This past October the entire city of New York was shaken up by a young boy who went missing. Avonte Oquendo, an autistic and non-verbal young man walked out of his high school and was never seen again. A rigorous search commenced to the likes of which I have never experienced during my 14+ years of living here. Fliers covered every inch of the city. I saw them outside of my school in Bryant Park, Manhattan and again when I exited my train in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. They were on the inside of subway cars, pizza places, all over Facebook. I know we were all looking for him, but months passed and he wasn’t found.
Last week I stopped in our local diner to get some coffee and grease into my body after a few too many margaritas with my teacher friends the night before. I was emailing on my phone when I heard a waitress gasp so loudly that the entire diner turned towards the TV mounted high on the wall over the window that led to the kitchen area. The news tag line on the bottom of the screen read: Remains found of a boy matching Avonte’s description in the East River. The image showed cops and a German Shepard walking a rocky river edge. A few days later a DNA test proved it was him.
And now the city feels the heaviness of the loss of this child. Everyone questions the school: Why was he let out? Nobody knows what happened: Was it foul play or an accident that led to him being in the river? These things shake up people.
From the moment Avonte went missing, I thought of a situation we had years ago when I was teaching high school–it must have been 2003 or 2004? Back then we didn’t have as many labels for students who were autistic; there was no language about Asperger Syndrome, no vocabulary about any sort of spectrum. When a special education student was taken out of the special education room and mainstreamed into a regular education classroom, as a teacher you just went with it.
One of those students in our school who, in retrospect, I am very sure was autistic, was mainstreamed into 11th grade English in my colleague’s class. Together we split the 11th grade English classes. We planned together and our students did the exact same curriculum. I don’t remember the unit or the context, but one lesson asked the students to write about their most memorable experience in their writer’s notebook. We were both after school grading when my colleague came into my room with a wide-eyed look of horror on her face, holding a composition notebook out away from her body as if it were diseased.
This student, let’s call him John, wrote about one special afternoon. He snuck out of the school early and a man he had met on the Internet picked him up instead of him taking what we called the “short bus”–a literal short bus that the special education students took to and from school (all other students in NYC take public transportation)–home that day. They went back to this man’s apartment and had all sorts of sex for hours, and John wrote in great detail how amazing it was, how he didn’t know his body could do those things, how he hoped it would happen again soon.
There were so many layers of wrong in that journal entry. John was obviously way more clever and cognizant than we thought to arrange such a meeting over the Internet; he communicated with very few words and otherwise grunted. John was also the victim of a sexual predator on the Internet who trolled for young men. John had no idea that this was not the type of thing to put into your writer’s notebook. And this was clearly not a cry for help but a literal, “OMG, that was the best. day. EVER!” entry filled with pure, uncensored joy. Even thinking about it now makes me sick to my stomach.
The teacher brought the writer’s notebook to John’s guidance counselor at my direction (she was either a first or second year teacher and under my mentorship), and the guidance counselor proceeded with what needed to happen next. The teacher was told she had done the right thing, but she was no longer part of the process. I have no idea what happened after that.
I don’t think this happened to Avonte, but my brain connected the two students.
I truly believe that the world is filled with mostly good people, but there are times when I am reminded that it’s not. I also like to believe that stupid accidents don’t happen to innocent kids, but sometimes they do. There is little we can do to avoid those things, and–as a self-admitted control freak–that drives me crazy.
But as Avonte’s story began and now again at it’s conclusion, I think of John and how in one seemingly silly yet, for him, significant writing prompt, how one teacher’s actual reading of the student’s writer’s notebooks (all you English teachers know how well we skim), how a couple of teachers’ decision to report this to guidance, how a caring and careful guidance counselor’s follow through, how maybe we stopped him from one day leaving school early and never coming back. The work we do matters.
Avonte: May we all–parents, teachers, school safety officers, civilians on the street–do our best to protect our kids. Rest in peace, honey. I know so many of us across this city are thinking of you and your family.