“And it pays a hundred dollars a day.” “Say what?” Back then that was more money than I could imagine. Randy, the psychologist I worked for, was moving to Atlanta and bequeathed me a plum consulting job at a private school for handicapped children.. “All you got to do is go there once a month, test a kid or two , have lunch, and talk to the teachers. And it’s a remarkable place. Mrs. Johnson, who runs it is a miracle worker.”
Early Saturday I carefully started out for Johnson City. I had only been in the deep south a few months, but had learned that road hazards ranged from the sudden appearance of highboys full of cotton to raw-boned state troopers who were unsympathetic to red sports cars with “Land of Lincoln” license plates.
By nine o’clock I came upon the large white ranch house with an oak and a rusty swing set in the front yard. Mrs. Johnson met me at the door. Her appearance was overshadowed by her enthusiasm and sense of urgency. She was a personable woman in her early forties, but she was obviously a woman with a mission. I remembered Randy saying that the Johnson’s started the school after having a disabled child who died at an early age.
The spacious living room had only a couch and chair and was dominated by a white brick fireplace and a sailfish mounted on the wall. Mrs. Johnson asked me to sit and launched into a description of the school. They had 10 children, four teachers and few part-time aides. The teachers were all young women who lived at the school. Usually one of them was off attending the university as part of a home made work-study program, the Johnsons sponsored. The house was larger than it appeared with separate living quarters for the family, children, teachers, and even the farm help. Behind the house was a long narrow building with a tin roof that served as the Chicken Coop School.
Through the front window I could see a boy of about 10 years riding a bicycle with a tether attached to the handle bars. He could only ride in a wide circle. Mrs. Johnson told me that was Donny. He was an appealing child with shiny black hair and steel gray eyes. Donny also was autistic and spent most of his life isolated in a private world with only the most slender connection to our reality. The tether was devised to prevent him from running his bike into the trees. Donny couldn’t use language and Mrs. Johnson eyes virtually glowed when she talked about teaching him to communicate.
At lunch time, Mr. Johnson arrived looking like he just hopped off a tractor, which he had. He looked more grizzly bear than human and he shook my hand vigorously. The children flocked around him and he herded them all into the kitchen. We all sat around a huge wooden table. Each child was seated between two adults. I saw Mrs. Johnson expertly redirect Donny when he started slapping at the place setting. I was feeling out of place– not sure how I was suppose behave. A petite black woman appeared from nowhere and poured sweet tea into big plastic tumblers. I immediately knocked mine over, soaking the tablecloth. Mr. Johnson and the children laughed out loud, while the teachers politely grinned. The farm hands ignored it and continued dishing out the cornbread stuffing. Mrs. Johnson explained to the children how that everyone makes mistakes, even one hundred dollar a day consultants.
As I ate the chicken and fresh figs, I heard Mrs. Johnson telling her husband that the children needed new clothes. He agreed but insisted that she buy 100 % cotton underwear, because as he put it, “Honey, remember we don’t grow polyester.”
After lunch we reviewed the case of a very disturbed five year old girl. The week after she arrived Mrs. Johnson carried her to a church service. The girl started screaming racial epithets disrupting the sermon. Mrs. Johnson stared down the parishioners. gently held the girl on her lap. and gestured to the traumatized preacher to continue. The girl finally fell asleep as the sweating preacher quickly finished his sermon. The screaming eventually extinguished, but the First Baptist Church was never quite the same.
Mrs. Johnson told me more about Donny. He had shown little progress since he came to the school a year ago. His parents had abandoned him and the school was the was the end of the line after a series of foster homes. Mrs. Johnson said she had decided to take Donny down to the state university, where they would both live in a trailer in the parking lot for three months, while she took him to specialists in speech and language twice a day. She planned to work with him individually the rest of the time.
When it was time to leave, Mrs. Johnson pressed a check in my hand and saw me off. I drove straight for a town where my Lebanese friend, Saleem lived. Once I got there there I ate kibbi and promptly lost the entire hundred in an all night Boo Ray game.
A few months later I left for a job in another state. I never found out if Donny learned to speak, but if not, it wasn’t for lack of effort. They didn’t grow polyester down there, they grew hope.