Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Special Rooms

I remember the room well, the one at the bottom of the staircase, across from the third grade classroom, the year I was in fifth grade. Maybe they called it the special education room; I don't remember a name. I just knew that was where my little brother was, and when they asked some of us big kids if we wanted to volunteer, we did happily.

I remember walking down the echoing staircases with Liz, the second most popular girl in our class. Her sister had Down syndrome. The teacher, who I later learned was named Marty, opened the door and gave us the kindest smile. Her hair was smooth and flipped up at the ends.

I remember children in wheelchairs and a water table. I didn't know then that my brother, in dire need of numerous therapies and a real plan (he wouldn't have an actual IEP for 5 more years), was allowed to play at the water table or in the sink for most of the day. I didn't see ineptitude or lack of knowledge at the time. I just felt happy to help. I wasn't ashamed. No one asked why were spending time with "those kids." It was just something Liz and I and some of the others did. I felt proud.

I don't know what changed. So many things changed, with time. I remember the day a few years later when I learned Marty, the teacher with the winning smile and a quiet love for everyone, had taken her own life. She had realized too late that she still wanted to live and called for help that was fruitless, in the end. My heart split in two. We moved away and I realized there were many people out there who were cruel, towards people with special needs and really anyone who dared to not fit exactly into the mold. The mold was always changing, anyway. And I kept trying to fit into it, to blend in and disappear and run from what I was, what my family was.

In high school, the special ed rooms were downstairs. I went to a huge high school. There must have been nearly 2,000 kids, and there were three levels, each with its own color scheme. The math and science rooms and blue halls on the third floor...green and yellow of the english/history/language arts rooms on the second floor...the the orange halls on the first. The shop rooms. Band. Gym. And those "special" classes that were right across from my locker.

I would see them, those kids growing into adults, shuffling in uneven lines, being led by tired teachers. Some of them seemed amazingly happy. Some hung their heads. Many appeared unaware. I would stand there, I with the brother with severe autism living at a residential school 90 miles away, I the Christian girl who knew the teachings of Jesus inside and out, and I would feel that awful feeling. You know the one? The one where you look away? You don't smile and look at certain people in the eye, acknowledging they are actual people. You kind of look through them but pretend you aren't. You don't really fool yourself, though.

I remember flipping through the pages of one of the school yearbooks and seeing pictures of the seniors. They'd published their addresses right below their pictures. And there, at the end of the color pictures, was a page of black and white head shots. The leftover pics, those kids that had been squeezed in at the last minute. Almost all of them seemed to be those with disabilities. And there were the addresses, printed beneath them.

How sad, I remember thinking. Who is ever going to want to contact them?

The first time we walked into the special ed room at Ethan's school, I was blinking back tears. They were talking too fast. We had just had the PPT where five "experts" had told me my son wasn't ready to be mainstreamed in a pre-K classroom. I wanted to run from this place with its cubbies and kids flapping their hands and muttering unintelligible things. I wanted to run from the fact that my child was one of those children.

But then something happened. Slowly. I spent a lot of time after school on the playground with Ethan. If we stayed long enough, the kids in the special ed class would come out. I came to learn the names that went with the kid who liked to blow spit bubbles...the one who would flap his hands and run with joy when he got outside...the one with dimples who called the teacher "daddy" and had the most beautiful golden curls.

I needed to see them as my child. I needed to see them as children, not as having deficits. The way I did back in fifth grade, splashing in the water with my brother. Laughing with that teacher with the kind eyes.

The kids in the special rooms have helped open my eyes, whether I like it or not, to those rooms in my own heart. We all have them: the dark and ugly places filled with the thoughts we don't like to admit to anyone that we think.

But we can renovate. We can clean out the muck. We can learn to think and see with different eyes, to love with the unabashed innocence of a child. I'm still so desperately in need of learning. But I thank Ethan that he's helped me to just a little bit more.

1 comment:

rhemashope said...

sigh. i love your blog.
thank you for your honesty and challenging us with the truth in your words.