On my first day of student teaching I met Jerome.
I was training to work as a special education teacher and was assigned to a summer school class of fourth and fifth graders with autism and other cognitive impairments. It was a lively place.
Jerome moved like a bouncing ball, limbering from one part of the room to the next with a seemingly boundless energy. Though he didn’t often make eye contact, a broad smile lit up his face.
Because of the way he experienced autism, Jerome had very limited verbal language abilities. His primary means of verbal communication was through echolalia. Echolalia is a condition in which people repeat words or phrases as a way of contributing to conversation or as a verbal tic. It’s a common occurrence in some people with autism.
Jerome’s echolalia was unique in that he almost exclusively used phrases from SpongeBob SquarePants when talking to others.
If asked how he was feeling, he might smile and sing “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
If upset because he couldn’t play outside during class time, he sometimes furrowed his brow and yelled “Stop it, Squidward!”
If excited to head to the cafeteria for lunch, you could hear him sing “Who wants a crabby patty?”
Though he couldn’t access the right words to communicate what he was thinking and feeling, the content and tone of his SpongeBob-isms helped us understand Jerome’s state of mind.
In a way, SpongeBob SquarePants was Jerome’s life text. To the extent he understood what he had seen and heard, the stories he heard watching that cartoon helped him tell his own story.
Scripture is my SpongeBob.
I don’t experience autism. I don’t need mediated communication like Jerome does. But I find that as I try to describe my experience, to write my life, to string my story together, I keep coming back to stories that have already been told.
In my delight at an open door that seemed impossible just days ago, I am Miriam: I will sing unto to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously.
In my sadness over saying goodbye to my grandmother, not knowing if this might be the last time we are together, I am Nehemiah and the Isarelites: Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
In my shame about returning again and again to the same disordered thoughts about eating, food, and my body, I am David: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
When I don’t know how to pray…
When I’m not sure what would comfort…
When I want my words to stick…
I find myself replaying these truths passed down again and again through Scripture.
For nearly all my life, I’ve been reading the Bible – learning it’s stories and memorizing it’s truths. Some are so familiar it’s as if they are my own. I’ve held them in my head and meditated on them in my heart. And wonderfully, the Scriptures have become a sacred language that lets my soul speak when intellect fails.
I repeat it to myself:
Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God.
I tell it to my hopeful friend:
He has made everything beautiful in it’s time.
I sing it to the God I long to know:
You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
I’m realizing God’s Word speaks to me but it also speaks for me. It’s telling my story.
There was a thrill of connection when Jerome would talk to us, even though it was SpongeBob speak. When he would smile and take my hand and ask me to go to the Krusty Krab, I knew he was inviting me to go with him to see something he wanted to share, even though he couldn’t say what or why or where. It was nonetheless delightful to be invited into his world.
I wonder if God hears me pray the prayers of Mary and thinks the same thing. My heart is so filled with joy that “wow” or “thank you” don’t seem enough, so I return again to her lovely hymn of gratitude and it becomes mine:
For he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.