It was a gorgeous afternoon. Blue, blue, blue sky and 50 degrees. I decided to drive Ava into the hills to an off-the-beaten-path place where all the trees have been clearcut in the last five years and we’d have that glorious sunshine beaming on us for the entire walk.
About two miles up the main road I spotted an ATV off to the side and a young man standing behind the trailer that was hitched to it. That was a little unusual, so I stopped and rolled down my window to ask, “You okay? You broken down or anything?” He gave me a wave, a smile, and said he was fine, thanks. But before I could get moving again, he crossed to Old Blue for a chat.
As he approached I could see that he had Down Syndrome and eyes so badly crossed behind his thick glasses that I wondered how he could focus on anything but the sides of his nose. I noticed he’d left a shovel behind him on the roadside.
“I’m just filling the …” he groped for the word, but as he gestured up the hill I saw a row of potholes heaped with fresh black gravel.
“Oh. Are you from the school?” I asked.
Apparently my feat of deduction struck him as positively Sherlockian.
“How’d you know about the school?”
A lot of people in town know about the school, but hardly anyone knows its location — the school in question being a tiny, private, off-grid gem so carefully hidden in the woods that you have to know exactly where it is before you can find it. It began as a Christian home school for two families; the first students were all cousins. Now it specializes in kids who aren’t making it in the local government institutions. Sometimes they’re smart kids, but troubled. Sometimes they’re big, physical boys, sons of loggers and fishermen, who can’t bear sitting still all day. Sometimes they’re mentally impaired. It’s a tremendous place in a sublime spot, run by amazing people.
I explained I’d been to the school, even taught a two-day class there a few years back. He thought that was just wonderful. I’ve never before felt so appreciated for so little.
“But how did you know I was from the school?”
“Because you’re out here filling potholes.”
Once again, he seemed to find the deduction astounding.
The road officially belongs to the county, which does major maintenance on it once a year. In between, it becomes a mass of mud and ruts. So every once in a while, the owner of the school brings a pickup load of gravel and the heftier students get to work. (In fact, half a day on academics and half on physical labor or community service is often their norm.) This is the first time I’ve seen one of the kids doing the work alone, and when I asked him about his connection to the school, he happily explained to me that he wasn’t a student, but an intern.
“Oh. And before I forget, I’m looking for other work, too. I’m starting my own business.”
We talked about the type of work he was looking for. Yard work, construction, anything I needed. Anything at all he could do, he was ready and willing. Said he was raising money for a small tractor with a backhoe. The kid was so ambitious, eager, and bright I quickly forgot his obvious problems. I only remembered again when I gave him a piece of paper and he struggled to write his name and couldn’t manage his phone number (“It’s the house at the school” — which number I already have in my phone.)
Another car needed to pass by then, so I said goodbye and drove on to that sunny walking spot.
I know people with Down Syndrome are often very personable. He certainly was that. But I was impressed that in a place where so many young men are just coasting along with no aims and little energy, this individual with so many strikes against him aimed to work for a living, save money, and build a business of his own. I won’t be surprised at all if he’s got that tractor soon.
It was a lovely walk. About 2/3 of the way in, we met a possum sitting calmly in the middle of our path. Ava was a short leap away — and very interested — when I noticed the critter. Mr. or Ms Possum seemed quite unflapped by encountering a dog and a human and continued to sit in the sun, regarding us calmly.
Ava, who’s always had a killer prey drive, once again, for the second time, allowed a strange animal to go unmolested when it was within reach of her jaws. Miracle of miracles, my good girl-dog allowed me to call her off so the possum could get up and crawl away. Actually, Ava let me call her off three or four times, because when she saw the little guy moving, she took it as a renewed invitation to investigate. But she was so good; she always stopped and came back to me, tail awag. The possum finally ambled — with that funny, unhurried possum gait — into the young trees and we went on.
After reaching our turnaround point, we returned to find the critter back on the path. Apparently it was enjoying the sun as much as we were. This time it stayed right where it was as we circled within five feet of it (which caused Ava to ache with frustration, though she obediently never moved from my side). Possums are amazingly calm for creatures whose main defense mechanism is dropping “dead” and hoping predators won’t eat them. Of course they have impressive mouthfuls of teeth, too, and I’m glad Ava didn’t have to learn that the hard way.
Really a very pleasant afternoon. I was impressed with my companions.