Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shane and the Turtle

I ran into a friend of mine last week at the Lewis and Clark Brewery. He asked me how it was going and then let me know he had been reading my blog and liked my writings. He asked me if I ever thought about doing anything more with it. I thought for a second and replied with some comment about not really having the opportunity but I've been thinking about it now for a few days and since there isn't a lot going on right now, have decided to share some stories from the field. Maybe you'll see some value in them.

This is a short story I've told on The Montana Dream Cast and sometimes share with clients when the work I used to do comes up. (Quite often folks ask what I do in the off-season so I tell them of the work I did with a non-profit in Helena.) It's about a boy I used to work with the first few years I guided. He is autistic. His name is Shane.

Shane and the Turtle:  I worked with Shane as a Direct Care Provider for a non-profit in Helena that paired folks like me with developmentally and cognitively delayed children who needed a little help fitting in. My job was to take Shane out into the public and work on habitation goals. Part of that included just getting him out to have some fun and experience things he might not ever experience because of the lack of opportunities.

Shane loved turtles. He talked about them all the time. Even in the winter, he seemed to be obsessed with them and at times, it could get a little annoying.

"Hey Shane, you want to go fishing?" I would ask.

"Can we catch a turtle?" Shane would ask.

"No, Shane. It's winter time. Do you see all the snow out there? And the ice on the pond? Turtles are hibernating right now. That means they burrow down into the mud at the bottom of the pond and they sleep."

"You have a shovel?"

"You're right, Shane. I do have a shovel but wouldn't you like to catch a trout? If you catch one I'll take a picture of you with it and you can show your friends at school!" I said.

"No. I want to catch a turtle."

Shane and I would go out on the little pond I lived next to up in the mountains just south of Helena, Montana and explore and learn about nature. It was only a couple acres in size and was just a short walk from the little cabin I lived in. The cabin wasn't much--a guest cabin really, that was nestled into a grove of trees that protected it and the pond from wind and other elements and also created one of the most beautiful backdrops one could imagine. It was a hidden little gem and turned out to be a valuable resource when working with the kids and families I worked with.

The pond was stocked full of hungry trout. It was nothing to go out and drill a hole in the ice and catch a number of twelve to fifteen inch rainbows. I not only brought Shane out there but also other kids and even an adult I worked with who had a special needs child just to give them the opportunity to do something they might not ever experience. Although some of them couldn't quite wrap their heads around the concept of ice-fishing or where these fish were coming from when they came flying up out of the hole, they were completely jacked to catch a fish; that is, all of them except Shane.

"Can I catch a turtle now?" he would ask as a trout wriggled on the ice.

"Shane! The turtles? They're sleeping!"

Shane and I spent a good portion of the winter in that cabin near the pond and would venture out from time to time with similar results; me asking if he wanted to fish, him wanting to catch turtles. I'm not sure why it was so important for me to get him to understand why he couldn't catch a turtle in the winter but I kept trying and kept failing. I guess he felt that if these trout were coming up out of a hole in the ice, why couldn't a turtle? He didn't really care as much about it as I did but for some reason, I thought the lesson was worth the fight. Maybe that says something about my own character.

Somewhere in May, the ice on the pond softened and turned into what we'd describe as honeycomb in Minnesota. It was too soft to walk on but it signified quite a change in events as the ice would melt and the pond would open up to other recreational activities. There was a dock we could hang out on and stashed in the woods, a canoe.

One day I asked Shane if he'd like to go for a canoe ride. He agreed but knowing Shane had never been in a canoe, I really didn't know what to expect. Some autistic kids don't like new things and are afraid to try activities outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they don't even know they are afraid until they are in the middle of the pond and can't see the bottom of the lake or just the feeling of floating is so foreign that they can't handle it and still other autistic kids have no fear and don't grasp how dangerous a situation can be if they don't behave appropriately and because of that, will take risks that you or I might not.

Shane wasn't really a risk-taker and he was generally not a fearful kid either so I figured we would be ok. He is, however, completely focuses at times, maybe to the point of obsession and once an idea gets in his head, it's hard to detract.

We pulled the red fiberglass canoe out of the weeds and slid it down the bank and into the still water. We loaded ourselves into the canoe. Shane sat on the floor in the middle, a friend of mine sat on the seat in front and I steered the canoe from the back. All we had were life-jackets, two paddles and a fishing net with us.

The net was a little random because we didn't have rods and weren't really all that motivated to fish. We just wanted to paddle around for a little while and see how Shane would react but the net had been stashed with the canoe so we decided to keep it all together as to not lose anything.

We paddled around for a little while and then approached some logs that had fallen into the pond. They crisscrossed each other with one extending further out than the other, about 15 feet from shore. The other log closer to shore was propped up on the outside log, which made a perfect perch for...you guessed it; a turtle sunning itself.

As we got close to the outside log I whispered, "Hey, Shane. Do you see that turtle?"

Shane didn't respond. He just gazed forward as we drifted closer.

I leaned in and in a half whisper, half shout said, "Shane! Do you see it?"

Again, nothing from Shane but then I witness something pretty amazing. Shane slowly reached down and grabbed the net. He lifted it up, not making a sound and as the canoe slowly drifted closer and closer to the outside log, the turtle got nervous and made his move. It slipped into the water and as it did, Shane propped up on his knees and thrust the net into the pond.

Having to maneuver over the outside log as it made its escape, the turtle swam right into Shane's net and with an exuberant, "I GOT HIM!!" Shane lifted the net and sure enough, he had got 'em.

Shane caught his turtle.

He dumped the turtle out onto the floor of the canoe and yelled, "I got him! I caught the turtle!!"

Trying to escape, the turtle scratched its way towards the front of the canoe, which completely freaked out my friend and with nowhere to go, she just about jumped out of the canoe and into the pond.

Without even thinking that the turtle could bite him, Shane grabbed it and lifted it up for everyone to see while shouting, "I caught the turtle!!"

"Yes, Shane! You did! Now you have to sit down! You're going to tip us over!" I sternly said.

"But I got him!" he yelled.

I paddled us to shore as quickly as I could. Shane jumped out with the turtle still in his hands, holding it out as it took quick snaps with its pointed beak, trying to defend itself. My friend ran up the bank and quickly put a safe distance between the turtle and herself. It was a painted turtle so not all that dangerous but still, snapping like it meant business and its business was wanting to be let go back into the pond.

As things started settling down, Shane asked, "Can I take him home?"

(Remember when I said Shane sometimes focuses a little too much on some things? Maybe a bit obsessed at times?)

"But Shane, the turtle has a home and a family here. Don't you want it to be with its family?" I asked.

"But I'm his family now," as the turtle kept snapping.

"What if someone took you away from your family?" I asked.

"A turtle?"

The battle over what to do with the turtle lasted much longer than I would have wanted but we did eventually get the turtle back into the water and back with its family and I think Shane was ok with that. It's hard to tell what he will remember most about that little trip on the pond but I hope it had something to do with the accomplishment of catching the turtle and maybe more-so, the fact that the turtle was alive and happy being back with his family. Knowing Shane the way I do, I'm sure he's still telling his story of how he caught that turtle. I obviously am.

Keep 'em where they live...

No comments:

Post a Comment