She smiled with braces and not with her burgeoning teenage lips. She flapped her hands in class like an anxious toddler about to try something new. Cynthia is twelve with hairy armpits; she’s not a kid anymore. But she speaks in baby tones to me and says things like, “Ms. Berkley, can I tell you something?”
“Yes, what is it?”
“I ate a hamburger at my party.”
What party and why is she telling me this while I’m teaching a math lesson? I’m annoyed but I pretend to be excited for Cynthia so she doesn’t feel bad for herself. “You don’t say! I hope it tasted yummy. Can we do some work now please?” I ask.
Cynthia gives me a big, metal, ambitious smile and says, “Ok.” She proceeds to write nonsense words in her notebook to feign understanding the math concepts. Later on that day I sit down with Cynthia to practice reading fluency with her. I am trying to teach her to read a sentence that has a question mark at the end.
“Cynthia, listen to the way I read this sentence. My voice goes higher because there is a question mark at the end. I want you to read it the same way when I’m done.”
I read the sentence. “Is Matt stuck in the lot?”
I look at Cynthia confident she heard my voice travel upward like ascending notes on a scale. I’m about to ask her to read the sentence aloud when she exclaims, “No!”
“No what?” I say and look at her enigmatically.
“Matt is not in the lot,” she squeaks out in a garbled tone.
I raise a perplexed eyebrow. Cynthia senses my dissatisfaction; she giggles embarrassed.
“Cynthia, why did you answer the question? You were supposed to just listen to me.”
“Oh,” More giggles. She’s ashamed. I’m frustrated.
“You don’t have to answer the question when I’m done reading. I just want you to listen to the way I read it. Ok? One more time.”
I read the sentence again, “Is Matt stuck in the lot?”
“No.” Cynthia blurts out again.
I decide to just roll with her and ask, “Cynthia do you know what a ‘lot’ is?”
“Yeah, my mom told me once. It’s like stuff but I forgot.”
And that’s when I crash. “You’re truly a magical kid,” I tell her hoping to be transported to another universe, out of south Brooklyn and to Planet I’m Quitting Teaching. I snap back into reality, engage the compassionate Special Ed teacher in me and move forward.
“Cynthia next time I ask you a question, just take your time answering me. I think you get anxious when a teacher asks you to do something. Just go at your own rate. I support you.” She looks up at me and smiles a real teenage smile, like someone finally understood her for the first time in her life.
Cynthia is classified as learning disabled. I am her 6th grade special education classroom teacher at a middle school in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn. She has an IEP, or individualized educational program, which is what all special education students in New York City have. An IEP is a federal document that provides a description of services and academic modifications legally mandated for the child. Under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, enacted in 1975, all special education students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. I always try to keep IDEA in the forefront of my mind. I’m a child advocate and I want my students to receive the maximum of what they’re entitled to. Even if I get frustrated by their disability sometimes.
While working with Cynthia, I hear commotion in the back of my classroom. Madison and Shariff are about to have a fist fight. Luckily, I have three paraprofessionals to help me diffuse the brewing altercation. Shariff kicks his chair down and starts the initial hostile strut toward Madison. They remind me of wild rabbits: cute but ferocious. Shariff is placed outside the classroom with a paraprofessional, while I call security. I’m completely unfazed by their outbursts.
Shariff and Madison are both 11 years old and classified as emotionally disturbed on their IEPs. The ED students typically don’t have learning disabilities but their behavior can severely inhibit them from learning. They remind me of myself so I get along very well with them. According to IDEA, ED students are entitled to a behavior management plan to help control their behaviors. So, on top of teaching neglected children how to read, I have to tap into my inner Piaget and save my children from their “socially unacceptable” behaviors.
On a bad day like this one, the whole classroom is rotated on its axis: books slide everywhere, answers are always wrong, curses are thrown, tears are shed and horrible things are said and never retracted. I’m in the army but I don’t have a hard-hat or heavy artillery to protect me. I look into my battlefield of a classroom. We are all stunned at what just happened, but used to it. These are familiar emotions for us.
“Mrs. Berkley,” says Nicole, “can you come here?” Nicole is one of my best students. She continued to do her work while the boys were about to fight.
‘Mrs. Berkley did I get this question right?” Nicole is aware that I am not married but she insists on calling me Mrs. Berkley. She knows that the “Mrs.” prefix drives me crazy. It makes me sound like my mother.
“Nicole I told you a million times. I’m not married. It’s Ms. Berkley.”
“How about Mr. Berkley,” she says snidely.
“No, I’m not a man either.” I quip.
“Why don’t you want to get married?” she asks.
“Well who in their right mind would want to spend the rest of their life with me?”
“Why not? Are you weird?”
“Yes, can’t you tell?”
I stare hard at her. She returns my gaze with prepubescent intensity and we both burst into laughter. Why is this girl in my classroom? She’s too emotionally and academically competent albeit speech and language impaired to be here.
“Well, do I have the right answer?” she asks.
“Yes you do.” I say.
“So no math homework?” She asks.
“No math homework,“ I respond.
“Yes!” she says and smiles.
The bell rings. The kids are escorted to the lunchroom and my silent but deadly student Abraham approaches or reproaches me. Abraham is recently labeled ED. He tried to beat up a teacher last year and was placed in special education classes. Abraham leaves a crumpled up note on my desk. It says: “I have pure hatred for you.”
What is he talking about? I bought him a slice of pizza two days ago. “Well I really like you so I’ll take this note as an act of love,” I say affectionately.
He looks at me funny. Children expect to get a rise from the teacher. But I try to remove the taboo from their extreme words. It’s the first step to recovery.
“Don’t talk to me anymore,” he says.
“I’m sorry you feel this way,” I reply.
“Yeah whatever. You put me in this dumb class with retards.”
“No I didn’t sweetheart. I just met you. This is my second week of teaching at this school. And they’re not retards.”
“Don’t ‘whatever’ me boy. Nobody put yourself here but you and your mother. Don’t you dare blame me young man! I am your best advocate so don’t crap where you eat.”
The late bell rings. He calls me a loser under his breath and runs out. It is lunchtime now and I am sad. I feel bad for snapping at him. Abraham doesn’t realize yet that I empathize with him. He doesn’t know about the struggles I faced when I was a student in the New York City public school system. I had many teachers who spoke to and treated me inappropriately. I never had a teacher who recognized my talents or believed in me. That’s why I like Abraham so much. He’s just like me, smart and misunderstood. I do believe in him.
The following day I apologize to Abraham for getting angry with him. I bring him a skateboard as a reward for putting his emotions in writing rather than using his fists. He apologizes for calling me a loser. I want to show him that there are healthy adults in the world who can admit their mistakes.
“You mean I could keep the skateboard! No take backs?”
“None at all.”
Abraham gestures happily and skates to his seat.
I look out into my classroom of students with IEPs. Shariff and Madison are friends again. Abraham earned a new toy. Nicole listens diligently in her chair. They look like everybody else in the school. They wear baggy jeans and du-rags. They love smiling, dancing and learning. Why are they really here?
Music from a car blasts outside our window and my students insist that I dance for them. So I dance. I dance like Ellen. They laugh.
At the end of the day, Cynthia taps me on my shoulder. “Ms. Berkley I have to tell you something.” I’m wary. Is she going to tell me she ate a cheese doodle and if so how am I supposed to react?
“Remember when you said yesterday, who in their right mind would marry you?”
“Yes. I mean I was just teasing.”
“Oh. Well that was a question right?”
“Yes Cynthia it was! A rhetorical one.”
“Yea I heard how your voice went high. It was cool.”
I’m stunned. She is a surprising little girl. “Wow Cynthia. I’m proud of you for hearing that. You know on a bad day with you, 7+3 is always 9. But on a good day, 7+3 is still 9 and sometimes 10, but I’m fine with that. I’d rather teach patience than for you to always have the right answer.”
I don’t think she gets the Annie Hall reference I just made to her. In the film, Woody Allen introduces his grade school peers to the audience and describes poor Ivan Ackerman as always getting the wrong answer. When Allen went to school there was no special education. Poor Ivan Ackerman probably just needed an IEP and he would have escaped Allen’s cinematic ridicule. Cynthia is the new Ivan Ackerman, always the wrong answer but at least she’s nurtured and protected.
Cynthia looks up at me and replies to my comment, “I know. That’s what my mom says.”
“Yea,” she responds and giggles like a child.
“And how about Matt? Is he still stuck in the parking lot after all these hours?”
“No,” she affirms.
Good, I think to myself. I’m glad Cynthia’s cognitive cycles have begun to repeat.
There is comfort in predictability. There is surprising comfort in special education. And for the first time in my life, I feel at home.
Samantha Berkley is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Brighton Beach. She has also worked as an oral history interviewer for the Coney Island History Project.