Excerpt for Special Ed Rock Star by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Special Ed Rock Star

By Roy Fletcher

Copyright 2017 Roy Fletcher

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Introduction

My career in the “SPED Biz” feels like a lifetime of humble pie stuffed into a bulging 12-year crust. In just over a decade, my students have taught me the humility I failed to learn on the road to rock stardom. However, pouring myself out in service to them has fulfilled me more than thousands of cheering fans ever did and made me richer than fortune and fame ever could.



Chapter 1: I Once Signed Autographs, Now I Sign Paperwork

Beginnings don't always reflect outcomes. If they did, I'd still be contentedly working the fields first broken by my ancestors and the mule-drawn plows they drove. For generations, my fathers had abandoned the school house to grow crops and raise animals that became the food on their tables, the clothes on their backs, and the coins in their pockets. I didn't drop out to raise cotton, cattle, or corn. I dropped out to raise hell.

I started playing guitar and abusing various substances in my 13th year. Both were an escape from crushing poverty and a generational trend of abuses of all kinds. One was a gift from God. The gift led me to pursue rock stardom, earn three college degrees, and eventually become a special education teacher. Self-medication led me to the gates of hell. By the time I'd become an 18-year-old "man", I'd been on two tours and overdosed twice.

My first near death experience wasn’t a casual stroll towards the light of Heaven. Rather, it was a rapid plunge towards the fires of hell. I cried out in that moment, saying, “God, if you’re real, don’t let me die!”

He's real because I'm not dead. He's merciful because I didn't die the second time. I realized that I couldn't control the monster I'd befriended, so I found a friend in Jesus. The benefits of this relationship included instant freedom from addiction and a new sense of purpose.

As my mind began to recover from the haze I’d lived in, I started to entertain the crazy notion of going to college. Schools and church houses were somewhat familiar to my family, but college seemed like a distant planet. Yet, I decided to climb aboard the rocket and become the first college man my family had ever proudly owned.

I was determined to succeed. If the car broke down, I hitchhiked 13 miles to the bus stop and rode two hours to get to class. If I didn’t have enough money, I worked extra jobs to get it. I graduated three times with honors, earning Associate, Bachelor, and Master degrees. I had to stop touring during this time, but I continued to play local shows with ex-band members of the Coasters, Rick Derringer, Elvin Bishop, Frank Zappa, America, Christopher Cross, Willie Nelson, and Duke Ellington. I was offered a music director position with a Mandrel sister I'd never heard of but passed on it to finish college.

After completing the first two degrees, I began touring again. One of my bands was submitted for 11 Grammy nominations. Other highlights included auditioning for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and opening shows for Al Green, Dick Dale, and David Gray. I played hundreds of shows a year to thousands of fans, made radio and television appearances, and signed countless autographs. Then one day, I walked away from it all.

My lengthy absences were having an undesirable effect on my two-year-old son. He was happy when I was home with him but became despondent when I left. My desire to be a good father overpowered my ambition to be a rock star. The decision to leave was surprisingly easy, but my next step took a bit of soul searching. After weighing my options, I decided to become a teacher. When I quit my band, they looked at me like I had multiple heads. I got the same look when I announced that I was going to teach special education, not music. On the surface, it made no sense, but reflection is a deep pool filled with experiences that shape our choices and destiny. A careful search through my memories revealed a pivotal moment: the day Willie took my hand.

Being an almost-famous rock star doesn't pay as handsomely as most people imagine, so I supplemented my income as a special education substitute teacher. I was on a long term assignment when I met Willie. He couldn't see or speak, but he smiled and swayed to the sound of the guitar I played for the class.

Willie was a ward of the state. He was brought to a windowless concrete room situated far from the regular classes on campus. Every school day, he worked the same puzzles by touch until the short yellow chariot whisked him and his fellow residents back to the state school for the night.

I felt sad for the perpetually smiling boy with no family. I wondered if he could learn more. Had his teachers asked themselves the same question, or was it easier to leave him in the dark? Sensing that my curiosity wouldn’t be appreciated, I simply held my peace and did as I was told.

On the last day of the assignment, my duties changed. I was asked to help Willie get on the bus because they were shorthanded at dismissal. I put my hand close and he instinctively took hold. I was surprised by the compassion that flooded me. I thought about his dependence upon me to be a decent human being worthy of his trust. As the bus took him away for the weekend, I realized that it would be the last time I would see him outside of my memories.

He’s a grown man now, but I still see an African American boy wearing a striped shirt under a brown canvas coat. I feel the trust in his extended hand and see the irrepressible smile that profoundly affected my destiny. I remember Willie every time I sign special education paperwork, because unlike an autograph, these signatures affect the destiny of a child.



Chapter 2: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I sat on the hard plastic chair in the air-conditioned neon tunnel. The veteran special education coordinator entered the room and greeted us. She began her dissertation immediately, and a few hours later I remembered why I hadn't liked school as a boy. Listening to someone drone on for hours with the expectation that I would sit silently on a rock in a dimly lit cave was an experience I decided not to share with my future students.

Being a brand new teacher, though, I reckoned that I should pay attention to my grizzled guru. She had credentials and experiences akin to superpowers. I did my best to absorb all of her tips and practical wisdom. She concluded with, “Welcome to special education, where no good deed goes unpunished.”

Her jaded statement has proven to be largely true, but I’ve developed a more tempered perspective that parallels nature. The special education business is like seedtime and harvest except that we rarely see the crops come to fruition. Instead, we break the ground only to find stones of cognitive dissonance that must be removed before we can plant the frail seeds of knowledge. We return to the same fields day after day to find that the seeds have been taken or that the tender shoots we've been nurturing have withered away. Then, we patiently start over and do the best we can in the season we've been given. Generally speaking, we get only an ear or two of corn for every acre we cultivate. This labor intensive, low yield crop attracts the attention of drive-by educational experts, of whom I possess a less tempered view.

These folks roll out new programs that require extensive training hours and new paperwork to add to our already burgeoning mounds of former trees. Their products differ slightly from the ones we've been using but promise to deliver miraculous improvements. When the results fail to materialize, we spend more of our personal time being retrained because we are apparently the roots of the problematic tree that have failed to yield the desired bumper crop.

We are not the problem. We are the tired but tireless heroes who perform the good deed of improving the quality of life for special needs children in our society. Our punishment is the expectation that our students perform to the same standards as their non-disabled peers.

We fare no better than our students. We are evaluated by the same standards as general education teachers – a rubric that entirely ignores the unique skill sets we must possess to effectively teach our students. So, we blindly dig in and work ourselves to the boiling point of burnout as we try to balance the appeasement of dollar-dangling bureaucrats against the real needs of our kids. In the midst of the adversities we face in the “sped biz”, there are breakthroughs that buoy our hopes and remind us that the effort is worthwhile.

My breakthrough with Carl came after enduring a year of physical and verbal aggression. He brutally resisted all attempts to interact with the written word, as he could not read. On these occasions, he would display the vocabulary of a truck driving ex-sailor coupled with the demeanor of a scalded ape. Throwing chairs, hitting, kicking, cursing, and shouting was the extent of his social skills. One day, he told me he was going to murder me and then kill himself. I asked, “How are you going to do that?”

If he’d told me he didn’t know, that would have meant that he was just angry and blowing off steam. He knew exactly how he was going to do it and didn’t mind sharing the details. “I’m going to bring a knife to school, duct tape you to the wall, slice you up and then slit my throat!"

I asked him where he’d get the knife. He said, “From the kitchen drawer, duh!”

Given that he’d already attempted to stab me in the neck twice before with pencils, I took him seriously. I also took proactive steps to prevent him from realizing his dream of murder-suicide. All sharp objects were locked up and he was no longer allowed to carry a backpack to school.

When he returned from the psychiatric hospital, he was calm and compliant. They'd hit upon the correct cocktail of medications to soothe his bipolar disorder with psychotic features and severe ADHD. His shoelaces had been replaced with zip-ties during the suicide watch at "Club Meds". Despite his calm bearing, his parents weren't willing to return his laces, just as I was reluctant to relax any of my safety measures.

I started over with a new plow and fresh seeds. I patiently worked with him, and by the end of third grade, he could read at a second-grade level. He stopped trying to harm me and no longer cursed me. After an exhausting two-year season, I saw the frail seeds of knowledge take root and become a tender shoot. I'd harvested an ear of corn from an acre of toil in the hard soil. However, there would be no bumper crop.

His mother decided he wasn’t making enough progress with me. She revoked special services and placed him in general education. Without academic and behavioral supports, he failed miserably. The words that once seemed so jaded rang true: “Welcome to special education, where no good deed goes unpunished.”



Chapter 3: Red and Yellow, Black and White

My first teaching job was in a Title I school, meaning that the majority of the students were on free or reduced price meals. Often, I saw kids carefully wrap part of their food in a napkin and stick it in their pockets. They took the morsels home for their siblings who weren’t yet school age so that they wouldn’t go hungry. They normally drank water to fill their own bellies at dinnertime. When they returned to school on Monday mornings, despite the gnawing hunger from a weekend of little or no food, they faithfully wrapped portions into napkins for their dependents.

Most of the students were African-American, and they were very curious about the white male teacher now working in their school. One day, a group of students was eating their lunch, looking at me and whispering. They grew louder in their disagreement until I heard, "You ask him!" followed by, "No – YOU ask him!"

I smiled at them, walked over to the table, and said, “What would you like to ask me?”

Their young spokesman cleared his throat, steadied his nerves, and asked, “Do white people have blue blood?”

I held out my arm, rolled up my sleeve, and showed them my veins. “Looks blue, doesn’t it?”

“Yes sir, it does,” he said.

“My blood is red like yours. I’ve heard that it’s because our blood is blue until it comes out of our bodies and air hits it. I’m not sure that’s true. It probably has something to do with the way skin absorbs light. If your skin were white, it would look blue, too.”

The boy seemed satisfied with my answer. He turned to his doubters and said, “See? I told you so!”

On another occasion, a student spotted me having a conversation with an African American teacher while we monitored the playground. He approached and asked me, “Why are you talking to each other?”

I replied, “Because we’re friends.”

He said, “You all can’t be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends?” I asked.

He looked at me as though I wasn’t getting it, so he went on to explain. “You know – he’s black.”

“He is?” I asked.

This time he spoke to me more slowly, emphasizing each word in the hopes that I’d gain a bit more insight this time around. “Yes – and you’re white….”

I turned to my colleague who’d been listening to the exchange and asked, “Are you aware that you’re black?”

“I am?” he asked.

“Well, this young man seems to think so. Also, he’s informed me that I’m white. Were you aware of that?”

“No, I guess I never noticed”, he said.

“What’s worse is that we’re not supposed to be friends because of our skin color. Does that sound fair?”

“Not really”, he said.

The boy gazed at us more intently, sure that at any moment we’d finally understand our egregious error and part company.

“What do you think we should do about this?” I asked.

“I think we should be friends anyway”, he said.

“I agree.”

The boy rolled his eyes, threw his exasperated hands into the air, and ran off to play far away from the two crazy teachers.

When I moved to another Title I school a few years later, I encountered (and countered) similar racial misconceptions with the predominately African American student body. Once, when redirecting a disruptive student during a math lesson, he shouted at me, “You’re a racist!”

I calmly replied, “If I were a racist, would working here make good sense for me?” The irrefutable logic of my response stunned him to silence, so he accepted the redirection and returned to work.


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