Lifeline To Non-Special Ed

When I was in eighth grade I was still attending the Waldorf school. This was something of an embarrassment for me when around other kids–I don’t know why it was, but maybe it was because I knew there was something weird about going to an expensive private school and I didn’t really know how to be thankful for that privilege, so I made fun of it instead.

Anyway, at the end of eighth grade my parents and I were trying to decide what high school I should attend. There was a Waldorf High school in Seattle, but the commute would have been atrocious and the cost as well. I visited the public school and the only part I can really remember is visiting the special ed English class.

The class was writing “poems.” I say “poems,” because they were only poems in the loosest of terms. The prompts were dull and didn’t promote lyrical interest or precision. It was more about comparing things to other things. I wrote about a pig, but I can’t remember what I compared it to.

I remember the people in that classroom being quite nice, but still, I wasn’t impresses with the public school system. I felt as though they were catering to the person who moved the slowest–which, in many ways, it does. Regardless, I would spend countless hours in that classroom over the next 3 years. There was no way to avoid it, and parts of it were actually pretty fun because every once in a while I’d find myself in the class with someone who wasn’t socially awkward–he was behind in some way, but he was also a popular person outside of that classroom. It sorta felt like I was their lifeline, and they were mine, to the outside world of non-special ed courses. It felt good to be that for someone, even just for one class.

Context Is Everything

English is an inherently boring subject. When not paired with anything else English is just not interesting for someone who can speak it already, but can’t understand the written rules. It’s like chalk. Chalk is fun to draw with on the sidewalk, but if someone hands you a piece of chalk and says “No drawing, no writing about anything, just examine and play with this piece of chalk,” you’ll find yourself pretty bored. The same is true with pens and pencils… and English.

For example: Lets learn about English! No don’t write anything you like to think about. Don’t pass notes in class. Don’t write a story. Here. Look at this sentence about people you don’t know and tell me which commas are in the wrong place.

That sounds boring no matter how you put it.

And, by the way, I still probably couldn’t place the commas correctly 100% of the time. But I don’t think I’m the only one.

What I’m trying to get to is this: most English teachers don’t know how to relate how English works to the kids they teach. They want high school kids to read books like The Scarlet Letter (which sucks) and then write a compare and contrast essay about the characters. That book was so boring why would anyone want to compare those characters to anything? That’s how I felt at the time. I felt like the whole process was a waste of time, just like I felt that reading sentences and trying to spot the spelling errors was a waste of time when I was in 4th grade and sitting at a table with Amy and watching he point at each sentence and ask me, “Do you see anything wrong with this?”

I would probe her horsey face for the answer instead of looking at the sentence. I hoped she’d give it away but she never did.

I think for people to be interested in anything they need to first be interested in where it’s going. For me, that meant understanding written English so I could read Pokemon Cards.

After seeing Amy for a while, my dad and I once stopped at the Northgate Mall where there was this store called Wizards of the Coast. Wizards was a nerd place that had lots of computers for playing online games (this was sorta before online games could be owned at home) and lots of people playing different card games like Magic The Gathering, Star Wars, and Pokemon Cards. Being a fan of the Pokemon video game, I was enthralled by the cards–even if I couldn’t read what they did. My dad agreed we could buy one pack of Pokemon Cards each week as long as I did my homework that Amy gave me. Suddenly I had a goal. I had a topic that forced me to read.

What I’m getting at is this: Paint is no fun if you can’t use it. English is no fun for the same reason. I had no use for reading before Pokemon Cards. With the cards came a purpose. I needed to learn to read if I wanted to play the game. That’s like life as well.

Us Against The World

When I met my dad on the mainland he picked me up in his old Toyota and we’d drive south to meet Amy, the lady who was suppose to teach me how to read and write like the kids in my class. Unfortunately for me, however, the appointment was on Mondays so I missed Monday Night Football which really hurt because my older brother and I would watch Monday Night Football every week and even though I didn’t really care about the teams or know the players, it was still fun to hang out with him. Instead my dad and I listened to the game as we drove. 710 KIRO radio was okay, ┬ábut wasn’t the same as watching it with Ryan, my big brother.

One thing that was a real plus, though, was that my dad would take me to Burger King, which was one of the few times I’d got to eat fast food. We’d both order woppers from the drive-thru and sodas and it felt really good to have him driving and the radio on, listening to the game and sipping soda and eating junk my mom wouldn’t have wanted us to eat, because right then, it felt like we were sorta on a team–like the guys playing football, but for my dad and I, it was us against the world and the English language which I would surely figure out with this extra special help him and my mom were paying for. I remember using napkins meticulously to cover my lap so I wouldn’t spill anything in the car, which was the first time I can remember being particular about something–I hated spilling food. I still do.

Then we arrived at Amy’s office and in the winter it would be raining and dark and it didn’t make me want to read or write or think hard at all.

Amy was a nice lady, even if she tried to get me to do stuff I really didn’t like. Her office was behind a house and it smelled sorta new, maybe it had been painted recently or something. She had shoulder length blond hair–really straight, and a horsey face and wide smile with white teeth. We sat in a room covered with inspirational posters that seemed cheesy and vague to me. Now I only remember them as colors. She asked me to read different children’s books that weren’t interesting at all. Then we would do worksheets that built my vocabulary, but also, I suspect, attempted to instill the rules of “problem” letter combos in me so I could understand combinations like GH, TH, SH, CH, and more.

At this point I knew pretty well how to read the easy words like THE, because the shape of the word itself was pretty easy to remember, even if the rules that made the sound and meaning THE weren’t. It’s funny that my parents spent all this money for this specialist to help be, because in the end the thing that helped me the most was just down the road, and my dad and I just stumbled upon it.