Part One—My Memoirs From My Special Education Years

I have decided to use my blog to do a 5 part series on my years as a special education teacher. You will have a window into why I chose to teach, the people I met along the way, and the memories that will last a lifetime.
Special education was a part of my life even before I realized it was a part. I grew up with my aunt who was born in the 1930’s. She was born with mental retardation. At a time when many mentally retarded children were put into institutions my grandmother chose to keep her daughter home with her. As a young child I knew Mabel was different, but she was still fun and interesting. Who else had a candy stash in their closet, and had such an awesome key chain collection? It was interesting to me as I got older that she could tell you things, and remember in detail events that had happened when she was a child.
My family had a friend at church that had a little girl who was born with a rare chromosomal disorder that caused mental retardation. My sister babysat for them a lot. She was like an assistant to this young mother. As a teen I also helped this same lady teach a special needs class at our church.
I babysat for a neighbor of ours that had a son with CF. (cystic fibrosis) I remember showing up early for my babysitting jobs and being instructed on how to give this little boy his enzyme medication in applesauce so that he would eat it. I remember watching his parents give him therapy before they left for their evening out. They would pound on his back trying to dislodge the mucus that was robbing his lungs of air. I remember how unfair that all seemed…to be a child plagued by a disease that would eventually take his very life.
It was when I was a teen that my desire to do something for this particular population bloomed. At sixteen I volunteered as a hugger at the Special Olympics… was then that I made my decision. I was going to be a special education teacher…I was going to make a positive difference in the lives of children. I was young and naive, but I had the desire and the drive to begin the journey.
At seventeen I took a summer job as an assistant camp counselor with the camps sponsored by our local Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC). Boy was this an eye opening experience! This was a “social” camp for MR adults (ages 18-70’s)……and boy were they social. I remember one night towards the end of camp was the BIG dance. The ladies wanted help getting “prettied up” for the men that would be at the dance. Wasn’t it a hoot that at 17 I was helping ladies the age of my mom or grandmother get ready for their big night out! Older bodies but with the minds of young teens. We teased hair, we put on hot red lipstick, and pranced into the dining hall like we were the best thing to hit this camp since whenever. I remember the fun of watching them have fun. One man was in a wheelchair and stayed on the sidelines…..I asked him if he’d like to dance? He said, “sure” with a big smile on his face. I wheeled him out and spun him around like we were trying out for the Rockettes. He clapped and laughed. He was having fun–and so was I. I had such a good time as counselor that I came back each summer for the next five years.
Along with camps, I also became a house counselor during the summers at some local group homes. When I say that I’ve pretty much seen it all I’m not kidding. I got into an argument with a young woman when I vacuumed under her bed and she had no more dust bunnies under there. She was so mad at me. She told me she collected them! And further more I had ruined her collection. In the same house was Helen, at the time in her early 70’s. She was having a temper tantrum because the senior center bus was late and she thought they had forgotten her. I told her to stand next to the front door and wait. She was not patient and threw herself to the floor in a toddler tantrum. I came running into the room from the kitchen to see this woman flailing around on the floor. I said, “Helen, for goodness sake get up!! I don’t want you to break a hip.” This went on for about 5 minutes…when we heard a honk. The bus had arrived. Helen jumped up, brushed herself off, fluffed her hair, grabbed her handbag and waved as she went out the door. So there you go. Shaking my head I retreated back to the kitchen to finish making eggs for breakfast.
In another home was Gregg. He was 40 years old and severely, profoundly retarded. I think that working with Gregg is when I truly learned how to serve others. (His mom was elderly and could no longer care for him though she visited him often) Gregg was in a wheelchair. Gregg couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t bathe himself, couldn’t talk. I recall wondering what kind of life Gregg had….what he thought about, how he felt, if he ever felt sad about his lot in life……..then it occurred to me. Maybe God had allowed Gregg to live NOT for what he could give to others, but for the opportunity for others to give to him. There was no hidden agenda with Gregg. He had to trust that you’d take care of him. There is something very profound in that.
One of the funniest memories I have is of Phillip. Phillip was small, skinny and wrinkled. He was the ripe young age of 78. Not a tooth in his mouth and only a minimal amount of hair on his head. But what a hoot! I vividly remember this—I was once again fixing breakfast (seems like all the funny stories happened around that time). I was 21 at the time, home from college for the summer, and working at Phillips group home. Back then I was a cute, young blonde. Phillip was a big flirt. This particular morning he joined us for breakfast in the outfit that the good Lord gave him. He had on nothing but a big smile and an open robe. I had my back to him, fixing some bacon in the frying pan. When I turned around my mouth hung open and I was in shock.
Even though I was only 21 my “mom voice” took over. “PHILLIP!!! You get your rear end back in that bedroom and put some clothes on. You better not come back out here until you are covered up. That is NOT allowed, now get moving!!!” He sheepishly made his way back to his room. The rest of us sat silently at the table mulling over the morning’s course of events, eating our eggs and bacon….until I burst out laughing. It really was funny. I couldn’t help but laugh. Leave it to the playboy of the house.
I could go on and on with the stories. Life can be hilarious. Lessons are learned. Strength is gained.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about my first years of teaching.