An unlikely cast of different personalities come together every Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. — one Special School District (SSD) teacher, two teachers aides and four autistic students, all aged 20 to 21. They come together to learn, but have bonded as a family.
The four students are a part of St. Louis County’s SSD Community-Based Transition services, a program to help students go from high school to adulthood. On the Webster University campus the group changes the recycling bins in the Sverdrup building and the Emerson Library, wipe off equipment in the University Center’s Fitness Center and use the UC as a meeting ground.
By interacting with and being around students their own age, they improve their social skills and prepare for employment opportunities.
All three teachers, SSD teacher and the two aides, originally didn’t plan on working in special education.
Katie Palazzola, an aide, is soft spoken and caring. When a friend left the program, Palazzola took her place — a career move, which she said changed who she is.
“I may not pursue special education as a permanent career but it’s shaping me,” Palazzola said. “I know I’m here for a reason.It’s contributing to my life. I don’t know what I would do without it.”
Tim Bardgett, the SSD teacher, is the father figure. After a lay off from a Kirkwood credit union, Bardgett earned a degree in elementary education in 2005 with a certificate in special education.
His students often complain because he acts like a parent. After finishing her lunch, Meaghan Powers, a student, sets her plate horizontally in between the posts of the dish holder. Bardgett told her to place the plate vertically.
“You sound like my mom,” Powers said.
“See,” Bardgett said.
Teacher aide Ken Dyson, 35, said he has to stay upbeat. His personality propels him through the demanding day-to-day difficulties of the job.
“You have to keep it light,” Dyson said. “We laugh a lot, because there are some days I want to pull my hair out.”
Dyson said he often faces the stigma of not having children at his age so when people ask him if he has children, he responds, “Yes.”
“I say I have children, but not my biological ones,” Dyson said.
Each of the four students is as unique as the snowflakes student, Billye Eberbach creates during arts and crafts.
“If you see one person with autism, that’s just one person with autism,” said student Paplanus Papalanus. “People think when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
Patrick Paplanus is a writer.
As of March 11, his book “Plains” is at 427 pages. The science fiction novel explores plains of existence, or dimensions, and the clash of two worlds — one of science and technology, the other of magic and enchantment. It’s in third person, allowing him to jump from character to character.
After he finished cutting red peppers for lunch, he sat and read quietly, quickly. He soaked in each line above his bookmark, scrolling down the lines methodically.
“I don’t know too many people who read these days,” Paplanus said with book in hand and another next to him on the table. “I find that a sad fact. Many just say, ‘I’ll just wait for the movie.’ I just want to slap them.”
His last name, Papalanus, he pointed out, is not German, it’s Hungarian, meaning “quilt maker.”
“That’s the first thing he said to me when I met him,” Bardgett said.
Paplanus is intelligent, but also he said, humorous.
“People sometimes don’t get my puns,” Paplanus said. “I think it’s because it requires more thinking that what they’re used to.”
Billye Eberbach is a jokester.
His new favorite joke goes something like this:
“How do you make a tissue dance?” He smiled before the anticipated pun. “Put a little boogie in it.”
Although he’s quick with a quip, Eberbach’s leary to work.
“It takes about him about five minutes to start,” Bardgett said. “He has to process the information.”
Eberbach’s biggest responsiblility is clearing the recycling bins in both levels of Sverdrup. After this work, he wanted a break. Eberbach can’t have one though. Bardgett tries to help Eberbach understand a real employer will not give him multiple breaks in one workday.
“I’m not an evil guy at heart,” Eberbach said after cooling off. “It’s just when someone gets underneath my skin, I have to get underneath theirs.”
At the Webster Groves YMCA the students exercise with Dyson and Palazzola. Eberbach banters with Dyson and eventually Eberbach was frustrated. That’s when the jokes kick in.
“Hey Ken, the 70s called,” Eberbach said. “They want their hair back.”
“Billye, that’s one thing you can’t talk about is my hair,” Dyson joked back and then he admitted. “But, that was a good one.”
Eberbach eventually does what he’s told and Ken reflected Eberbach’s comedic ways.
“At least he’s creative,” Dyson said with a laugh and shrugged his shoulders. “At least he’s not boring.”
Meaghan Powers is a shy girl.
But, she has some attitude.
In the kitchen of the First Congressional Church of Webster Groves, she stands and pours pancake batter. Powers makes sure each is a similar shape.
“Meaghan, that is a fantastic pancake,” Dyson said. “They don’t make them that good at IHOP.”
She shifts her eyes off the stove and settles them on Dyson.
“Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically and smiled and looked down at the stove.
When she finishes fixing her plate of food, she found a seat at the corner table in the church’s auditorium outside the kitchen. Her and Eberbach always eat there and engage in their favorite activity — watching anime.
Bardgett repeatedly asked Eberbach to prepare for a job interview. He stalled. To try to motivate Eberbach, Powers gave him a warning.
“Get snippy with me Billye and I won’t let you watch anime,” Powers said.
Ask Powers a question. The answer is usually yes or no, sometimes with a brief explanation. Anime though, gets her mouth moving.
Her and Eberbach ate and watched anime on her laptop decorated with Pokemon stickers. Besides anime, Powers loves crafts.
Palazzola wore a red, white and blue bracelet, a Meaghan Powers original, everyday to work.
Hilary Mason is an artist.
As her classmates work organizing books in the Soldier’s Memorial, she sat off to the side drawing. She was focused.
Mason always carries a stack of blank, white computer paper. So, she’s ready at anytime to put pen on paper.
“What movie is that from Hilster?” Dyson asked.
“The Goonies,” Mason replied.
He holds up the half drawn pirate ship with full detail of the ship’s curves, wooden features and treasure on board.
Mason’s mind is always in a movie. When she talks out loud she isn’t talking to herself. She is reciting a movie’s dialogue. She often spits out dialogue from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Freaky Friday,” and “Coraline.”
Her imagination creates alternate universes and alter egos for the people in her life. Dyson and Palazzola are not teacher aides in Mason’s imaginary “Weight Loss Land.” Palazzola is known as Vanessa, the cowgirl, and Dyson is Merlin the Wizard, which, he thinks, is pretty cool.
“It’s the coolest thing she’s ever told me,” he said. “I ran home and told my wife.”
Dyson’s refrigerator is full of Mason’s artwork as well as a beaded snake in Rams colors from Powers.
“She does feel like a daughter to me,” Dyson said. “I do see her like that.”
Mason, 21, will graduate this year. The program expires when students reach their 21st birthdays.
“I know it’s going to be hard for me when she graduates,” Palazzola said. “She’s very special to me. I’m going to miss her a lot.”
Because Mason has difficulty communicating, Palazzola said they have an unspoken bond.
“Watch this,” Dyson said. “Hilary, who is your best friend?”
She looks up from her drawing.
The students waited for their rides on what Dyson and Palazzola call “Spring Break Eve,” the day before their week off on March 11. However, Dyson said by this Saturday, he’ll miss his students and be ready to return.
Palazzola and Bardgett agree.