One of the students I work with has an undiagnosed disability. David is constantly into things. He calls out answers when it’s not his turn. He can’t sit still. He doesn’t keep his hands to himself, but instead pokes and tickles and flicks the kids around him. When he doesn’t get his way, he cries; but just as quickly as the tears start, they’ve dried again and he’s on to something else. I think about 50 years ago he would’ve been called “a handful.”
One thing about David is that David loves fish. I don’t think I can express that too strongly. David LOVES fish. He knows a lot about fish: the species, where they live, what they like to do. A surprising amount for a first grader. The classroom where I see him has a small aquarium with a few fish. They look like mostly goldfish to me, maybe something else you would find at a dentist’s office.
David sat memorized, entranced by the fish. It took every trick the teacher knew to tear his attention away from the tank. “David,” I said kindly, “First we do our lesson, then you can look at the fish.”
“But I just want to look at the fish!” David wailed. This was a common scene.
Finally, after months of work, David agreed to finish his work before watching the fish. One day, the anticipated moment had come: he had finished his tasks and was allowed to go look at the fish. I turned my back to continue helping the other students.
When I turned around, there stood David, both hands plunged elbow-deep into the tank, hands about to encircle around a fish who shook and appeared as terrorized as a fish possibly could. David looked at me just as I looked at him. His eyes read as much surprise as I felt.
“David!” I exploded, rushing over. “No!!!”
He quickly removed his hands from the tank, his eyes still wide in disbelief over what he had almost accomplished.
“David,” I softened, but still held his gaze, firm and serious. I took his elbow. “We never put our hands in the fish tank.”
David looked at me, his sweet blue eyes as wide as saucers. “Never?” He responded curiously.
“Never,” I repeated adamantly. “Only fish go in the fish tank.” I had to turn off my analytical brain to keep myself from spilling, “Well, except maybe for those who feed fish, or clean the tank, or train ocean animals,” because I think that would have distracted from the point.
David sighed and gazed down at his feet. “Ok,” he said at last. Then he glanced back up at me. “Are you sure?” He asked, just to make certain.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I confirmed. “Only fish.”