My Friend Mario

I came into my service having almost no teaching experience. I had never worked in a classroom and all of the teaching sessions we had at orientation, while informative, left me feeling inadequate and utterly unprepared for what was to come.  These feelings came up again on my first day working with a third grade special education class, where one of the students sobbed, yelled, and eventually left the classroom. Another student, Mario, who was severely autistic, repeatedly didn’t try the food we made. I encouraged him every class, but he always had an excuse: “I’m allergic to vegetables.  I will puke.  I can’t eat this.” His teacher confirmed that this was not true, and told me his mother could only get him to eat a handful of items at home.

One day, we were making vegetable sushi rolls. Students cut up their veggies, spread hummus on their nori sheet, and rolled it up. I passed by Mario a couple times: “You should try your sushi.” The usual excuses. I then dumped out some of the veggie pieces onto his wax paper and said, “Just try those. You don’t have to eat the roll.” He didn’t want to.  As the other students were finishing eating and class was coming to a close, I kneeled down beside his table. “Why don’t you give them a try? It’s only a few small pieces.” He refused. He said the pepper was spicy. I reassured him it wasn’t, then told him to try. He told me again that we would puke, and that he didn’t want to. He then said, “I’m afraid.”

I said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll tell you what, you try these four pieces, and I’ll bring you in something special next week.” The classic bargaining trick. That intrigued him, but he still refused.

The more I worked with him, the more emotional he got. Tears swelled up in his eyes. Eventually, I went and got four pieces of vegetables for myself, and I ate with him. I asked if he was ready, then we would count “1, 2, 3” and then take a bite together.  We continued like this for fifteen minutes, waiting if he wasn’t ready, taking the teeniest bite together, taking a breather, then starting again. I told him throughout how proud I was of him and that he was doing awesome. With the promise of a treat and my companionship, by the end of the fifteen minutes, far past when class was over, Mario had eaten all four of the pea-sized vegetable pieces.

He didn’t puke or break out in hives. Instead, he smiled, we high-fived, hugged, and the class gave him a roaring round of applause.  The next class, it only took five minutes of one-on-one time for him to try his food.

After the class left the room, my co-teacher said “That was intense.” I broke down. In the moment, I hadn’t realized how tense I was, how much my emotions were invested in the very simple act of Mario trying something new, in me trying to teach. But they were. The success was release, accomplishment, affirmation, fulfillment. We were scared, nervous.  But we tried anyway.  And we found out that trying something new is not all that bad.  It’s actually pretty wonderful.

Mario drew this at his last Bubble class. Afterwards, I asked him if I could take a picture of him and he gave me the biggest smile I had seen from him all semester.
Mario drew this at his last Bubble class. Afterwards, I asked him if I could take a picture of him.  He held up his card and gave me a huge smile.