite enforced it yet. That day it all changed and I began to correct them when they called me Mandy. I didn't want that kind of commonality.
Ms Baker told me one day that she didn't need assistance with the others nearly as much as she did with Mandy, who thrived on one-on-one attention. She loved stories being read or told to her, but it was a slight struggle since she was so low to the floor and I was in a chair because of my broken leg, and the other students would be easily distracted by my reading out loud. I had to keep my voice low enough to not distract them but loud enough for Mandy to hear me. I was a 13 year old self-centered brat. I had no idea what that meant. She couldn't even eat real food. She had a tube to her stomach and she ground her teeth so loud you could hear it from the hallway outside. Would she even hear me reading? Would she care? I could read to her from a math book, I thought, and she wouldn't ever know the difference. Looking back I know how heartless I was those first few weeks.
"She likes Greek mythology best it seems," Ms Baker told me after a few days.
"And how can you tell," I sneered down my nose at what I had instantly deemed to be a helpless invalid. There was no distinguishable expression on her face. Her eyes remained closed as she laid, propped up, in her beanbag chair with the never ending tube feeding a yellowish sludge straight to her stomach.
"You can tell if you pay attention," she replied with kindness and patience. I thought for a moment about what she said and I remembered one of my own very favorite books from my youth written by author Bill Wallace called "Trapped in Death Cave" and decided to see if I could get a reaction from her. I was as slow reader - painfully slow and shy. My reading out loud was cramped and stilted. I brought in that favorite book the following day and I began the way most books do, with chapter one. I had no idea if she would ever understand what I was reading to her or if she'd be better with the Little Train Who Could, but I didn't care. If I was going to have to read for an entire hour, nonstop, every single weekday for an entire half of a school year, it was going to be something that I enjoyed. I wasn't interested in mythology. She wasn't exactly going to complain.
By the time I finished reading that book an entire week had passed. I was still a painfully slow reader, but Mandy had almost seemed to brighten up a time or two. It was difficult to figure out what she was reacting to, and I really knew very little about her so it was hard to tell if she was really reacting to me at all or if she was reacting to being cold or hot or confused or even gassy. Her closed eyes would roll under the eyelids and the corner of her mouth twitched. She even let out a little shout at one of the most suspenseful parts. I had no way of knowing if the two were related, but it intrigued me. I was willing to try again and see if I could get more reactions out of her. It was a great book, and it was one I'd robbed from my brothers room and I needed to return before he noticed it was missing. I wondered to myself the rest of the afternoon what I should bring to read the following day that might get a reaction from her. I pondered, and went to browse the library. When I settled on a book of ghost stories, I wondered if perhaps I was crossing the line. Would I give her nightmares, or would she not understand what I was reading? Those were the only two ways it could go in my mind.
She started to really almost lean in as I was reading to her after that. She even got to where she would smile when I walked in the room and said hello to her. I began to see reactions from her - from the mild to the extreme. During one particular story she shouted at the most frightening part, talking about the encounter one woman claimed to have with an evil spirit in her mother's basement. That day I put the book down and didn't pick it up again. I returned it to the library afterward and I switched to more of my childhood favorites, the Three Investigators. She lit up every time I would mention one of the boys and I could really start to read her emotions. Finally, when given an interesting project in my English class that overlapped with a history project. I decided to have all three classes bleed together. At long last, I brought a book of nothing but Greek Mythology to Mandy. How she lit up! Each time I mentioned Zeus or Hera she almost cried out from joy. Hercules was obviously her hero, though she was deeply fond of Achilles as well. The Odyssey was a great joy for her.
When I finally came out of my cast I was told I could go participate in gym class. They reassigned me immediately and I was no longer allowed to read to Mandy. I have to word it that way because I'd learned to LOVE reading to Mandy and my reading skills had improved vastly. I begged for them to leave me in that class for the remainder of the semester. I cried the day I had to leave Mandy. I never went back to using that name even after that because I simply didn't deserve to share the name with such a remarkable young lady. I was ashamed of myself for ever having felt the exact opposite about the name simply based on someone I didn't even know.
Through it all, more than anything, I learned. Mandy taught me so much more than anyone else that year. I learned Greek Mythology.I learned about people with disabilities and their varying degrees. I learned compassion. I learned patience. I learned humility. I learned true kindness. I learned how to make someone happy. I learned how to read emotions. I learned Cheryl Baker was one of the most generous, loving people I'd ever met.
And today I learned that Cheryl Baker was just murdered in Idaho.