You Mess with Matt; You Mess with Me

“Mrs. Swartz,” Matt said to me after school one day, “I’d like to talk to the class about Tourette Syndrome.”

Matt’s eyes blinked fast, and his head jerked.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

Matt told me he was in a group with other kids who had Tourette Syndrome. At the last meeting the group had been talking about kids at school who avoided them and mimicked their tics and asked rude questions like, ”That’s not catching, is it?” or “Did you take the wrong vaccine?”

“What can we do?” a kid asked the leader.

And that’s when she told them about peer presentations—a kid with Tourette Syndrome educating classmates about it.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” Matt said. “And I want to do it. This could help the next kid with Tourette Syndrome who comes along.”

The day before his presentation, Matt stopped after class.

“I made a slide show,” he said, handing me a flash drive, “and could I choose a friend to stand up there with me?”

Matt’s friend, I discovered the next day, was the captain of the football team. He stood three feet from Matt, feet planted shoulder-width, hands on hips, elbows akimbo. During Matt’s presentation, the football captain scanned the room like a Secret Service agent, daring the slightest disrespect.

Matt showed the class diagrams to explain how the brain controls movement.

“Most of you,” Matt told the class, “have brains that tell your body to stop moving. Your brains can tell your eyes to stop blinking fast and your head to stop jerking.”

At this moment, Matt’s head jerked twice, and the football captain stood an inch taller.

“But my brain,” Matt went on, “doesn’t have stop signs for head jerking.”

Students were listening, I could tell.

“Sometimes,” Matt said, “I can delay a head jerk, kind of like you can put off a sneeze.”

Matt smiled ruefully.

“But eventually,” he said, “the jerk wins.”

Then Matt asked students to stopping blinking, to hold off a blink as long as they could.

“Raise your hand,” he said, “when you have to blink.”

When all the students’ hands were in the air, Matt concluded.

“That’s how I feel a lot,” he said.

As the students clapped, Matt went to his seat. But the football captain stayed.

“Just to tell you,” he said. “You mess with Matt, you mess with me.”

And no one did, not then, and not the rest of the school year.

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