In September of 1979 I finally got the early childhood special education class I so longed to teach. I spent hours at the end of the summer planning my bulletin boards in my head, cutting letters and designs out of construction paper and thinking about pithy titles to place above my designs. So I was ready when I finished the paperwork in the main office, climbed the steps to the fourth floor and entered my classroom.
And there standing on a child's size desk, putting the final staple in the final decoration of final bulletin board was a woman.
I don't know what divine inspiration made me keep my mouth shut, a sudden flash of maturity and self control that neither my 23 year old self nor my 53 year one, displays that often. But I did.
"I'm the teacher for this classroom," I told her-
"Oh," she said climbing down from the chair, I'm the paraprofessional.
And that was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life professionally and personally.
I might have known some things about pedagogy and teaching children with learning issues but Mrs. Nieves taught me of compassion.
On the day before Christmas break, a student brought her a package wrapped in shabby paper and marked with a shakily drawn "N". The student lived alone with an elderly grandfather and the "N" represented just about the total mastery of the written language the grandfather and grandson contained. Mrs. Nieves received the gift as if it was the crown jewels of England.
I learned that school was not just a place where a-b-c knowledge was dispensed. On weekends and before long holidays she would stuff backpacks with boxes of cold cereal that she had to carefully hoard for weeks, since the cafeteria lady carefully monitored the flow of food in the lunchroom- Mrs. Nieves became adept at stealth and slight of hand, in order to provide the neglected child with a hedge against a long hungry vacation week.
I learned that a bag of used clothing could be presented in a way such that the recipient felt honored do the giver the favor of receiving it rather than shame of appearing to have the need of charity.
I learned that no child was too angry, too unresponsive or too smelly to deserve kindness and attention from an adult who went home to warm house and lots of food.
I learned other things too. I learned to speak Spanish a bit better. I learned to navigate the streets of the South Bronx and how to make the mimeograph machine spit out cardboard outlines of bunny rabbits and Santa Elves. I also learned to crave rice and beans and pasteles at holiday time.
By the following September, Mrs. Nieves was moved to a new classroom and I've moved to different classes and schools over the following years. I've met many people who have blown me away with the strength and devotion to the children they worked with but none more than the woman who had completed my bulletin boards before I ever stepped forth into the classroom.
Tonight we will pile into the car and drive North a few miles and eat rice and beans and pasteles with Mrs. Nieves and her family once more.
Shortly before midnight, Mrs. Nieves' son will don his Santa hat and dispatch presents to the crowd and we will receive plenty, but the best gift is being able to share the time with a family that is a true representation of the holiday spirit.