I ran into his great-aunt at the gas station. We squealed with delight when we saw each other and embraced with the kind of bear-hug squeeze that left us both a little breathless. With me in my forties and her in her sixties, we both were unashamed to admit that we were at that age where we could not remember the other's name. After all, it had been right at a decade.

I had worked at a day care, and she was his legal guardian while his birth mother, her niece, had undergone some stormy times. We will call him "John." He was fifteen now, she said, and has a mustache. "He takes special classes at the high school because, you'll remember, he was born premature. He has a 3.2 grade point average in those classes, though."

I remember back to those days when I was battling my own dark times and this five-year-old boy named John had been the reason I got up every morning to go to work. All the children were special to me, but I will not lie, John was my favorite. He was a kind of soul mate.

John would always ask the most curious, inquisitive questions. The kind of questions that made you feel like you were doing something right as a teacher. The kind of questions you often did not have an answer to. A five-year-old made you eagerly look forward to getting off work to go the library to look for his answer. A way for you both to have a better lens to see the world through.

My husband and I loved him so much that sometimes we would ask if we could keep him on a Saturday. And it was at that time that I realized his innate ability to know when there was an elephant in the room. Often, I amuse myself by imagining that our conversation had gone something like this:

"Hey, why ain't nobody talkin' about the elephant in this room? Don't you see him? He's pink. I think his name must be Elmer."

Of course, in reality, we had been at a skateboard/bike park, and sitting on the bleachers between me and my husband, he had boldly shouted to a man in his early twenties who hung on the cliff above the cement on a bicycle about to perform a stunt, who seemed visibly shaken.

"Hey," five-year-old John shouted, "are you skeered?"

It was asked without the mocking or judgment that the world teaches all of us later. He just wanted to know.

And the biker had looked briefly from the cement beneath him to where John sat, waiting for an answer. He said, "Yeah," and laughed a nervous laugh. Then without hesitation and a newfound commitment to his task, the biker executed the trick flawlessly.

Every. Single. Day. John would run and hide under the slide when I informed our class that recess was over, and it was time to come inside. I would cautiously approach him and say again politely, "It's time to come inside, John." And he would look to the heavens, beat his chest like Tarzan and shout, "Never!" Then run away from me. It was our daily ritual. The lead teacher would round up all the other nineteen children, and John and I would engage in a dance of dodge left then right to see how soon I could catch him. He let me win. Every. Single. Day. Then having been officially caught, I would hoist him bent double and limp upon my hip as though I was toting a small dead body. Upon re-entering the classroom, I'd put him down, and he would act like nothing had ever happened.

He did not play with the other children. He liked to sit at our long, yellow, rectangular tables and play with Legos alone. He had, at five years old, the mastermind of an engineer. At thirty-two, with a college degree, I could not have imitated his structures. There was another tabletop toy that reminded me a bit of DNA, which he was also quite handy with. Again, at thirty-two and his teacher, I did not understand the toy at even the most basic level. Twice a week we'd dip the plastic tabletop toys in bleach to rid them of germs. I knew my place in the order of things and kept it.

Now, the most inquisitive, deeply curious, most intelligent and wisest child I had ever personally known was in high school although there were still, from the pictures his great-aunt showed me, essences of his younger self in that sweet, sweet old soul face, and she was telling me that he was in special classes.

Other than not liking to interact with other children, I had noticed nothing from a cognitive standpoint that he was not developing normally. From my own vantage point as his teacher, in that respect, he seemed deeply ahead of the curve.

Admittedly though, when we put him in a group to play, he would quietly divide the toys out among his peers and then turn his back on the group and play entirely by himself. At thirty-two, I had identified deeply with his five-year-old tendency, as I had learned, belonging to the schizoaffective group of mentally ill people, that first the group will trick you with offers of friendship and sweet gestures, and then when you most need to love and trust them, they will either abandon or attack you. As a child separated from his birth mother, who was not quite ready to take care of herself, much less a child, I deeply understood and even approved of this not-so-small gesture of self-preservation.

But to put an engineering mastermind into special classes? My deepest fear is that his questions of the teachers were too above their level and too frequent that they started to doubt their own ability to teach so they had to box and label him.

I know from my own employment track record and my new need to alert my employer to my disability just in case it becomes an issue later, that their statement on job applications that they do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc., is usually deeply untrue. Do you hide your disability with shame, or do you openly and honestly report it? At an interview for a media coordinator position in the same school system that had the audacity to place John in special needs classes, after fully disclosing how I managed my mental health with the appropriate antipsychotics, I was with swiftness shown to a great, big, circus-style farce of an interview where I was baited both by the principal and the assistant-principal into answering questions that mostly seemed irrelevant to the job and deeply felt like they were trying to get me to entrap myself by revealing racist tendencies. At one point, I even noticed the assistant principal breaking character as she looked across the table at the principal with a sly twinkle in her eye, choking back laughter and clearly mocking me with the nerve to think mentally ill also means low intellect, which I've found in my interactions with other mentally ill people is rarely true. They were just avoiding the slightest possibility of a potential lawsuit on the grounds of not hiring a person with a disability and beyond just being deeply rude and unkind were completely wasting my time.

But they had those character education posters in the hallway up, though, for the children to see. We, as adults in administration in a school, are going to mock a grown woman because of her mental illness, but we expect these children in our charge to be able to read our top ten rules poster in the main hallway about living with integrity and eradicating bullies from our schools. We ourselves have found that to diplomatically lead the school we cannot actually lead by those examples. Probably, you can just squeeze good character onto children out of a condiment packet like we’re all at McDonald's.

At a visit to a local courthouse to pray for a friend who had been accused of a heinous crime, where it was only one man's word against another, I noticed ninety percent of the accused were Black men in their early twenties. And all of those young men were full of one part hope and two parts shame.

But we do not discriminate. All of our children attend the same schools and receive the same education and the same justice. And sixty years after the civil rights era began, we have become silent and complacent because everyone wants to keep their jobs.

The public school system in the state I live in teaches that the school system is inclusive; there are many truths and they celebrate the students, but the very fact that they are isolating differences is cause for alarm. Why are we not asking our children to find common ground, where love and forgiveness and unity are bred?

Why must we only divide and label ourselves so we can be put into convenient categories and handled with a chain?

For ten years after I had my first nervous breakdown, my therapist refused to label my condition. Clearly, I had enough medicine and had developed coping mechanisms to effectively deal with my condition. When the medication that I had been taking for a decade suddenly and without warning stopped being made, I had to switch drugs. The first drug she tried me on actually induced the very manic episode that it was supposed to prevent. I had to suddenly stop working, and I spiraled out of control for months. Finally, after gaining footing with a new drug and re-establishing my life, my doctor, at my prompting, told me —as though it harmed her spiritually and emotionally to tell me and she actually winced when I cornered her —said that I was indeed bipolar I with mania and paranoia, and this placed me in the schizoaffective range of humans. For a while, I let that label define me.

The problem with labels is that sometimes a person will receive one and then immediately use it as a crutch to prevent them from growing. John will one day view himself as a child who needed to be placed in a classroom for exceptional children (from my standpoint he should have been placed in a gifted and talented class), and what will that do for his self-esteem? Will he see it as just a category and not a life sentence as I first did when I received my own diagnosis? Or will it follow him like a shadow, making him lose faith in his natural talent? Additionally, John, when he fills out a job application, will he be asked are you Black or white?

I cannot begin to imagine how a newly minted adult John will be overcome by the darkness of the world, but the five-year-old John with his deep innocence and wisdom would, simply, have said, "yes." And then, not giving it another thought, he would have built yet another ship or castle out of Legos without the cheating benefit of a pattern to follow.

I will always remember John at his finest hour, which happened at approximately noon everyday on the playground when recess was just wrapping up a decade ago. I would ask him to come inside before he was ready. I would ask if he would follow me? Could I tame him? This was the elephant in the room that we both innately knew was present, but neither of us mentioned it. John's response, with passion and vigor and fire, beat his chest with his fist almost hard enough to stop his heart, and he would look towards the heavens and shout defiantly into the abyss, the single word, "Never!"

About the Author

Millie Sparks

Millie Sparks live and works in Eastern North Carolina as a librarian along the NC coast. Her written works have appeared in Reedy Branch Review and Narrative Northeast and are forthcoming in Please See Me and Drunk Monkeys.