Veterans of any field take a strange pleasure in trying to shake up newcomers by telling them harrowing tales about what they’ve seen and endured. I’ll admit having shared unsolicited war stories with student teachers and new hires. In special education, doing this seems to serve a few functions. Superficially, it makes the veterans feel validated and wise. Beyond that, it gives new or potential recruits some perspective regarding what to expect. Unsettling anecdotes might brace incoming teachers for the trials ahead, or they might send those with weaker resolves running to safety. The storytellers perform a service in either case.
Textbooks and colleges courses don’t adequately prepare teacher candidates for the grittiness of the field. Nothing does—not even stern warnings from elder teachers. New teachers have to experience the unsavory aspects of the field on their own. Hearing stories from wiry veterans isn’t as meaningful as collecting first-hand accounts. Despite this, veterans still attempt to thicken the skin of newbies. If nothing else, they like to try to top one another’s tales.
I collected my share of cringe-inducing yarns during my career. Now that I’ve left the field, I no longer have an in-person forum for sharing my experiences. However, this blog allows me to reach a much wider audience. Still driven to share, I’m going to do just that. To any sensitive readers: I’m going to be quite direct. You’ve been warned.
Unlike those who come to the field for highly personal reasons, I don’t have a disability, nor do I have a disabled sibling or child. My involvement with people with special needs didn’t begin until the summer after I graduated from high school. I began working at a day camp for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. A local human service agency ran the camp. Working at this camp and later as a wraparound and a resident assistant hardened my nerves for the field.
I have many stories from my time with this agency, but I’ll share just one. A non-verbal camper in his teens had a fondness for the female lifeguards at the camp pool. The lifeguards dressed appropriately and didn’t do anything to stoke his desires, but he simply couldn’t control himself. He began a habit of flinging himself on the pool deck directly in front of them and dry humping the pavement. Stopping him was asking for trouble. He became violent when interrupted. We figured out ways to distract and redirect him, which seemed to work for a few days. What we inadvertently did was change the location and intensity of his behavior, which we realized when a counselor caught him masturbating in the bathroom.
As an undergraduate, I spent a semester shadowing teachers at a special education center school for students with profound cognitive and physical disabilities. In one of the high school classrooms, I met a young man whose behavior topped the wanton camper. He apparently had a habit of masturbating whenever and wherever he felt like doing so. Staff couldn’t stop him. Like the camper, he’d become violent if staff intervened. His teacher decided to stop fighting it. She created a space for him. She built a corral out of a big plastic frame draped with purple curtains. She painted the wall behind the corral purple. Next to the corral was a small stereo, which was set to play a CD of classical music. Staff agreed to lead him to the corral whenever he got started, shuffle him behind the curtain, and play the classical music. All of this was to give him privacy, cover up the sight and sound of what he was doing, and help him associate a place for doing what he needed to do. I didn’t get to see the purple room in action, but the teacher told me it had been working. I asked what would happen if he visited a restaurant with purple wallpaper and Chopin playing softly for guests. The teacher laughed and said someone else would have to cope with that.
At this same school, I encountered a middle school student with significantly more destructive tendencies. He exhibited extreme forms of self-abusive behaviors. He violently lashed out at caregivers who attempted to attend to his personal needs. According to his teachers, behavioral interventions and medication hadn’t helped. The only way to keep him (and others around him) safe was to restrain his arms. Unfortunately, this wasn’t determined until after he had severely and irreversibly injured himself. As a toddler, he had torn out both of his eyes and ripped off much of his lower lip. To prevent further damage, he would remain restrained indefinitely.
I met dozens of students during student teaching. Each left his or her impression on me. One stood out less for what he did in class and more for how he arrived at the school. He was fourteen or fifteen. He wasn’t certain which. No one else was, either. He had been found living under a bush. People in the neighborhood had noticed him and tried to talk with him, but he growled and barked at them whenever any of them approached him. Eventually, police found him and brought him to a hospital. He couldn’t give any information about where he was from or who his parents were. Fingerprint records didn’t conclude anything. After placement in a group home for potential foster children, he was enrolled in a special education class where I was student teaching. His behavior and aptitude seemed to indicate he might not have had any previous formal schooling. No one uncovered any information about his identity during my assignment. I kept close tabs on several of the students I met during student teaching, but I never found out the fate of this apparently feral boy.
The school at which I student taught hired me for my first job. I hesitated about accepting, because I knew the school had drastic problems. I took the job, but only spent one year working there. In the span of that year, I became acquainted with just how challenging special education populations could be. One student in an emotional support class became unruly, prompting his teacher to call security. He took the phone from her and clubbed her with it, then pinned her against the wall and punched her about the face and body. He threatened to rape her right then and there. He might have if not for the armed school police officers who entered and broke up the fray. Just a few days early, this teacher had told two others about how she saw something disturbing in the student’s eyes.
Other special education students managed to cause issues in the school and surrounding community. I recall another student from another emotional support class who successfully lit a forest fire directly behind the school. A full acre burned before fire crews extinguished it. I suppose he was good at something. Another student smashed a glass bottle on a classmate’s face. This happened at the beginning of a class period. By the end of the class period, the parents of the victim were in the building threatening to murder the boy who did it. The display of family support was heartwarming. One of my students got arrested at a boxing match. His uncle fought in the main event. A melee ensued following a controversial decision. The following week, my student was excited to show me a video of him punching someone just before his arrest. I think he wanted me to feel proud of him.
Several years later, I began teaching at yet another special education center school. On my first visit before the school year began, I met a young man whose appearance made me do an embarrassing double take. Most of his body had been burned in a fire lit by a family member. His face resembled that of a horror movie character. His fingers were gone. I didn’t want to be just another person gawking at his misfortune, but I had trouble looking away from what had happened to him. Sadly, he seemed used to it. I later found he had a talent for painting, which he did by holding a brush between what was left of his hands.
The stories from this school alone could fill a book. I remember a girl who used a power wheelchair whose family had difficulty bathing her. While helping the girl get a book from her backpack, I notice a cockroach crawling on her arm. Upon closer inspection, several roaches were hanging out between her body and the seat. With my arm still wedged in the backpack, I felt one crawl over my hand. I calmly removed my arm, washed my hand, and tactfully alerted the school nurse. Another student began menstruating in my class without a tampon or pad. I only noticed this when I saw her chair after class was over. A huge print of blood remained. She didn’t say anything to me or to my assistant. As classes changed, I managed to catch the girl, call the nurse, and clean the chair. Yet another student who used a power wheelchair asked me to adjust her seatbelt. She told me it was hurting her stomach. I struggled to loosen it, so I moved behind her chair to loosen it from the other side. In the time I took walking from one side of her chair to the other, she had quietly filled her lap with pink vomit. Just a second or two earlier and this would’ve been down the back of my shirt. I did my best to soothe her and let her know she’d be okay as I cleaned her and waited for the nurse.
I have dozens of additional stories. The reactions I’ve elicited while telling these in person has reminded of what a truly demanding field special education is. Notice I mentioned almost noting about instruction in any of these stories. To get to that, one has to be able to deal with the peripheral madness veterans know so well. Special education courses can only do so much to prime candidates for the field. Stories like mine can help, but those looking to do this for a living have to get a taste on their own to understand what is waiting for them.