She looked unwashed and unloved, slouching on a chair in my classroom. Classroom, what a joke? It was a converted supply room that barely accommodated my six special needs students. I didn’t even have a blackboard on the wall. I made do with one of those old slate boards that you saw used in the one-room school house on Little House on the Prairie.
Dorothea was one of my six students. She hardly ever spoke, and she never took off her tattered coat, despite the tropical-like temperature in the overheated room. A glint of sadness reflected from her beautiful ebony eyes.
It was March, 1973, and I was finishing the last month of my teaching gig at the West Garfield Park Upper Grade Center, in a neighborhood that the locals called “K Town,” since many of the streets in the area began with the letter “K.” I barely considered myself qualified to teach anything to anyone, but by being enrolled in two educational courses in the evening at Northeastern, the Chicago Public Schools gave me something called provisional teaching status. When West Garfield’s special education teacher went on maternity leave for three months, I was offered a job as a substitute teacher there due to the lack of trained and certified special education teachers in Chicago.
I don’t know how much I was able to teach those kids with my inexperience and lack of support and resources. Now four decades later, I can’t recall the names of my other five students. I just remember Dorothea, that awkward and sad girl of twelve. My father was dying of cancer at that time, and Dorothea seemed to sense my pain. She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes told me.
One cold and gray day in March, the assistant principal came into the room to tell me that my sister had called and I was to go the hospital at once. Tears welled up in my eyes as I told my students that I had to leave immediately. Only Dorothea came over to hug me, a caring embrace that I will never forget.