“Something about Daniel,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 20
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and stepped into the classroom. Mellow September sunlight streamed through the windows, and the walls were decorated with cheery posters of puppies and kittens. Bright pictures hung in abundance. But the pleasant surroundings did little to ease my apprehension about my first day as a teacher’s aide for special needs children.
The other women in the room were too busy making preparations for the day’s activities to speak to me immediately. My gaze wandered to a nook behind the bookcase, where a boy was nestled in a beanbag chair. Surrounded by an assortment of colorful baby toys, he cooed contentedly, blowing spit bubbles to amuse himself. As I watched him, I began to wonder whether I should have come. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder.
Brusquely, my supervisor, Mrs. Allen*, introduced herself and her assistant, Becky. “I see you’ve already met Daniel,” Mrs. Allen said, jerking her head in the direction of the beanbag chair. She handed me several pages of instructions. “Just read these, and if you have any questions, ask.” Then she was gone.
Becky said, “Well, come with me and I’ll get you started.” I silently hoped I would not be put in charge of Daniel, but then we knelt beside him. Becky picked up one of his tiny hands and put it into mine. “Say hello, Danny,” she urged. He rolled his eyes toward us, then went back to what he was doing.
“You will be assigned to Daniel while you’re here,” Becky explained. “If you need help, just ask.”
As I studied the child beside me, one part of my brain asked urgently, What am I doing here? But something about Daniel gave me the courage to stay.
I glanced at his schedule for the day. The first item of business was a diaper change. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach; I had not known that tasks like this were part of the job. I scanned the rest of his “personal care” duties: feeding, washing his face, and so forth. They seemed much less objectionable.
As I continued to learn about nine-year-old Daniel, I felt a knot of anguish growing in my chest. I discovered that he had been a normal, healthy baby until he was six months old, when his father had thrown him down a flight of stairs. After that, Daniel’s life was a tale of tragedy, with a record of foster homes, institutions, and corrective surgeries.
I looked up to study Daniel. Allowed to grow normally, he would have been a beautiful boy. His complexion was peaches and cream, but his soft cheeks and tender lips were scarred by a violent past. His bony limbs had been crimped tightly by the spasms of cerebral palsy. He had suffered brain damage to the extent that he could do nothing for himself. He could not sit or crawl. He could not speak or feed himself. He was totally dependent on others for his well-being. His beautiful eyes, I was told, saw the world in blurs and shadows; he had lost 80 percent of his vision.
I was overcome with shame for my earlier hesitant thoughts. Now my emotions were a confusing mixture: anger at the injustice of this gentle child’s circumstances; sorrow for the devastation of a precious life; frustration that my services to him could never heal the damage to his frail body; and love for someone so in need.
I remembered why I had applied for a job working with special needs children—because I love the Lord’s little ones. As I looked at Danny, a voiceless message reminded me, “I am a child of God.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 301.) Though I had sung those words countless times, they struck me with the force of new revelation, and the scripture in Matthew about “the least of these my brethren” (see Matt. 25:34–40) crossed my mind, bringing the warmth of compassion.
Searching the depths of those innocent eyes, I found the “something about Daniel” that made me stay. The sweetness of his spirit reached out to me, speaking tenderness, love, and need.
That first day with my new charge was awkward. I didn’t know how to handle him. It seemed that his taut little limbs might break as I massaged and stretched his muscles. The teacher and her assistant instructed me for a couple of days on how to help him, and then Daniel and I fell into a routine of our own.
Each day after the required activities with the rest of the class, we had free time to use as we pleased. It wasn’t long before I discovered Daniel’s likes and dislikes. He could hear, and he loved being talked to. I don’t know how much he understood, but that really didn’t matter. I read to him and sang him songs anyway. He enjoyed being held, and a kiss on his cheek was always good for a smile.
When the weather was good, we would spend time outside. I tried to tell him about everything that he could not see. I would sit on the grass with him on my lap and let him feel each thing as I told him all about it. That way, he became acquainted with the flowers and grass and other lovely things of the earth.
I felt that anything I could tell Daniel or do for him would never be enough. Time spent with him was time spent very close to our Heavenly Father. Daniel was a priceless blessing in my life.
One day near the end of the school year, he and I sat together on the playground. I held him on my lap in the swing and tried to decide on our topic of conversation for the day. It seemed I had told him everything except good-bye, and I wasn’t going to deal with that until I had to. As my thoughts wandered back to our first day together, I realized with great shock that I had forgotten to tell him the very most important things in the world.
I cuddled him close to me, kissed the crown of his head, and began. “You are a child of God,” I whispered. “He loves you, even more than I do. You are precious to him. When you are done with this life, you will be with him forever and ever. No one will ever hurt you again, and you will be beautiful the way he created you.”
As I spoke, an image of Daniel in his resurrected state of physical perfection filled my head. I hugged him with delight. His reaction was very near a giggle. I think he already knew what I had forgotten to tell him.