The eighteen adult students at the front of the classroom were a happy, ragtag group, mostly short and squatty, with sturdy necks and squinty eyes. All but two wore thick glasses. Their voices mingled in a loud cacophony of raucous laughter, genuine confusion, and boisterous verbal expression.
"Teacher!" The one named Gus took a step forward, lowered his brow, and pointed to the student beside him. "He wants the bus to the Canadian Rockies." Gus rolled his eyes. He gestured dramatically toward the window. "The buses out there go to the Colorado Rockies." He tossed both his hands in the air. "Could you tell him, Teacher?"
"Gus is right." Twenty-six-year-old Elle Dalton—teacher, mentor, encourager, friend—looked out the window. "Those are the Colorado Rockies. But our trip tomorrow isn't to the mountains." She smiled at the young men. "We're going to the Rocky Mountain Plaza. Rocky Mountain is just the name."
"Right." Daisy stood up and put her hands on her hips. She knew the Mountain Metropolitan Transit system better than anyone at the center. Daisy wagged her thumb at Gus. "I told you that. Shopping tomorrow. Not mountain climbing."
"Yes." Elle stood a few feet back and studied her students. She'd been over this two dozen times today already. But that was typical for a Thursday. "Everyone take out your cheat sheets."
In a slow sort of chain reaction, the students reached into their jeans pockets or in some cases their socks or waistbands for a folded piece of paper. After a minute or so, the entire group had them out and they began reciting the information—all at different times and with different levels of speaking ability.
"Wait"—she held up her hand—"let's listen." Elle knew the routine by heart. She approached the line and waited until she had their attention. "Everyone follow along with me." She walked slowly down the row of students. "Bus Route Number Ten will take us from the center at Cheyenne Boulevard and Nevada Avenue south past Meadows Road, left on Academy Boulevard to the shops."
"Academy Boulevard?" Carl Joseph stepped out of line, his forehead creased with worry. Carl Joseph was new to the center. He'd been coming for three months. His ability to become independent was questionable. "Is that in Colorado Springs or somewhere else?"
"It's here, Carl Joseph." Daisy patted his shoulder. "Right here in the Springs."
"Right." Elle grinned. Daisy could teach the class. "The whole bus trip will take about fifteen minutes."
He nodded, but he didn't look more sure of himself. "Okay. Okay, Teacher. If you say so, okay." He stepped back in line.
And so it went for the next half hour. Elle broke down the directions. The color of the bus—orange—and how much time they'd have to climb aboard and how long it would take to make the drive down to Academy Boulevard, and how many stops would happen between getting on and getting off the bus.
For many of them the lesson was a review. They tackled a different route every week, memorizing it, drawing it out, play-acting it, and finally incorporating it into a field trip on Friday. When they reached the end of the thirty most common bus routes, they'd start again at the beginning. But Elle's students had Down Syndrome, so most of them experienced varying degrees of short-term memory loss. Reviewing the bus routes could never happen often enough.
At the thirty-minute mark attention spans among the group were fading fast. Elle held out her hands. "Break time." She looked out the window again. It was a late April morning, and sunshine streamed in from a bright blue sky. "Fifteen minutes . . . outdoors today."
"Yippee!" Tammy, a student with long brown braids, jumped and did a half spin. "Outdoor break!"
"Ughh! I hate outdoors!" Sid scowled and punched at the air. At thirty, he was the oldest student at the center. "Hate, hate, hate."
"Don't be a hater." Gus shook a finger at the complaining student. "Ping-Pong is good for outdoors."
"Tag, you're it!" Brian tapped Gus on the shoulder and ran out the door laughing. Brian was a redhead who'd been coming to the center since Elle took over two years before. He was the happiest student by far. As he ran he yelled: "We could play tag and everyone could play tag!"
"I hate tag." Sid crossed his arms and stuck out his lower lip. "Hate, hate, hate."
The students headed for the door, all of them talking at once. Straggling behind and lost in their own world were Carl Joseph and Daisy. He was pointing outside. "No rain today, Daisy. Just big bright sunshine. That's thanks to God, right?"
"Right." She looked up at him with adoring eyes. "God gets the thanks."
"I thought so." He laughed from deep in his throat and clapped his hands five quick times. "I thought God gets the thanks."
Elle smiled and went to the back room. She poured herself a cup of dark coffee and returned to her desk. Her job at the center had everything to do with Delores Daisy Dalton. Her favorite student, her little sister. Her project. How different life was for Daisy here in the Springs. Two years ago Daisy had spent all her life with their mother an hour east of Denver in Lindon, Colorado—population 120.
The oldest of the Dalton daughters was only nine when their big strapping father left home one morning for his office job in Denver and never made it back. A patch of black ice on a back country road took his life, and he was dead before the first police officer made it to the scene. There was life insurance money and a settlement against the drunk driver who hit him—enough to allow their mother to stay home, to continue schooling them in their small wood-paneled living room. Enough so, that life wouldn't change in any way other than the most obvious and painful.
Because their daddy had loved his girls with everything he had.
Time flew, and one by one the Dalton girls left home and moved to Denver to attend the University of Colorado. Elle was no exception. She pursued a teaching credential and then her master's. But Daisy was the youngest, and when she turned nineteen one thing was certain.
If she stayed in Lindon, Daisy was out of options. And that wouldn't do, because their mother had never dreamed less for Daisy than for the other Dalton girls. Never mind what the doctors and textbooks of that day said about Down Syndrome. From an early age their mom believed Daisy was capable of great things. She believed in mainstreaming and immersion, which meant if the math lesson was about counting money, Daisy learned to count. If it was time to clean the kitchen, Daisy was taught how to run a dishwasher.
When the short bus for handicapped students drove by, it didn't stop at the Dalton house.
"You girls will show Daisy what to do, how to act and think and behave," their mom said. "How else will she learn?"
As it turned out, their mother's thinking was innovative and cutting-edge. When Elle earned her master's degree in special education, mainstreaming was all the rage. People with learning disabilities could do more than anyone ever expected as long as they were surrounded by role models.
When she was offered the director position at the Independent Learning Center—or ILC as everyone called it—Elle formed an idea and presented it to her mother. They could sell the house in Lindon and the three of them could buy a place in the Springs. Elle would run the center, Daisy would be a student, and their mother could find work outside the home.
Sentimental feelings for the old farmhouse made their mom hesitate, but only for a minute. Life was not a house, and family was not limited to a certain place. The move happened quickly, and from her first day at the center Daisy blossomed. Her friendship with Carl Joseph was further proof.
Elle sipped her coffee, stood, and made her way to the window. She sat on the sill and watched her students. A center like this one would've been unheard of fifteen years ago. Back when most of her students were born, their parents had few options. Half the kids were institutionalized, shipped off to a facility with little or no expectation for achievement. The others were sent to special education classes, with none of the stimulation needed for advancement.
Elle took another sip of coffee. The ILC was good not just for her students—most of whom came five days a week, six hours a day. It gave her a purpose, a place where no one asked about the ring she wasn't wearing anymore. She glanced at her watch, stood, and headed for the door. Some days her work at the center not only gave her a reason to move forward, it gave her a reason to live.
She opened the door. "Break's over. In your seats in two minutes."
"Teacher, one point!" Gus waved his Ping-Pong paddle in the air. With his other hand he grabbed the table. "One more point. Please!"
"Okay." Elle stifled a smile. Gus was adorable, the student who could best articulate his feelings. "Finish the game, and get right in."
The transition took five minutes, but after that everyone was seated and facing her. The center took up a large space, with areas designated for various activities. The bus routes were practiced in a carpeted alcove with a large blackboard on one wall and several benches framing the area. Another corner included a kitchen and three kitchen tables with chairs. Social skills, cooking, and appropriate eating behavior were taught there.
The next session was speech and communication. The learning area was again carpeted, and students sat on sofas and padded chairs—simulating a living room setting. The idea was to get the students comfortable in everyday living situations, learning how to read social cues and interact correctly with others.
Elle looked at her students. "Who would like to share first?"
Daisy's hand was up before Elle finished her question. "Me, Teacher!" Daisy got a kick out of calling Elle "Teacher." Daisy tipped her head back and laughed, then looked at Carl Joseph for approval. "Right? We're ready, right?"
"Uh . . ." Carl Joseph pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He seemed confused, but his eyes lit up as he connected with Daisy. His words came slow and thick and much too loud. "Right, Daisy. Right you are."
"Shhh." Daisy held her finger to her lips. Her eyebrows rose high on her forehead. "We can hear you, CJ." There was no disapproval in her tone. Just a reminder, the way any two friends might encourage each other.
Carl Joseph hunched his shoulders, his expression guilty. He covered his mouth and giggled. "Okay." He dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper. "I'm quiet now, Daisy."
The others were losing interest. Elle motioned to the spot beside her on the carpet. "Daisy and Carl Joseph, come up and show us."
"Yeah." Sid scowled and punched at the air again. He was the most moody of the students, and today he was in classic form. "All right already. Get it over with."
Undaunted, Daisy stood and took Carl Joseph's hand. His cheeks were red, but when he focused on Daisy, he seemed to find the strength to take the spot beside her at the front area of the class. Daisy left him standing there while she went to the nearby CD player and pushed a few buttons. The space filled with the sounds of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."
Daisy held out her hand and Carl Joseph took it. After only a slight hesitation, the two launched into a simple swing dance routine. Carl Joseph counted the entire time—not always on beat—and Daisy twirled and moved to the rhythm, her smile filling her face.
Elle's eyes grew damp as she watched them. Neither friendship nor love had ever been this easy for her. But this . . . this was how love should look, the simple innocence of caring that shone between these two. The way Carl Joseph tenderly held Daisy's hands, and how he led her through the moves, gently guiding her.
Today's date hadn't escaped her. It would've been her fourth wedding anniversary. She rubbed the bare place on her ring finger and bit her lip. How many years would pass before the date lost significance?
Then, midtwirl, Carl Joseph accidentally tripped Daisy. She fell forward, but before she could hit the ground, Carl Joseph caught her in his arms and helped her find her balance again.
"You okay, Daisy? Okay?" He dusted off her shoulder and her hair, and though she had never hit the ground, he brushed off her cheek.
"I'm fine." Daisy had years of dance experience. It was how their mother made sure Daisy got her exercise. No question the slight trip-step hadn't hurt her. But she balanced against Carl Joseph's arm and allowed him to dote on her all the same. After a long moment, she and Carl Joseph began again, laughing with delight as they circled in front of the class.
The music's effect was contagious. Gus stood and waved his hands over his head, swaying his hips from one side to the other. Even Sid pointed at a few of the other students and managed the slightest grin.
When the song ended, Daisy and Carl Joseph were out of breath. They held hands and did a dramatic bow. Four students rushed to their feet, clapping as if they'd just witnessed something on a Broadway stage. Daisy waved her hands at them. "Wait . . . one more thing!"
Elle stepped back. A situation like this one was good for Daisy. She had spent all her life around able-bodied people, people blessed with social graces. She wasn't skilled at trying to command a group of people with Down Syndrome.
"Hey . . ." She waved her arms again.
The other students danced merrily about, clapping their hands and laughing. Even Sid was on his feet.
"I said . . . wait!" Daisy's happy countenance started to change.
But before she could melt down, Carl Joseph stepped up. "Sit down!" his voice boomed across the room.
Instantly the students shut their mouths. Most of them dropped slowly to their seats. Sid and Gus stayed standing, but neither of them said another word.
"Thanks, CJ." Daisy looked at him, her hero. She turned to the others. "We have one more thing."
"Yeah." Carl Joseph chortled loudly and then caught himself and covered his mouth again.
Daisy nodded at him. "I go first, okay?"
"Okay." The loud whisper was back.
"Here it is." Daisy looked at Elle and grinned. Then she held out both hands toward her classmates. "M-I-C . . ."
Carl Joseph saluted. "See you real soon."
"K-E-Y . . ."
"Why?" He put his hands on his hips and then pointed at Gus. " 'Cause we like you."
Then he linked arms with Daisy and together they finished the chant. "M-O-U-S-E."
Sid tossed his hands in the air. "Yeah, but did you go to Disneyworld yet or what?"
"Not yet." Daisy grinned at Carl Joseph. "One day very, very soon."
The two of them sat down as Gus jumped to his feet and scrambled to the front.
"Gus . . . you want to go next?" Elle moved in closer.
"Yes." He said it more like a question, and instantly he returned to his seat. "Sorry, Teacher." He raised his hand.
"Can I go now?"
The training continued for the better part of an hour. Each student was progressing toward some form of independent living—either in a group home or in a supervised setting with daily monitoring. Already twelve graduates had moved on to find independence. They attended twice-weekly night sessions so that they could hold jobs during the daytime.
Elle leaned against the wall and watched Gus begin a dramatic story about playing a game of chess with Brian, a redhead who at sixteen was the youngest student. After Gus had received a standing ovation for his story, they heard a poem by Tammy, the girl with long braids—Sonnet Number 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
When the girl struggled with one line, Carl Joseph stood and went to her side. He pointed at the paper and put his arm around her shoulders. "You can do it," he whispered to her. "Go on."
Daisy raised an eyebrow but she didn't say anything.
Tammy was shaking when she finally found her place and continued. Her next few sentences were painfully slow, but she didn't give up. Carl Joseph wouldn't let her. When the poem was finished, Carl Joseph led her back to her spot on the sofa, then returned to his own.
Finally Sid told them about a movie his dad had taken him to see, something with dark caves and missing animals and a king whose kingdom had turned against him. The plot was too difficult to follow, but somehow Sid managed a question-and-answer time at the end.
They worked on table manners next, and before Elle had time to look at the clock, it was three and parents were arriving to pick up their students.
Elle spotted Daisy and Carl Joseph near the window waiting for his mother. She went to them and patted her sister on the back. "Nice dance today."
"Thanks." Daisy grinned. "Carl Joseph has good news."
"You do?" Elle looked at the young man. There was an ocean of kindness in his eyes. "What's your good news, Carl Joseph?"
"My brother." He flashed a gap-toothed smile. "Brother's coming home tomorrow."
"Oh." Elle put her hand on Carl Joseph's shoulder. He'd talked about his brother before. The guy was older than Carl Joseph, and he rode bulls. Or maybe he used to ride bulls. Elle wasn't sure. Whatever he did, the way Carl Joseph talked about him he might as well have worn a cape and a big S on his chest. She smiled. "How wonderful."
Carl Joseph nodded. "It is." His voice boomed. He pushed his glasses back into place. "It's so wonderful!"
"CJ . . . shhh." Daisy patted his hand. "We can hear you."
"Right." He covered his mouth with one hand and held up a single finger with the other. "Sorry."
Elle glanced at the circular drive out front. It was empty. She settled into a chair opposite Daisy and Carl Joseph. "Does your brother still ride bulls?"
"No . . . not anymore."
"Did he get tired of it?" Elle could imagine a person might grow weary of being thrown from a bull.
"No." Carl Joseph's eyes were suddenly sad. "He got hurt."
Daisy nodded. "Bad."
"Oh." Elle felt a slice of concern for Carl Joseph's brother. "Is he okay now?"
Carl Joseph squinted and seemed to mull over his answer. "After he got hurt, he rode bulls for another season. But then he didn't want to." He raised one shoulder and cocked his head. "Brother's still hurt; that's what I think."
"What's his name?" Elle spotted Carl Joseph's mother's car coming up the drive.
"Cody Gunner." Carl Joseph's pride was as transparent as his smile. "World-famous bull rider Cody Gunner. My brother."
Elle smiled. She was always struck by her students' imagination. Carl Joseph's brother was probably an accountant or a sales rep at some firm in Denver. Maybe he rode a bull once in his life, but that didn't make him a bull rider. But that didn't matter, of course. All that counted was the way Carl Joseph saw him.
"Your mom's here, CJ." Daisy pointed at the car. She stood and took Carl Joseph's hand. "It's your big day. Your brother's coming home tomorrow."
Carl Joseph's cheeks grew red and he giggled at Daisy. "Thank you, Daisy. For telling me that."
They walked off together, and at the door Daisy gave him a hug. They hadn't crossed lines beyond that, and Elle was glad. Their relationship needed to progress slowly. What they shared today was enough for now. As the last few students left, she and Daisy straightened chairs and tables and closed up for the day.
On the way home, Daisy was quieter than usual. Finally she took a big breath. "We should pray for Carl Joseph's brother. For the world-famous bull rider."
Elle was heading down the two-lane highway that led to their new house. "Because he might still be hurt?"
"Yeah, that." She furrowed her brow. "It's hard when you get hurt."
"Yes, it is." Elle looked at her empty hand, the finger where her ring had been four years earlier. "Very hard."
Daisy pointed at her. "You pray, Elle. Okay?"
"Okay." Elle kept her eyes on the road. "Dear God, please be with Carl Joseph's brother."
"Cody Gunner." Daisy opened one eye and shot a look at Elle.
"Right. Cody Gunner."
"World-famous bull rider." Daisy closed her eyes again and patted Elle's hand. "Say it all."
"Cody Gunner, world-famous bull rider." Elle allowed the hint of a smile. "Please help him get well so he isn't hurt anymore."
"In Jesus' name."
For the rest of the ride Elle thought about the anniversary of a moment that never happened, and the picture of Daisy dancing in Carl Joseph's arms. The world would look at her and Daisy and think that Elle was the gifted one, the blessed one. Elle, who had it all together, the beautiful, intelligent daughter for whom life should've come easily and abundantly. Daisy—she was the one to be pitied. Short and stout with a bad heart and weak vision. A castaway in a world of perfectionism, where the prize went to high achievers and people with talent, star athletes and beauty queens. Daisy was doomed from birth to live a life of painful emptiness, mere existence.
Better to be Elle, that's what the world would say.
But the irony was this: Nothing could've been further from the truth.
Copyright © 2007 by Karen Kingsbury