Life in Special Ed

Hand reached out to shakeThere can be a feeling that special education teachers somehow have it easier than regular classroom teachers because their class size is generally a dozen students or less where a middle or high school teacher could work with 100+ students each day. So I tell the following story to help build compassion for your and my fellow special educators.

I had the good fortune to secure a middle school special education position in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon early in my teaching career. This was a self-contained classroom that served 10 to 15 year old students with mild to moderate disabilities.

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One of my students “Doug” was a paraplegic due to childhood Spina Bifida. He was a 15 year old in eighth grade functioning in the mildly mentally retarded range with low academic skills, but reasonably good social skills.

Doug had a colostomy bag that needed to be emptied every other class period or it would overflow causing quite a liquid mess in his lap. He was somewhat lazy and not always good about checking the bag and emptying it on schedule. He also knew that if it overflowed he could spend more time cleaning and changing then would miss more academic time. He was slow not dumb!

One day his mother called my room to inform me that Doug had used some of his allowance to buy a tin of chewing tobacco. This was all the rage in middle school, but was forbidden by school policy and obviously state law. Mrs. Douglas couldn’t find the chew tin on Doug’s person, but was sure he had it and asked me to keep an eye out.

When Doug rolled into my portable classroom that morning (they like to stick special ed classrooms in portables. Out of sight, out of mind.) I did a quick visual scan to see if he was chewing or packing where I could see. He looked clean so I figured I’d just keep an eye on him through the morning then maybe send a spy to watch him at lunch.

After the short morning break Doug rolled back into the room and over to his desk to start math. Shortly after the period began he rolled up to my desk and said, “Mr. Jackson, I think I need to go to the bathroom and check my bag, plus I don’t feel well.” I leaned forward so I could see his lap over my desk and he didn’t appear wet, but I was happy he initiated the check and handed him the hall pass. He quickly rolled out the door and was gone.

A few minutes later I scanned the classroom to make sure everyone was on task when I noticed a small brown object under Doug’s desk. As I focused on it, it appeared to be a small dip of used chewing tobacco. Now it made sense! Doug must have snuck a dip of chew while on break and probably swallowed some of the tobacco juice and got sick. So he spit it out then went to the bathroom for a drink. Problem is he left the evidence behind, most likely thinking I wouldn’t see it and he could pick it up when he got back.

I grabbed a couple of tissues and went over to his desk. I was planning to keep the evidence and see if he would come clean when he returned. I picked up the small brown material and for some reason felt compelled to smell it to make sure it was chew. Much to my sense’s displeasure it wasn’t chew! It was a small, round, turd! I took such a deep inhaled whiff that I got the full fragrant aroma and began gagging immediately to the point I almost puked! I was so nauseated I had to leave the classroom. As I exited the outer door and turned to walk down the ramp to the main building I noticed several more small brown treats had spilled from Doug’s overflowing bag leaving a breadcrumb trail all the way into the building. This ignited my gag reflex yet again.

I went back into the classroom and grabbed the box of tissues to pick up all of the fecal presents before anyone saw them as to not embarrass Doug.

An hour and a half later at lunch I wasn’t able to eat. Particles from the smell test I had engaged in earlier in the day seemed to have adhered to my nasal passages and would randomly resurface that aromatic scent at the most inopportune times. Twenty-five years later I truly believe I can still smell that most unwelcome mass when I think about that day.

So please, the next time you happen by a special ed teacher shake their hand, but only after making sure it’s clean!