I arrived at Tropical Elementary School on a cold Monday morning in mid-November 1972, only a few days after I was told I could no longer attend my neighborhood school, Coral Park Elementary. My third grade teacher there was apparently not prepared to deal with a nine-year-old boy who had cerebral palsy and hadn’t yet learned English, so I was transferred to a school with a Special Education department.
Since Tropical Elementary was nearly three miles away from our house, I was bussed to school. So, early on that Monday morning, I stood outside by the curb of SW 102nd Avenue to wait for Bus No. 156, which was due to pick me up at 7:00 a.m.
I only had to wait 10 minutes or so, but to me, those 10 minutes seemed to last a dozen lifetimes.
The bus pulled up to the curb and stopped. The doors hissed open, and I tentatively climbed the steps to board the long aspen yellow Blue Bird vehicle. The driver was a middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair and a blue-and-white Dade County Public Schools bus operator’s uniform. Not sure about what to do and unable to ask for directions, I stared goggle-eyed at her.
“It’s okay, Alex,” the driver said pleasantly. “Just go with Miss Julie and she’ll find a seat for you.” She nodded to a dark-skinned woman clad in a similar DCPS uniform who gently ushered me to my seat. As soon as I was seated by a dirt-streaked window close to the rear, the bus roared off to continue its rounds before heading off to Tropical.
Because our bus had passengers that went to three different schools – Tropical Elementary, Riviera Junior High, and Southwest Senior High – we were an odd assortment of kids that ranged from second- and third-graders like me to pimply-faced teenagers who were a year or so away from graduation.
Most of them were quiet and well-behaved, but I wouldn’t be able to make too many friends on the bus until I learned English. So I sat in my seat and looked out through that dirt-streaked window in an uneasy silence.
After the bus dropped off the older kids at Southwest, we quickly made our way to SW 45th Street and 104th Avenue, site of Tropical Elementary and its neighbor, Riviera Junior High. The two campuses are separated only by a chain link fence and share a common bus loading zone. For the next eight years, the ride to Tropical and Riviera would be part of my routine during the school year.
Tropical’s Special Ed. department was located in the wing of the 1960s-era campus that was close to the bus loading zone. The school had a similar layout to that of Coral Park – several wings of classroom blocks separated by grassy spaces and linked together by covered concrete walkways. It had its nice areas – I liked the open spaces of the PE field and the cozy school library – but Tropical had a utilitarian look that I never really loved.
If memory serves, our Special Ed. department was divided according to our disabilities. Ms. Nabutovsky, for instance, taught kids with visual impairments. Mrs. Chambers (my teacher) and Mrs. Castor taught physically challenged students. Ms. Darrow was responsible for children with Down’s Syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
In Mrs. Chambers’ class, we were divided into sub-groups according to our grade and academic skills. I was assigned to the third grade group that included my friends James Miller (the older brother of NBA player Charlie Miller), Raul Fonseca, Joaquin “Kiki” Trias, and several others.
I was lucky to have Mrs. Chambers; she was bilingual, and even though she taught lessons exclusively in English, she sometimes took some time to explain things in Spanish if she noticed I was confused or didn’t understand directions.
We students spent much of our time in one classroom – Mrs. Chambers’ class was in Room 29. Most of our learning consisted of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the morning, with a trip to the cafeteria for lunch, recess, PE class, then afternoon classwork again.
We also had weekly Cub Scout meetings for those boys who wanted to join Pack 396, and on Tuesdays we’d do arts and crafts with the Garden Ladies. In addition, we all had at least one hour of either physical or occupational therapy.
Since I was only nine (going on 10) and eager to assimilate, I picked up English relatively quickly. Within a year or so at Tropical, I was speaking, reading, and writing the language as if it were my native tongue. At first, I had a slight Hispanic accent; however, after extensive work with a speech therapist, I lost most of it. (I still have trouble pronouncing ch- words correctly, something which amuses my girlfriend Laura immensely.)
Although several child psychologists told Mom that I was a bright child, I was not an outstanding student back then. I loved to read and write, so I did okay in Language Arts classes. I also liked social studies and history; I spent my recess time in Room 29 with volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia instead of playing outside with my classmates.
However, I had – and still have – serious cognitive difficulties understanding math. I could grasp addition and subtraction, but learning my “times tables” was an ordeal that lasted years.
This, in addition to anger management and other emotional issues, is what kept me from being mainstreamed into the regular student body at Tropical.
Now, I’m not sure how things are in Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Exceptional Child Program (as Special Ed is known) in the 21st Century, but at times it seemed like we were a separate school within Tropical. The teachers were nice, yes, and we did learn, but there were days when I felt frustrated because I wasn’t in regular classes with non-disabled kids.
Even though I had lots of friends – including a girlfriend – that I grew to love and cherish, part of me longed to be mainstreamed (even though I hadn’t yet learned that term). Some of my peers (Betsy Matteis, Raul Fonseca, James Miller, and Kerri Ellsworth) were transferred to regular classes a year or so before I was because they were more mature and academically ready.
When I was in fourth grade, I did have some prep classes with a nice (and pretty) redheaded teacher named Miss Bedford. However, it wasn’t until I was promoted to fifth grade that I was whisked permanently from Mrs. Chambers’ class to Mrs. Brown’s regular class over in Room 11.
Mrs. Brown was as pleasant (but not as pretty) as Miss Bedford, and we got along fairly well from the start. Unlike my former teacher at Coral Park, she had taught kids with disabilities and was willing to make minor but necessary adjustments in class for my benefit. She would give me detailed notes of class lectures since I couldn’t write them down quickly enough, and she was kind enough to extend deadlines for book reports and similar projects if I showed “just cause.”
And yet, it was in Mrs. Brown’s class that I learned the meaning of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” If I wanted to be in regular classes, she told me on several occasions, I had to perform well and not use my cerebral palsy as an excuse to slack off.