First Sit Up Straight

I thought I was done, that the coast was clear. Now, out of the blue, came a telephone message with its desperate plea for help, and I knew my life was about to change. Again.

All through the 1960s and ’70s, I was a single parent with three daughters, running a tight ship. Much as I loved that period of my life, it was very difficult. There were setbacks, times when my girls went flying to their laid-back, pot-smoking dad and his indifferent wife, loving the fact that they had no rules. But, in the end, it was my parenting that took. I was all about responsibility and gratitude, giving back, sharing your talents and strengths with the less fortunate.

It was the same with my job. I was a medical social worker who persistently cut through bureaucratic red tape and got things done. I went to bat for my clients — to the courts, to newspapers and talk shows, even to television. When the Welfare Department where I worked needed foster parents, I recruited and trained them. When dentists gave up accepting Medi-Cal patients, I wrote to every dentist in our county and got most of them to donate regular treatment hours. If a hospitalized patient wanted to die at home, I contacted hospice and arranged for In Home Supportive Services. I had contacts everywhere.

I retired when I was fifty, before I was completely exhausted. I’d paid off my mortgage and put together a modest retirement fund, and now I wanted to have some fun.

My boyfriend at the time, a big, booming construction worker who thought nothing of working eighteen hours a day, thought I was crazy.

“What’ll you do with your time?” he asked. “You’re walking away from a secure job at the top of your game. You’re too young to retire.”

“I’ll do everything while I still can,” I said. My mind was made up.

I went back to school and polished my nursing skills, traveled to Ireland, Europe, the Azores and New Zealand, welcomed my first grandchildren and took care of them. Freedom is such a fabulous thing. I was really enjoying myself, and then I got that telephone call from a former foster parent.

“Please help me,” Sammi said. “I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve tried everything.”

Sammi had adopted her two foster children, brother and sister. She was already in her early sixties when she saw me on television and heard my description of what happens to foster children, especially those with special needs. After coming to my orientation meeting, she was hooked.

Sammi’s great strength was with drug-addicted babies and with children born with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome). There was no such thing as failure-to-thrive with the infants under her care.

Sammi was a practical woman whose amazing compassion extended even to the biological parents producing these damaged children. “No one would deliberately cause such havoc if she could help it,” Sammi insisted. She brought her foster children to our agency for supervised family visits; she always hoped for good outcomes.

I wasn’t surprised when Sammi applied to adopt Lauren and Danny. Had the children been perfectly healthy, the state would never have allowed their adoption by a non-family member of such advanced age, but Lauren and Danny had profound learning problems, serious developmental delays, and permanent disabilities. Sammi had been caring for them from birth. Besides, the biological mother was pleading for this adoption. I was there to testify to Sammi’s character and ability, as well as her stamina.

At the time of Sammi’s frantic telephone call to me, seven years had gone by since the adoption. Danny was performing well in special education classes at the local school, but Lauren’s problems were deemed too grave.

“They want to put her with the severely disabled children,” Sammi told me. “I’ve checked it out and it’s a holding pen. No one learns anything. They just keep the children busy and out of trouble. Can you help us?”

There was no way I could refuse.

Sammi applied for a full inclusion program that would put Lauren in a regular kindergarten with a full-time aide to assist her. I was to be that aide.

My boyfriend was incredulous. “You’ll be earning one-fourth your normal salary and working with five-year-olds!” he boomed. “You must be out of your mind.”

I stood there looking at him, at his muscular body and capable hands, and considered that the aggravations in our relationship had finally exceeded the compensations. I was tired of trying to explain things that should have been obvious.

I told him that, and he stormed out. It was a relief.

Like all children whose beginnings take place in a uterine sea of ethanol, Lauren had the FAS appearance. Her eyes were very widely spaced and the bridge of her nose absolutely straight. She lacked the indentation between her nose and upper lip, and her speech was slurred.

Lauren’s fingers had all the dexterity of flippers; since children develop medially to distally, it would be years before her digital development would catch up to the other children. Her lack of coordination went further. While normal children of her age ran gracefully and easily, she clambered awkwardly in a zigzag fashion, falling often.

She was also mildly autistic. Her egocentric focus revolved exclusively around her own needs and desires; she had little empathy for her classmates or awareness of their feelings. She had the attention span of a gnat.

The teacher and I set out to work together. I was grateful that she was extremely competent and professional and that she had good control of her class. I would need all the help I could get.

“First sit up straight,” I told Lauren that first day. “Be proud of yourself. You’re a big girl now, in kindergarten.” So Lauren got up off the floor and sat in her chair, a little in awe. It was just how I wanted her. My praise would be earned.

And so we began. I fit foam rubber strips over Lauren’s felt pens and crayons, and gave her huge sheets of paper. I adapted every lesson to Lauren’s level. While the other children struggled to print on the lines of their papers, my hand guided Lauren’s in large, sweeping letters and numbers, each with its own story.

“Now here’s A and it looks like a teepee with a shelf,” Lauren would repeat after me. Or “five walks down the street, swings around the corner, and his hat blows off.” Gradually, Lauren began to see sense in what had been incomprehensible squiggles in books and on signs everywhere. Her confidence grew.

I started to draw dots for Lauren to connect, and she would be delighted to discover letters and numbers. Within a few months, she was making her own letters and numbers, and even forming simple words.

The teacher watched us closely. “Can you tell us how to make a D, Lauren?” she asked one day, and Lauren answered confidently, “D is a tall guy with a big stomach. His kid is also tall, but his stomach is lower, and he walks backwards. They both say ’duh’ when they talk.”

The whole class laughed, Lauren included, and soon I heard other children repeating our stories to themselves as they printed.

Lauren had real problems with arithmetic. She always had to count “one-two-three,” etc., and had no comprehension of quantity. I would place two candies in a row, and she would count “one-two.” If I added another, again she’d have to start at the beginning.

On the playground during recess, I organized group games and rope jumping, just so that Lauren would be included. We marched to improve her awkward gait, had parades, took turns climbing on the jungle gym. The other students began to echo my encouragement of Lauren’s awkward attempts and she doubled her efforts. This was a real social connection, the first outside of Lauren’s family.

I asked Sammi to sometimes send special treats for the other kids to share, and that was one of Lauren’s hardest lessons. She wanted to eat twenty cookies or cupcakes all by herself.

“They are mine!” she would insist. “They came from my backpack!”

I would take Lauren outside and urge her to pay attention to the smiles on the other children’s faces.

“You and your Mom are making your classmates happy, Lauren, and that’s a good thing. Sharing is good.”

Lauren was not buying it. It pained her to distribute her treats, to share anything. Or anyone. When two other slow learners in the class tried to join us in our special lessons, she pushed them away abruptly.

“Ms. Pimental is my helper, not yours,” Lauren yelled loudly; again I took her outside for a private chat. It was like talking to a wall.

Our struggle continued for weeks, but eventually I won. If not exactly graciously, Lauren accepted the inevitable. “You can stay, but don’t touch my special pens,” she said to her two classmates. “They’re mine.” And then she glared at me defiantly.

It was often difficult to work with Lauren, especially when she trampled so easily on the feelings of her classmates. I insisted that she apologize, again and again, that she become aware that she was inflicting pain. And I reinforced her every show of kindness or cooperation with a quick hug, praise, and my thanks.

I also had my props.

When Lauren did something good, worked hard, or said “thank you,” she got a gold star or a sticker. Some days she went home decked out like a Christmas tree; other days, the days of frustrated tantrums, she left with rumpled work sheets and no stars.

Sammi was thrilled and encouraged by Lauren’s progress; she papered her kitchen walls with her children’s work sheets and drawings. I reported also that the teachers of the severely handicapped children were visiting our classroom frequently, along with the school principal. He saw that Lauren was making enormous strides and he wanted his staff to see her progress.

At the end of that first year, the teacher invited all the parents to a literary tea where each of their children would read from his or her own work. Lauren was very excited. I had never seen her so determined to write a story of her own, and she worked feverishly. I gave a little help with the illustrations, and formed some of the words with dots, but that was all.

The day finally arrived. When it was Lauren’s turn, the room grew very quiet. As she walked to the podium, I could feel people pulling for her, Sammi hardly breathing next to me.

“Thank you for coming,” Lauren said to her audience, “and for paying attention. Please sit up straight.”

No one laughed, and we all sat up straighter in our chairs.

Lauren’s story was about a little girl who finds a lost dog in the rain, and takes it home where she dries him with a towel and feeds him. The next day she and her Mom put up posters telling about the dog, but she hopes that no one comes. Soon her phone rings, and it’s the dog’s family. They come to the little girl’s house to claim him. Everyone is happy, except for the girl, and they try to give her money as a reward. She refuses. Watching them drive away, the little girl tries to be glad, but it is very hard. She liked the dog so much.

And that was it.

Lauren looked out at all the parents and kids in the audience after reading her story, and said, “Lots of times, it’s so hard to be good.”

We could only imagine how hard it had been for Lauren, how frightening, how frustrating. And then we all stood and cheered for her — her teacher, the other students, all the parents, and the principal. She took a little bow, as she’d been taught, and then she ran right into my arms, and her mother’s. People continued to stand, clapping, for several minutes more.

Today, Lauren is twenty-four years old and part of the Becoming Independent Program. She has a job bagging groceries and tidying shelves at a discount grocery store; her brother works in the recycling division of a local electronics company. Both are considered responsible and valued employees.

And Sammi, with knees, hips and one shoulder replaced, is as indomitable, joyful and healthy as ever. She calls herself a bionic woman.

“Mom needs us now. We’re her big helpers,” Lauren says. She is tall and slender, her speech nearly perfect, her movements coordinated. I look at her closely and I see the child she was, decked out with stars and stickers, running in her lopsided fashion to her smiling mother.

I’m so glad they called.


Lenore Pimental joined a “Live Stories” class when she retired. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, The Sonoma Senior Times, and The Press Democrat. She won first prize in Eldertreks’ international writing contest. Santa Rosa, California, is home, within a mile of three daughters and six grandchildren.

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