|Visiting Tom at home after his surgery in 2004|
Yesterday though I had to say good-bye to a very special student of mine. Almost 10 years ago I started work at the school where I am at the moment. I had a class of 5 upper primary school students. All confined to wheelchairs (except for one who could walk!) all non verbal and all with some degree of intellectual disability (although I think they understood a lot more than we ever gave them credit for). It was a steep learning curve for me as a teacher. I had come straight from uni with only a bit of voluntary work with special needs kids behind me
In my class was a boy named Thomas. At first glance it didn't seem that he was capable of much. He was quiet (or so I thought!) and had trouble keeping his head up and making eye contact. But I learnt pretty quickly that this was all a bit of an act. We used to joke in our class that Thomas was like this because he wanted to get out of doing any work. Always the planner and schemer!
Thomas quickly became my favourite as I learnt to understand and get to know him better. I learnt that he had good body days and bad body days. On a bad body day he would have trouble getting his head up and be quite sleepy. But I always knew he would be listening because he would give a smile every so often. And then there were times when I thought he hadn't been listening to something but he would all of a sudden just crack up with a big belly laugh as if to say 'I tricked you all'. That used to make my day.
It was great seeing Tom on a good body day. He would have his head up and smiles for everyone. He had a bit of a reputation for squealing when he was excited too. I used to hear him from the classroom as he was pushed down from bus bay in the morning (there's a fair distance to bus bay and a door in between so you get some sort of idea on how loud his squeals were!) I always knew that things were right in the world when I heard Tom in the mornings.
I quickly began to anticipate what Tom wanted or needed. He had a communication book that he accessed with either his hands or his eyes depending on how his body was that day. While we used his book I always felt that I knew what he was saying without it. I used to be able to ask him a question and he would answer yes with a big smile. Sometimes he would reach out and hold my hand with his long 'piano playing' fingers.
Tom was also known to be a bit of 'lady's man' too. In the class was a girl that he had grown up. Tom and Giulia had a very special bond and had been together since playgroup. It was so funny seeing them interact together. Tom would often reach out and hold Giulia's hand. I remember on one occasion when they were lying on the floor together Tom deliberately rolling over closer to Giulia and putting his hand on her as if to say 'she's mine!' When I sat next to him and teased him about it he just gave an enormous grin.
Of course there were hard times too. Tom had epilepsy as well and there would be days when he would just go in and out of seizures. I remember sitting in the classroom with him at times when all the other kids were out at lunch, keeping an eye on him while waiting for his mum to come and get him. The amazing thing was that even though these seizures would take so much out of him he would always come out of one and give me a great big smile.
Tom was 19 when he died and had graduated from school the year before. I had him for 3 years in primary school and I honestly think that those 3 years of my teaching career have been the highlight. I think back on all the wonderful memories of Tom and realise that he gave and taught me so much. I think that Tom will always be remembered for the love he gave, the happiness he radiated and the joy he brought to so many people's lives. It has been a privilege to be involved with Tom and his family. He was always have a special place in my heart.