Saturday, June 11, 2011


When I was in school, the classes were called "Special Ed."  Everyone knew that's where the slower kids were. Most everyone made fun of them on some level or another, even though we all inherently knew we shouldn't.  They were the punchlines of jokes, just like blacks and fags and fat people were.

It's hard to swallow. That I grew up that way.  That I was that way, even remotely.  That I contributed or participated or allowed any of that to happen in any way, shape, or form.  Ever.  But I did.  I know I did, much to my mother's horror, I'm sure, when she reads this post (sorry, Mom).  And it's not that I never said anything, or took a stand, or shut someone down -- because I know, for a fact, that I did.  But not every single time.  And that's just not enough. So now, of course, I'm bound and determined not to see my kids go down that same shaky path.  Often, I realize, overcompensating to a fault.

If I try to think back to 7th grade, which is when I think I first took notice of it, that's about all I remember.  I didn't know then -- and still don't know -- exactly what that meant.  What happened behind those closed doors of the portable building not even attached to the regular classrooms?  Who were the teachers that took on that position, and why? How many kids were actually in there? How were they taught? What did they learn? Were they just moving along at a slower pace than the rest of us, or were they having to teach them a completely different curriculum? And where are they now?

And because I still don't know the answers to any of those questions (and can't even tell you why I didn't ask these questions then), when my kids asked me what made the "special kids in Room 12" at their school so special, I was a little gobsmacked.

I mean, is "special" even the right term? Doesn't it, by definition, single out a group of people as superior in some way? Because then I'm stuck with trying to explain to my own children, who are special in their own right, that they're actually not considered to be "special kids."

In my time, we still used the word "retarded," but not the way it's being used by teens now, to call something out as ridiculous or stupid, often interchangeable with the phrase, "that's so gay" (but that's another post).  We used it, specifically, to refer to those kids who weren't in our regular classes, who were different, who required additional attention and special kinds of teachers.

Although they hadn't yet heard the term "retarded," I wanted to be the one to broach the subject with them before it suddenly appeared on the playground -- most likely inappropriately.  And also because the terms that were apparently already being thrown around by others, like "crazies" and "dummies," just had to be stopped. And no, I wasn't trying to exchange one for the other, but it seemed like the most logical place to start.

In Saia's class currently, there's one child who seems to have some pretty significant behavioral issues. From what Saia has told me, the teacher and principal are pretty on top of it, and manage it well enough so that it's not hugely disruptive to the class.  Last year, Santiago had a similar situation in his class, but she was much more disruptive. But both of them brought up these specific children because, evidently, they had been wondering all on their own why these girls weren't in Room 12, too.

So then I got myself all bogged down in this very generalized explanation about what disabled, handicapped, physically-/mentally-/behaviorally-challenged, retarded, special needs, and different all meant.  And I found it almost impossible to not use the words "normal" or "regular" when trying to differentiate.  And I was just stumbling...awkwardly and ignorantly stumbling all over the damn place.

And I'm staring at them, trying to judge from their faces whether or not I was getting through.  Whether or not this topic, which I apparently have all sorts of latent biased feelings and guilt over, was making any sense to them at all.  Whether I was doing more harm than good in trying to overexplain, trying to paint all sides of an incomplete picture, trying to give them historical reference points from which to draw on while attempting to instill in them a sense of comfort that this is just one more aspect of living and learning that we must embrace and promote and protect. That above all, they must be compassionate, considerate, and emotionally aware people.  That the world has too many followers and not enough good leaders.  That the way they acted, the way they responded to situations, the things they said or sometimes didn't say could really influence and affect someone else.  That we're all just dominoes...ripples in the water...grains of sand...

I was clearly drowning beneath a deluge of synonyms and metaphors, analogies and parables, and strangled by the over-reaching arms of political correctness. It was a fucking mess.

When I was finally done brain-dumping everything I could about what little I knew, I asked them what they would say the next time they heard someone tell them or tell someone else that the Room 12 kids were dumb or crazy.  Without a moment's hesitation, Saia said, not even looking up from her drawing, "I'd say that they're just a group of kids that learn and act a little differently from the rest of us, that you should introduce yourself and get to know them if you're so curious, and that if you can't say something nice about someone, you shouldn't say anything at all."

"Yeah," Santiago agrees nonchalantly,", too."

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