As an education minor at Swarthmore College, I had an average of six or seven classmates. We debated policy and curricula intensely, for six or seven hours on end. But at the test for my emergency teaching credential in Southern California, I was lost among hundreds of impatient applicants. Our essay question: “What is your favorite food?”
The mandatory teacher training was an even more alarming reality check.
I entered one of the nation’s largest, most complex unified school district offices expecting to resume an ivory tower’s worth of nuanced arguments about the life of the child and purpose of the classroom. Instead, a woman snapped on two layers of latex gloves to greet me, and a hundred others, for a 30-minute presentation on protection from AIDS and other communicable diseases.
I extrapolated from the matter of fact lecture: blood, feces, saliva, bodily fluids related to sex. But during class?
Then I remembered working one summer as a preschool teacher, bare handed. I changed diapers, coached toilet training, dressed wounds, took one too many hugs from sniffling toddlers, and even got bit. In retrospect, a chain of occupational hazards.
I thought about what exposure to anticipate in an urban, public high school of 3,000 diverse teenagers. Childbirth? Vandalism? Violence?
I was preparing for severe special education secondary substitute teaching. There was a literal wake up call, with assignments made at 5:00 a.m. and demand so high that I was called for a year after I withdrew.
In my classroom, few students were younger than 21. Some were intubated, many needed bathroom accompaniment, most were non-verbal, all had a harness for tethering to the school bus, which mainly transported them from group homes.
One student ate crayons, another’s benchmark was relearning the flashcard to cue for a snack. I was warned that the most docile looking was born crack-addicted, and would lunge and bite. A brawny aide maintained constant physical contact with him. Chaos could erupt in a split second. At an interview for a similar job at a private school I was asked what I would do if a six-foot tall student put his head through the window—as happened that week.
And there were piles and piles of paperwork for federally mandated Individualized Education Plans.
I did not last long. My parents still wonder why they spent a small fortune on tuition for me to change an adult diaper—for minimum wage, no less—but the experience was invaluable.
Although I was discouraged from becoming a teacher, my takeaway from just a few weeks in a severe special education classroom deeply resonated with the progressive values of my college education. It reinforced my fundamental and, indeed, radical belief that people with disabilities should be fully included in social and economic participation. I now advocate for visual artists who are partially sighted and blind. To vanguard their civil rights is to believe—to know—that disability is a condition of being to be treated with dignity, no matter the effort.
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