A is for Apple: The Special in Special Education

Last year author, Mary Catalina Vergara Egan a new follower over at Chapter1-Take1 invited me to join in something called the A to Z Challenge. Here’s how last year’s challenge began for me:

Today's letter is A and the whole alphabet theme of the challenge brought me back to my days as a single working woman, subbing in elementary school classrooms in the latter half of the 1980s. Those days came to a screeching halt when the teachers went on strike in May of 1989.

A is for Apple

Me? A teacher? I couldn't believe that all it took to go from Universal Studios tour guide to card-carrying substitute teacher was a bachelor's degree and a passing grade in the C-Best, California's emergency credential exam. I was pretty damn sure that you had to be a whole lot more qualified, a whole lot smarter than I was for the Los Angeles Unified School District to put you in charge of a classroom full of elementary school kids.

But I was wrong. There I was, not one minute of teacher training, not a single education credit, somehow in the teacher's chair facing a small group of four to six-year-olds, each with special needs, sitting around the table. To my left was Isabella, all stick thin arms and legs, and despite the cerebral palsy that kept her stuck in a wheelchair, always smiling. Alex had big dark eyes; long, velvety eyelashes and brain cancer. Amanda, stubborn, distractible, pulling on one stubby black pigtail with one pudgy hand, sucking on the other, was what we used to call severely mentally retarded. Casey, pale and bony beneath a sleeveless t-shirt and pink shorts despite the chill of a California winter, couldn't sit still for more than two minutes. Her mother had been on something when she got pregnant with Casey. Heroin? Cocaine? The two classroom aides, sitting off to either side, leaned forward in their chairs, ready to pounce if one of our charges got too antsy.

I had come in early to cut out apples from red construction paper. I'd poured white glue into empty margarine tubs and set them around the table, a cup of dried beans alongside. A is for Apple I printed in big black letters across the large sheets of white paper, making the capital A extra big. Circle time was over, we could do one more activity and the morning bath-rooming before the recess bell.  

"A is for Apple" I sing-sang to the kids, demonstrating how to stick the red apple to the paper; how to glue down one bean after another, following the black lines to form the letters. 

"A is for Apple," Alex said so softly I could barely hear him. 

"Apple" Amanda repeated, taking her hand out of her mouth, dunking a bean in the white glue and pasting it to the page.  

"Apple," I nodded at Amanda, smiling as she stuck another bean on the page. 

Her hands were a mess, covered in Elmer's; Miss Julia busy keeping Amanda from putting her sticky hands back in her mouth, while Miss Annie had to gather up the handfuls of beans Casey kept throwing onto the floor.

"Miss Good, Miss Good!" I looked up to see Isabella pointing at Casey. "That's not A is for Apple" she giggled. "Silly Casey."

Casey, ignoring the letters, was almost finished covering her red apple with the beans; it was brown and bumpy like a pebble-covered beach.

"That looks beautiful," I told her. I could imagine the cool of the stones under my feet.

"It's a pumpkin." She stuck one last bean down. "I made a pumpkin."

"P is for Pumpkin!" Isabella shrieked giddily.

"It certainly is. P is for pumpkin, right Casey?" But she was already skipping away to the sink, Miss Julia following behind.

"Teacher?" It was Alex. "I'm finished."

"Oh Alex, that's great. You did such a good job."

I wasn't just saying that, wasn't just being supportive. Alex' beans were laid end to end, nice and tidy, no gaps at all. Like a perfect mosaic border. He looked shyly at me, beaming a tiny, proud smile. I wanted to reach over and run my hand over his head, a soft inch of hair growth coming back after his last surgery. I wanted to give him a little hug but of course, I didn't. I couldn't. I was his teacher, not even his real teacher, his substitute teacher, not his mother. 

I wasn't Amanda's mother, who I would later have to report for hitting Amanda on the stomach with a hairbrush. I wasn't Casey's mother struggling to stay clean, to be a better mom. I wasn't Isabella's mother who met the school bus every day greeting Isabella with a big hug and a huge smile and a 'How's my beautiful girl?'  

I was in my mid-thirties but I wasn't anybody's mother; working with those kids made me almost glad. I didn't think I could take it, the way they made me laugh, how they tried my patience, how they hurt my heart. That daily heartache was bad enough. I didn't think I would survive the kind of crushing heartbreak that a mother like Alex' mom would have to survive one day, a day sooner than any of us could imagine.

A is for apple and a little boy named Alex.

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