Slackjaw: Spelling Cats and Dogs: Teaching special ed ain’t easy, but it beats gym class.

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


When I was in junior high, the guidance counselor–a tall, heavily cologned man with giant cartoonish bat ears–got it in his head that I would make a fine tutor. Not really understanding what I was getting into, I agreed with him.

My first assignment, I was told, was to help some fellow students spruce up their reading skills. I read a lot, so the adults figured I was just the one to help out my fellow students in a one-on-one setting. I was given a room number, and told that I was to report there instead of gym class. That sounded all right by me. (In fact, the gym amnesty was the main reason I agreed.)

There were two things, however, that the guidance counselor never mentioned to me. First, the room where I was supposed to report was the special ed class. Second, I was under the impression that I’d be tutoring much younger kids than myself–the counselor never mentioned that I’d be tutoring kids who were in my own grade.

I nearly shrieked upon walking into the room that first day to find myself confronted with a collection of little thugs, all of whom had beaten the shit out of me at one time or another.

The special ed teacher–an attractive woman in her mid-30s who struck me, even back then, as being awfully high-strung–led me to a table in a back corner of the room and told me to sit down.

She left me alone there, but returned a moment later with Otto, a beefy blond kid with a round face and empty, angry eyes. Otto used to beat up everybody–on the playground, in the hallways, in class. It didn’t matter where. I’d always known he was a little weak in the rafters (we’d been in three classes together), but I had no idea that he was special ed material.

I was handed a stack of cards, each containing a word. My job was, in some cases, to show Otto the card and ask him to read it; in others, to read him the word and ask him to spell it. Any trouble he had, I was supposed to coax him along without coming right out and giving him the answer. I flipped through the cards quickly, expecting at any moment that one of Otto’s hammy fists would catch me just behind the ear, knocking me out cold. The words were things like "cat," "run," "now," "the." Nothing longer than three letters.

I was astonished–this kid was in the 8th grade and was still learning "cat"? Why in the hell was he in three of my classes? I kept these thoughts to myself, and held up the first card.

Much to my surprise (and suspicion), Otto was cordial and pleasant. A little bored, maybe, but he tried. And he never socked me once.

After 15 minutes with him, the teacher took him away and came back with Todd. Todd was a stringy, rat-faced, angry kid who always wore the same shirt, didn’t seem to have washed his hair, ever, and was already a complete burnout by the age of 12. He’d knocked me around a few times, too–and was also in a few of my classes. Like Otto, I knew he was dumb, but had no idea he was special ed dumb. We ran through the same routine with the same vocabulary cards.

By the end of the hour, I felt beaten and sad. Not because the work was so frustrating. It wasn’t–all the kids I dealt with (all of whom I knew) had no trouble with the three-letter words. I felt sad, odd as it may sound, because I was learning a secret. I was learning something about these kids that I wasn’t supposed to know. They didn’t want anyone at school to know that they’d been relegated to special ed, and most of them were clearly embarrassed to find me sitting there, feeding them words like "cow."

It was something I could have very easily used against them–after all, no one (none of the students, anyway) knew that these kids were in special ed. The special ed cases, we figured, were the obvious ones–the Downs Syndrome kid and the kid with the mittens stuffed in his pants. Not this lot, who were in our regular classes with us. These kids were just bullies–they didn’t ride the short bus.

The other kids in school would have a field day if they found out, and little thugs like Otto would lose all their playground credibility. Even the little kids would start calling him names. He’d lose everything.

I didn’t tell anyone. First, Otto would know exactly how everyone found out. More importantly, though, just knowing the situation made me feel somehow ashamed. Hell, I’d called them dummies and idiots in the past (and, of course, was soundly beaten as a result). I didn’t realize what I was saying. I didn’t realize that they’d been certified.

So I kept it to myself. But the next day, I stopped by the class again, to tell the teacher that I couldn’t do it anymore. Just made up some lame excuse that she clearly wasn’t buying.

"I just can’t do it," I told her at the end, before zipping out the door. I was ashamed about that, too, and for the rest of the year, I avoided her gaze whenever we passed in the hallways.

The following year, the same damned guidance counselor got the same damned idea in his head about me, sort of.

In the mid-70s, for those too young to remember, the U.S. received an influx of what were known at the time as "boat people"–thousands upon thousands of Hmong refugees who fled Southeast Asia in rafts and leaky, makeshift boats, all of them seeking political asylum on friendlier shores.

A good many of them, for some reason, ended up in northeastern Wisconsin. Now, the residents of northeastern Wisconsin had never been forced to confront such a flood of immigrants. Not in the 20th century, anyway. Especially not Asian immigrants.

See, Green Bay was the type of place that had one Jewish family (they ran a bakery), and if you were black, it was simply assumed (correctly) that you were somehow connected with the Packers.

Asians were something else all together–especially considering all the vets in town who’d fought in the South Pacific, Korea and Vietnam. There was bound to be trouble, and the urban legends started sprouting up pretty quickly–they were eating the dogs, they were crapping in public, they were gonna be given all the jobs at the paper mill. Hell, these Hmongs didn’t even speak English.

And that’s about where I came in.

Apparently impressed by my brilliant success with Otto and the gang, the guidance counselor informed me that I would now be teaching English to two new Hmong students. When he told me it would get me out of gym class again, I agreed.

I was handed another list of vocabulary words, and led to a shadowy corner of the a.v. room. There, I was introduced to Ng and Cho. Ng seemed a few years older than me, and was very friendly. Cho was about my age, and seemed suspicious and depressed. They both wore remarkable disco outfits–wildly patterned satin shirts and white pants. It was clear that they spoke no English beyond "hi"–if that’s indeed what they were saying.

The three of us sat down together and got to work. They knew the alphabet, I’d been told, so I figured the next place to go from there would be to work on their pronunciation. Make sure they knew how all the letters worked when you stuck them together. I pointed at a word, then asked them both to say it, one at a time.

I pointed at "town."

"Tai," Ng said. So did Cho.

We worked on that one for a bit, then I pointed at "eat."

This time Cho said "tai" first.

Across town, my friend Steve (who went to another junior high) had been asked to do the same thing. First thing he did, he told me, was pick an object up off the floor. Then he pointed at it and enunciated very clearly, "waste paper basket."

He had about as much success as I was having. All I could get out of these two was "hi" and "tai." Nothing more. Every word I pointed at was one of the two. Even after I sounded it out and pronounced it for them, it was either "hi" or "tai" to them.

Soon, I was at a loss, and Ng and Cho had given up completely. I didn’t know what the hell to do–I was 13 fucking years old, for god’s sake. I couldn’t even teach them curse words.

They started talking in their native tongue as I sat there, helpless. It might have been an understandable thing, had they not kept gesturing towards me.

This time, I didn’t quit after one day. I went back again and again and again–and so did they. We kept at it, we kept trying, and we made absolutely no progress whatsoever. From the sound of things, none of their other teachers were having much luck either.

After a few months, I taught them how to play some traditional American games, like tic-tac-toe. They didn’t care. Some days all they wanted to do was stare out the window.

Then one day, they both disappeared. They just stopped coming to the a.v. room, and I stopped seeing them in the hallways. I never found out what happened.

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