Saturday, October 1, 2011

My Day in Special Education

As a kid, my family moved a lot.  In 2nd grade, I started my first school year in Adel, Iowa in the Adel-DeSoto-Minburn School district.  There are funny stories that occur in 2nd grade, and they will be for your eyes to feast on another day.  My family moved again after that year and I spent the first half of 3rd grade in Plymouth, North Carolina.

The school districts below the bible belt are as segregated today as they had been since the 1950s.  The white kids tend go to the private school, and the black kids with parents’ not on meth go to public school.  My parents are awesome, and they aren’t coddlers, and they are both from the North.  Northern reasoning states that there is no racial difference great enough to send your kids to a private school, especially if they don’t want to go.  So my parents had no idea that they were sending me to one of the worst educating establishments of all time.

In 3rd grade, I had Mrs. Wilson, and I was her favorite student.  This was because I was able to spell some of the most complicated words in her class like, “other” and “butterfly”.  I was also able to nail the social studies questions, “What do adults do to make money while you are at school?” and “What has a motor and is used to float on water?”  I LOVED being the smartest.  I can tell you with all honesty that I earned more merits and “classroom dollars” than any other kid.  I was always picked first for classroom trivia, and I had the biggest collection of scratch n’ sniff stickers that I became something of a hoarder/classroom mafia godfather.

A particular instance that stands out in my mind was when we were given a simple worksheet at the end of the day.  It was blank except for a bunch of clocks.  Our homework was to write down the times written on each clock.  We turned them in the next day, and we worked in our math booklet while our teacher graded them.  The next thing I knew, Mrs. Wilson was at the front of the class.  “Everyone but Robbie and Kanisha need to put your workbooks away, because we are going to learn how to tell time.  You two can go sit in the corner and cut up paper with scissors.”  Apparently, the sub-par intelligence level of the south finds cutting paper with safety scissors to be a huge treat.

My parents eventually realized we were learning virtually nothing and decided to head back to Iowa.  My teacher was heartbroken.  I thought she had really liked me, but she asked my mom if I could stay and take the ITBS tests.  You see, teacher’s salaries often are boosted with high ITBS scores and I was a savant compared to the rest of the school.

We moved back to Adel, and I jumped right into 3rd grade.  Not only had the class progressed through half of the cursive alphabet, but they were already taking timed tests on multiplication. I was miles behind, and it had only been a semester away.  I slowly but surely made it through the extra work and practiced my cursive so diligently that I still write using it, unlike 95% of the rest of you.  But no matter how hard I worked, the South had taken its toll, and I was one of the slower kids in class.

One day in 4th grade, I was sitting in Mrs. Schulz’s social studies class when I received a surprise.  I was barely paying attention because even at 9 years old I knew that I would never need to actually know what states the Appalachian mountains ran through.  This happened often throughout my early grades.  I had no attention span for pointless subjects like social studies, library, or science.  I liked reading class.  To be fair, I have been cynical for a very long time, so it never made sense to me to understand the history and social structure of the Ancient Mayans, or the pollination practices of bees. (Yea, I actually remember that we were learning about those subjects at this time).  The surprise occurred when my homeroom teacher came into class and asked to take me out for the day.

Curiously, I stood up and went with her.  She told me, “You’re going to spend a few hours of the day going to Mrs. Ryan’s class.  I think you’re going to like her; she’s very nice.”  I knew a select few people from my class who spent a few hours in Mrs. Ryan’s class.  I was very disappointed by them.  They seemed slow, ugly and utterly disinteresting whenever I sat next to them at lunch or PE.  One had crossed eyes and another had what I now recognize as Down’s Syndrome.  I know now that I was being put in Special Education.

I arrived at Mrs. Ryan’s room and was immediately delighted.  COLOR.  There were colors everywhere.  Along the walls was a zoo of stuffed animals, toys, and books that I had already read (at 4), and the classroom was decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Mrs. Ryan smiled kindly when I entered the class.  “You must be Robbie,” she simpered, “Welcome to my classroom, my name is Mrs. Ryan.”  I said hello and took a seat (Blue plastic!) and she sat next to me.  That was new, and I liked that she liked sitting with her students in brightly colored plastic chairs as much as I did.  She took out a (Green!) folder and pulled out a few worksheets for me to do.  But she first had me describe myself out loud.  I don’t think a teacher had ever asked me to speak aloud before, and I was a shy child.  But I talked to Mrs. Ryan.  After a while, her smile faded into a slight frown, but it came back up when I finished, and she said, “My, that’s quite the vocabulary you have.  Here is a sticker for being such a talkative young man.”


Mrs. Ryan then told the class that it was time for stories and juice.  Juice AND stories?!  Hellz yea, Mrs. Ryan was the shit!  I picked up my apple juice and sat next to Down Syndrome, who patted my knee affectionately and spit into his juice.  Weird.  Mrs. Ryan then read us excerpts from The Indian in the Cupboard.  After story time, she gave the class something to keep them busy and she came back to sit next to me and her green folder of worksheets.

She handed me a math worksheet.  She also took out a sheet of mini stickers.  With all my brain power, I tackled to division problems without asking for help.  Mrs. Ryan cried, “Excellent!” and “Outstanding!” with each right answer and I got a sticker after each problem.  I was finally okay with the education system.  All of these colors and compliments and stickers and it was 3rd grade in North Carolina all over again.  Even the weird kid with Down Syndrome was a tolerable best friend in this magical land of Mrs. Ryan’s room.  Mrs. Ryan kept doling out stickers and praise after each and every subject’s worksheet was laid out before me.  Soon, I had completed the full folder’s worth, and Mrs. Ryan made some notes in her notepad.  She turned to me and said, “Robbie, thank you for spending the afternoon with me, but I don’t think we should interrupt any of your normal classes with these worksheets.  Feel free to say hi any time, but please keep going to class like you have all year.”

I was heartbroken.  This beautiful classroom full of feel-goodery and happiness was given to me for just one short afternoon and then ripped from my non-retarded fingers.  I walked my newly esteem-broken self out into the hallway, and it was worse than I had imagined.  When did my school become such a dark, barren, unforgiving place?  Were the halls always so gray?  And the lockers always so off-gray? And the floor… was it always black and white?  I immediately longed for the splendor in Mrs. Ryan’s room.

I hated normal school

I spent the rest of the day with a sad look on my face, glaring at the terrible “decorations” the teacher’s had in their rooms.  I mean what exactly are those Math Posters even for?  You can make a cute alligator say, “Math is gr8” 300 times, but it won’t equal fun.

I also received a graded piece of homework.  My teacher had the audacity to give me a smiley face on the top of the paper.  I had half the mind to march up to her and demand a sticker, or at least a smiley face with a different colored pen.

Finally, at the end of the day as we lined up for the bus, I spied a sheet of stickers in one of my teacher’s cubbies.  I quickly whipped off my backpack, stole the sticker sheet, zipped up my bag and ran to catch up with the class.  When I got on the bus, I waited until we had started driving away from school and stuck every sticker I could onto my shirt.

It felt good to be King