It’s hard to imagine an educational environment more miserable than being a normal-intelligence kid in a room full of the learning-disabled.

I had a special ed class the other day. In involved everyone from a step below Down’s Syndrome to… Harvel. I was told by the teacher that Harvel was a special case, insofar as (a) he always knew the answer to any question you ask and (b) he had a tendency to get bored very easily. The first bit was important because it meant that, when we were going through the exercise, that I should call on Harvel if the two or three kids I first call on get it wrong. The second was important because Harvel had a tendency to skip ahead or stop paying attention and preventing that requires constant monitoring.

The lesson plan is, pretty much, goes at a speed just a little faster than the Down’s kids are capable of. I read three or four paragraphs. I ask them a question. I call on two or three kids to try to answer the question, call on Harvel if none of them got it right, then wait a few minutes for them to write the answer down in their workbook. Immediately after we started, Harvel was pounding through the worksheet. I could see him working ahead and though I was sympathetic to letting him do so, I had been specifically told not to. So I called on him. This was ineffective because he could apparently listen to what I was saying on page two while answering the questions on page 7 at the same time.

One of the paras then chided him for “getting ahead” and told him to cut it out. Reluctantly, he did. His misery was quite apparent, but he was compliant and, as the teacher had said, quite useful in being able to answer any question asked of him. In the first ten minutes of the class, he had gotten about half-way through the worksheet. The class as a whole got through a third of it over the entire 50 minutes. After class ended, some of the kids drew crude pictures. A couple of them tried to play on the computer. One of the older kids (I would guess maybe 15) was trying – and failing – to explain the relationship between a yellow light and a red light. Harvel (8th grade) was reading Alas, Babylon, which he had borrowed from his brother who was reading it in his high school class. Having actually read that book myself, he and I talked about it for a bit. He knew what he was reading.

So why was Harvel in this class? Two reasons: he did have a pretty serious speech impediment that made him sound slow, and he did have a physical disability. My guess is that early on he was put on the short bus track and they never took him off of it.

When I was in K-12, I never took any advanced or honors classes. At the time I thought it was cool because it allowed me to put forth less effort and spend more time drawing Vicious Victor comics. Looking back, I really, really wish I had taken normal classes. I would have been challenged, but I would have enjoyed the challenge. At least if college is any indication. It wasn’t until honors classes in college that I realized that school could be interesting. I thought I had it bad. I’ve got nothing on Harvel. That must be hell.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago I was doing a special ed class at the upper-elementary level. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Leroy was in there. He spoke almost normally (a little too fast and a little too softly to always be understood – but that’s not too unusual in a 5th grader) and followed along in class extremely well. However, when I read his assignment, the reason was obvious. He could think, he could talk, he could listen, but he could not write. Reading was probably difficult, too. He wrote numbers and letters backwards and sometimes incomprehensibly. He was smart enough to compensate for this by writing the answer down over and over again, just to make sure that one of them would be right and he would get credit. Apparently, about four years earlier, Leroy was in an accident and suffered oxygen deprivation, which did a number on him. Prior to that, he was a normal kid.

In a way, Leroy and Harvel are entirely opposite. Two parts of a whole. A kid who can’t communicate verbally very easily but has impeccable reading and writing ability, and then another kid that can seemingly do just about anything but. Illiteracy is almost certainly a bigger handicap than speech difficulties in the long run. Even so, it’s almost more tragic for these kids because unlike the others, they have to know what they’re missing out on. They have to understand the world around them in which they may never been independent participants. The Down’s kids, on the other hand, seem to live in a playground of sorts.

Category: School

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7 Responses to Special Ed: The Ringers

  1. Kevin says:

    This post is one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.

  2. Mike Hunt says:

    Looking back, I really, really wish I had taken normal classes.

    Do you mean you wish you hadn’t?

    It’s hard to imagine an educational environment more miserable than being a normal-intelligence kid in a room full of the learning-disabled.

    Well maybe a superior intelligence kid in a regular classroom with a hostile teacher, but your point holds.

    he was compliant

    School teaches obedience more than anything else. Teachers don’t give a shit if you learn anything, but you better be in your seat when the bell rings, and the bell doesn’t dismiss the class, the teacher does, and all that bullshit.

    Illiteracy is almost certainly a bigger handicap than speech difficulties in the long run.

    I’m not so sure about that. A charming illiterate can go far in life. Someone with speech difficulties will be assumed to be retarded, and people have no patience for it, sad to say.


    This post reminds me of some thoughts I have about teaching in general. There is a reason why truly bright people don’t do it for a living. First, it is the same reason why great athletes generally don’t make great coaches; it comes naturally to them and have a tough time relating to mediocrity. Second, when people imagine their dream teaching job, they picture a classroom of white, smiling faces who are enthusiastic about learning. Sadly, that is a small minority of classrooms. Therefore, not everyone can teach these classes, especially not newbies.

    Imagine a bright enthusiastic 22 year old English major who loves nothing more than Shakespeare and the Great American Novel, and she is stuck teaching nouns and verbs to retarded high schoolers. It makes me weep for her.

  3. trumwill says:

    Mike, I should have said “I wish I had taken honors classes”… some of the normal classes are unavoidable.

    You might be right about illiteracy. Especially in a place like Redstone where a lot of the jobs are not ones that require a whole lot of mental acuity.

    I think impatience is likely a huge problem. Even when you’re dealing with normal kids… they’re kids. They don’t know things. When it’s your own kid, I assume you marvel at what they do know. When it’s someone else’s kid, you want to throttle them. Well, I don’t, but I haven’t been doing this long. It’s all pretty new to me.

    In addition to the behavioral aspects, I think teachers tend to veer away from middle school because you don’t have either the enthusiasm or the smarts. The kids at the elementary level are surprisingly enthusiastic. The kids at the high school level are “young adults.” Middle schoolers are neither. At that age where it’s uncool to learn and yet not mature enough to at least fake it.

    One of the most bitter people I ever dated was an alternatively-certified English major filling the gap at the kind of school where it’s hard to find teachers. The other teacher I dated, the Ivy Leaguer, had a job at a pretty good school district, I think. Either that or she just had an amazingly good attitude.

  4. trumwill says:


    My introduction to Harvel warranted a beer that night. I don’t usually drink except on social occasions or when I need to loosen up my mind and cigarettes won’t do it.

  5. Peter says:

    About 20 years ago I knew a young woman who was in a situation not entirely unlike Harvel’s. A head injury a few years earlier had left her with impaired speech, which made her sound like a mentally retarded person when she spoke. In fact, she had a good job and except for the speech problem had no physical impairments at all. However, it was difficult for her to avoid making the wrong impression when people would meet her for the first time.

    I remember her saying that it made dating very difficult, because when men approached her (which happened a lot, she was a solid eight) they’d quickly move away as soon as she spoke. She’d try to tell them that it was strictly a physical issue, that she wasn’t retarded at all, but it seldom worked. After a while I lost contact with her, so I don’t know how things eventually turned out.

  6. Mr. Blue says:

    What’s a “para”?

  7. trumwill says:

    Paraprofessional. Like a classroom aide.

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