"Can I have a pencil, please?" I asked, staring at the assignment in front of me.
"Why? You can't write," the frail-looking woman sitting beside me blurted out, loud enough for the whole class to hear. Looking more suited for knitting sweaters than sitting in an eighth-grade natural sciences class, her arrogant, almost smug tone echoed through the unusually quiet room - interrupting my teacher's lesson on the nine planets.
She turned away from the chalkboard, eyes wide and calmly said, "Excuse me, are you ill? Give the girl a pencil and let me know when I can continue my lesson."
Before shoving a pencil in my hand, the woman who affectionately became known as "The Sweater Lady" squeaked out an unassuming "Oh." She was one in a string of personal care aides (PCAs) I had until Judy, who stuck with me through high school, was hired earlier that school year.
I bit my tongue as she belted out more memorable one-liners that day, like, "Do you know your name?" and "Do you know what color your hair is?" If that wasn't an indication that something needed to change, eating my lunch in a broken elevator while my fourth PCA had a panic attack, definitely put up a red flag.
I don't know how the process of finding a PCA works, but it shouldn't be rocket science - and unfortunately, many people who are unprepared for the job get to "swim with the sharks," having to fend for themselves.
By the same token, it shatters kids' hopes of being treated the same as everybody else. It brings up the question of, "Where's the 'personal' in personal care aides?"
Judy knew me like the back of her hand. She knew I drove on the wrong side of the hallway - the same side that my peers would stampede down - and she'd always pretend to clear her throat and say, "What side of the road do Americans drive on again?"
It was that little reminder that let us build a subtle kind of mother/ daughter relationship. It wasn't perfect and I don't know how she didn't pull her hair out every time I got a math problem wrong, but all her "tough love" paid off.
What about other students with "substitute shadows" who need to rely on somebody for something other than answers to square root problems? What if the kid needs to take medicine three times a day? What if he or she is in a wheelchair and there's a fire drill?
There's little to no room for any sort of trust to build if kids have to be that close to a different person every day. I think it only creates an awkward silence that neither the PCA nor student knows how to break.
I carried that principle with me through college, even though I didn't have an aide. It's not about who can just "do the job." It's about who is willing to put the "personal" back in personal care aides.
I guess when you put it in that perspective, the old adage of "treat others the way you'd like to be treated" isn't so old.
Erin Kelly, 26, was born with cerebral palsy in Seoul, Korea, and now lives in Altoona. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.