'Ian's classmates erupted in applause'

February 23, 1994|By Russell Martin

IN THE fall of 1989, Ian Drummond began first grade.

After a year in special-education kindergarten, this nonspeaking autistic boy was deemed ready to take another step into the world.

But before Ian started at Gateway Elementary in Woodland Park, Colo., his mother came to school to describe her son to his future classmates.

She showed them a videotape -- images of a blond boy, who looked normal, swinging and sliding on their playground.

His mother explained that Ian had a sister named Sarah and a dog, that he liked stories about animals and that he loved to watch movies.

Yet, she explained, the kinds of sounds Ian would make wouldn't quite be words. She warned that sometimes he would push them out of his way but only when he really needed to go where he's going.

Sometimes he would get upset and cry and scream for no apparent reason. He would spend lots of time alone, she said, even when they wanted him to join them, but it would not be because he didn't like them.

When Ian came to the room, his classmates were excited -- some afraid, others eager to meet him -- but within an hour or so his

presence was taken for granted.

Ian took this step in his own kind of stride. He ate his lunch at a table with other kids in the cafeteria. With the help of a teaching assistant, he was attentive during math and reading time.

He still spent half of each day in a room with special-education students, yet his clockwork coming and going between the two classes seemed to suit his innate need for organization.

He initially sat at the edge of the cluster of kids who crowded around the teacher, Barbara Myers, as she read. But after a few weeks he began moving into their midst.

Entranced by books, Ian made a point of investigating the new titles Myers would display on the chalk tray.

One day in November, on the heels of Halloween festivities that hadn't seemed to interest Ian at all, he sat at his desk looking at an illustrated story called "The Farm Concert."

By chance, everyone was quiet at the moment he nonchalantly said "cow" in a throaty whisper.

Then he said "cow" again -- audibly, distinctly -- and the room erupted, his classmates shouting, "Ian said 'cow!' Ian said 'cow!' " Most of them rushed to his desk.

Myers was beside him as well, tears streaming down her face.

"Say it again!" the students encouraged him.

And he calmly said "cow" another time.

By the beginning of the next school year, Ian was speaking about two dozen words, and flashcard exercises showed that his reading vocabulary was growing.

He remained a first-grader, held back because he had been the youngest in his previous class. Now that he was one of the oldest, his parents and teachers hoped that his skills would more closely match that of his classmates and that he might begin to form friendships.

Ian had shared toys successfully in the special-education class, and he soon made friendships with kids in the larger class. It clearly didn't matter much to them that Ian could say so little, or that the words he could pronounce sounded strange.

And with his friend Eddie -- a rugged boy who assumed the role of Ian's champion and confidant -- a one-way flow of words seemed more than adequate.

Eddie developed an uncanny ability to sense what Ian could tolerate and what he could not. Eddie knew when a crisis was looming, and even how to push Ian to try some new things.

It seemed clear to the staff at Gateway that if Ian could prove so capable of inclusion, then virtually any other student could as well.

And it didn't seem to benefit only Ian; sometimes inclusion's greatest value seemed to be what it offered the regular kids who had contact with him.

One day the next spring, Ian stood calmly at the front of his classroom, a giant-sized edition of "The Farm Concert" on an easel in front of him and his classmates sitting on the carpet at his feet.

In the loudest voice he could muster, his words spoken clumsily but intelligibly, Ian announced the title and began to read, his cadence and inflection surprisingly appropriate:

"Moo, moo," went the cow.

"Wuff, wuff," went the dog.

"Quack, quack," went the duck.

"Oink, oink," went the pig.

"Baa, baa," went the sheep.

"Quiet!" yelled the farmer. "I can't sleep!" Then, mimicking the way in which Myers and his parents had read the story to him a hundred times, his voice just a whisper, he continued:

"Moo, moo," went the cow.

"Wuff, wuff," went the dog.

"Quack, quack," went the duck.

"Oink, oink," went the pig.

"Baa, baa," went the sheep.

"Good," said the farmer. "I can sleep."

Ian's classmates erupted in applause, and a boy near him quickly extended his palm and shouted "give me five!"

Then a dozen hands were extended, the kids up on their knees, pressing toward him and hollering "give me five!"

Ian stood calmly, his face expressionless, his eyes turning to survey each of them yet appearing uncertain how to react to this ceremonial stuff of giving five.

Then Eddie jumped up to help, guiding Ian's hand into the 20 open palms with a quick and hearty slap, Eddie saying, "Yeah, Ian, cool, now you're giving five!"

Russell Martin is author of the forthcoming "Out of Silence," about his autistic nephew, Ian Drummond.

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