When Amy and I first met in Chicago I was nineteen and she was seven. I was her teacher and she my student. Amy had been born with a severe case of Downs Syndrome.
A college friend told me about the program which was designed to help children with this condition improve their abilities and said they were looking for volunteers to assist in this effort. I had an extra hour a week to spare and wanted to participate – although I really knew nothing about the condition or how it impacted children who were born with it.
Amy’s retardation was severe. Things that most seven year olds can easily accomplish were a tremendous challenge for her. My goal was to teach her how to use a spoon and bring food to her mouth. This was accomplished through what was called “patterning”.
Patterning is the repetitive act of doing the same thing over and over and over until the child is able to learn how to accomplish the task. In Amy’s case, the first part of that training was in learning how to pick up and to hold a spoon. That is what we worked on for the first four one hour sessions until she could grasp the spoon and hold it correctly.
I remember after my second week, seeing no real progress in this child, whether I had made a wise decision in being involved in this undertaking. I felt so terribly frustrated that I didn’t seem to be getting through to Amy. But I viewed this as both a personal challenge and something which this child needed to learn so I continued.
Amy broke through during our fourth session and suddenly seemed to grasp the concept of holding a spoon. And we were now on to part two. Getting her to raise it to her mouth. The spoon seemed to have a will of its own as it wanted to go anywhere but near Amy’s lips. But after another five hours we were getting the spoon to the right area most of the time. It took two more weeks before Amy was consistent about bring the spoon to her mouth.
The biggest challenge lay ahead, however. We were about to try putting food on the spoon and actually have Amy eat it. I spoke with the administrator of the program when I saw that they had given me a box of Cheerios to use for this purpose. I had visions (which were realized) of Cheerios being strewn all over Amy’s and my little room and table. I thought something like mashed potatoes would be a better food to use as they would at least adhere to the spoon. But I was told that they would be cold after an hour and might impede Amy’s progress as she wouldn’t want them. So Cheerios it was.
During that first hour we must have lost a quarter of the box of Cheerios to gravity. They would make their way along most of their journey and then a sudden twitch or twist of the spoon would bring them to earth. The only Cheerios which Amy ate were the ones she grabbed from the bowl with her little hand and put in her mouth. It was as though she wondered why she had to bother with the spoon when the system she had developed worked so well.
Amy and I worked together for three weeks before the Cheerios (or most of them) made their way to their proper place. Amy and I celebrated our victory. When the first spoonful of Cheerios made it to her mouth and she chewed them up with her little teeth she gave me a spontaneous hug. I turned my head from her as I didn’t want her to see the tears that were falling from my eyes.
The administrator was pleased with Amy’s and my achievement and asked if I wanted to continue in the program with another child. I asked why I couldn’t keep working with Amy – but they had decided that someone with more experience should help guide her on the way to learning more complicated tasks.
I thought about starting back at step one, teaching another child how to pick up and grasp a spoon and decided that I couldn’t go through that again. My course load had increased – or at least that was the excuse I gave. But the truth is that I just couldn’t face the frustration I remembered so well. I turned to my school work and gave up my volunteer position.
It was several months afterward that I was walking down the street when I saw Amy in the company of two people I thought must be her parents. As we approached I greeted the parents and said, “Hello, Amy. How are you?” Perhaps it was the fact that Amy only knew me from the context of our little room, but she didn’t seem to have any idea who I was.
I explained to her parents that I had worked with Amy teaching her how to eat and they thanked me. I felt a little hurt that after the hours we had spent together, Amy didn’t seem to recognize me – but I realized that was a function of her condition and not something I should take personally.
I have accomplished a few things in life of which I am proud. But as I reflect back on what I have done, perhaps my greatest achievement was when I was in college and I helped to teach little Amy how to eat.