Mrs. Bissaillon is the gym teacher at the Perley Elementary School. She is a stern woman who rarely smiles.
Her preschool and kindergarten gym classes are unusually well behaved. The children know this woman has no tolerance for misconduct. They have been warned. It is as if the milk cartons in the cafeteria contain dire warnings and photographs of children who misbehave in her class. She reminds me of a hardened Marine Drill Instructor as she barks out commands to her classes of tiny terrified tots.
“Joshua, if you can not be quiet and listen to my instruction, you can go sit over on the bleachers until you can.” she barks. And the once rambunctious child is jolted into submission as he hangs his head and slowly shuffles over to the bleachers to serve his sentence and pray that his photo does not appear on the cartons.
Before my son Nicholas started kindergarten, my 8-year-old son, Weston was unrelenting in his horror stories of Mrs. Bissaillon. Being a rambunctious child himself, and having served plenty of his own time on the bleachers, Weston made it very clear to Nicholas, that this was not a teacher to underestimate.
Even parents dropping their children off at school in the morning seem to avoid any unnecessary eye contact with Mrs. Bissaillon. The mere sight of her seeming to conjure up their own nightmarish memories of tyrant teachers and days spent in detention halls.
I must admit, I too, am afraid of her.
So, you can imagine my surprise when one day Mrs. Bissaillon boldly marches up to speak directly to me. Thoughts run amuck inside my head as I desperately try to prepare myself for what she is about to say.
She can’t be complaining about Weston this time, he’s at the middle school now. I think quietly to myself. It can’t be me; I don’t even go to school any more. Did I look at her funny? Does she notice the cold sweat on my forehead when I walk past the gym? Thoughts speed through my brain like ping pong balls. Then, as if a bucket of cold water is thrown over my head, I realize, oh no, it’s Nicholas!
More thoughts, faster this time, oh no, he had one of his tantrums, probably the full-blown kind where he throws himself to the ground kicking his feet and screaming. That’s it, and now she’s starting to speak. I close my eyes and prepare myself for what’s coming. I am ready to hear how she is dedicating an entire bleacher section to me to help remind others of what happens to those with poor parenting skills.
“Yes?” I ask tentatively, cringing just a little bit.
“I need to tell you what a delightful little boy your son Nicholas is!” And for the first time in Perley Elementary School history, she smiles.
“What?” I ask.
“That’s right, she says, “Can I tell you just how hard this little boy works! Our first activity in class is running two laps around the gym. Your son led the class for the entire two laps!”
I am completely speechless. Her words paralyzed me. I struggle to visualize my son actually winning a running race. She is still smiling as she continues her description of the day’s events.
“He ran two laps, played our beanbag game, and still had enough energy to help all the other children pick up their bags. He listened very closely to all of my instructions. But there is something else,” she says. This is where she tells me about the tantrums, I think.
“Your son looks at me with such love in his heart.”
I look at Mrs. Bissaillon and realize, that like Nicholas, this woman is often misunderstood. Underneath her hardened exterior, beats the heart of a deep and loving woman. She sees my son for who he is, a unique and contributing individual and not a horrific diagnosis. She is one of the truly special few.
Why was Nicholas so cooperative in class I wondered to myself? Was Weston able to strike fear into his heart? Or was it something else? Did he see something the rest of us could not? Since his birth, Nicholas has developed many beautiful gifts. But to me, his most touching gift is his innate ability to seek out the individuals who seem to need the most love. He finds those souls in this world who are the most misunderstood, the most tormented or just the most saddened. He finds the Mrs. Bissaillon’s of the world and he speaks to them. Sometimes with just a smile but more often it is with a warm and enthusiastic “Hello!” Their response, no matter how misunderstood or sad they feel, is always the same, a smile.
To me, it is as if my son has been sent from above with a very special mission, simply to love the world. There are days when the reality of living with my son’s Prader-Willi Syndrome depresses me. It is on those days, I watch Nicholas give his special gift so freely and honestly to others in this world.
“Did you hear me?” Mrs. Bissaillon asks, snapping me out of my thoughts and back into reality.
“Yes.” I said, “Thank you very much.”
I smile at her and suddenly she looks very different to me.