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In the fall of 1975, almost three years after my arrival at Tropical Elementary, I was granted my fondest wish: a transfer from the school’s Special Education department to Mrs. Anne Brown’s regular fifth grade class. I had been Mrs. Margo Chambers’ student from November of 1972 to June of 1975, and although I was fond of her and my disabled peers, I longed to attend regular classes with the non-disabled kids. I felt comfortable with so-called “normal” children and wanted to be part of their world. After all, I’d studied in regular classes before, and I unconsciously missed that academic environment.
I don’t think I was kept back from being mainstreamed into regular courses by the physical manifestations of my spastic cerebral palsy. The damage to the motor center of my brain was relatively minor in comparison to other kids affected by CP; I could walk without the need of braces or crutches even though I often stumbled and fell, and I didn’t usually need help going to the bathroom or to dress myself. (This is still true today, but not as much as it was then.)
I can also talk relatively intelligibly despite a tendency to slur my words as if I’ve consumed one rum and Coke too many. (As Geri Jewell, a comedian with the same disability I have, used to say, “I’m not drunk – I have cerebral palsy.”)
But even though I could read above fifth grade level and did well in my English and social studies classes, I didn’t do well in math classes. I didn’t grasp multiplication or division until I was nearly 12 years old, a fact that I’m still embarrassed about some 40 years later.
On top of that, I had serious socialization problems that manifested themselves between my ninth and 12th birthdays.
Even though I’ve always been the more good-natured and happier of Mom’s two children, I wasn’t exactly an angelic child. If I had problems at home and went to school in a bad mood, I would lose my temper over the smallest thing. For instance, on several occasions I had violent temper tantrums when I lost at competitive games such as checkers or “Battleship.” My friends eventually stopped playing any of those games with me because I was both a sore loser and an ungracious winner.
I also started to feel insecure about my body image and the way non-disabled children – especially girls – perceived me.
When I finally made the cut and was accepted into Mrs. Brown’s fifth grade classroom, I was going “steady” with a cute girl I’d met in Special Ed a few days after I arrived at Tropical; she was one grade ahead of me, so she was mainstreamed to Mr. Whatley’s sixth grade class over in the next classroom wing. We had a good relationship at the time, and even though we no longer spent time together in class, we hung out together – mostly at her parents’ house – on weekends. Sometimes we’d meet in a cozy spot outside the fifth grade wing and share a quick kiss or two.
I was happy with my girlfriend, but I was also entering puberty then. I suffered – literally – from growing pains as I grew taller, and I couldn’t help but notice that the girls in my class were, well, more attractive than they had been the year before. So even though I had no intention to cheat on my girlfriend, I did see that the girls around me were beginning the transition from children to young women.
Suddenly, I was painfully aware that if I was looking at the girls in my fifth grade classroom in a different light, surely some of them were looking at me – and not liking what they saw. I walked and talked “funny,” and because I was shy and didn’t talk much except when Mrs. Brown asked me to participate in class, some of my classmates often speculated about my mental ability and whether I liked girls or not.
I sometimes felt like a circus freak – or an outcast. As a result, I lost much of my self-confidence and began to withdraw into a safer but emotionally limiting world of books and movies.
In addition, I wasn’t an outstanding student in Mrs. Brown’s class; I remember that she was a patient and gentle teacher, but I often tried her patience, especially when it came to homework or math class. I was a bright kid with a lot of potential, but I lacked focus and discipline.
I disliked math with a passion because it made me feel stupid, and even though I had finally learned how to multiply and divide correctly, I struggled to keep up with my peers. Worse still, I didn’t always do my homework; I often preferred to watch television until it was bedtime instead of tackling reading assignments or doing a certain number of math problems.
As a result, I was often on the receiving end of stern-but-fair lectures from my exasperated teacher. “Alex,” Mrs. Brown would say, “I’m very disappointed in you. I know you can do the work and be an excellent student. Why aren’t you trying harder?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Brown,” I’d say meekly. “I’ll try harder.”
I didn’t like disappointing adults, especially ones that I looked up to, so I tried harder. And although I didn’t become one of Mrs. Brown’s star pupils, I got better at studying for tests and turning in my homework on time. My grades were a hodge-podge of As, Bs, and more than my fair share of Cs, but Mrs. Brown was so pleased with my performance that she chose me to participate in a Bicentennial flag raising in January of 1976.
I ended the school year with grades that were – barely – good enough to earn me a promotion to sixth grade. My teachers and mother believed in me, and so did my friends. Now it was up to me to see if I had the right stuff to finish elementary school as a mainstreamed student – or go back to the safe cocoon of Special Ed.