My Special Education

When my sister was born, she was clearly unusual.  Her appearance, her distinctive facial and physical features were a curious, unexplainable phenomenon.  I remember thinking, “Where did this baby come from?  Whose baby is this?”  

My sister, as an infant, had dark, almost black, upturned eyes, a flat nose, a small mouth and large tongue.  Her ears were curved inward.  She had a single crease across both palms of her tiny hands, short stubby fingers, tiny feet with a larger than normal space between the big toes and the rest of them.  

She was extraordinarily double-jointed – almost as if she had no bones at all.

I didn’t know that the features that gave my sister her unique appearance were the physical elements that made people with Down syndrome recognizable.

Lying in her crib, I often peered in at her; she, staring into space, her dark eyes, like the black buttons that closed my winter coat, fixed on the musical mobile dangling above her head.  I don’t remember her ever crying or laughing or making any sound, really.  She was always silent, lying on her back, occasionally moving her feet and hands. 

For the first three years of her life, my sister couldn’t roll over, sit-up or stand; and she couldn’t talk.  She shifted her position only minimally, often with help.  Around three years, she started to roll over, sit up, maneuver herself onto all fours and sit in a chair without slumping into a bunch.  She experienced some level of independence at around four years, scooting across the floor, propelling herself by thrusting her legs and feet forward and humping herself ever onward.  

She grew and developed in her own way, along her own timeline.

“I hate it,” she told me one day as we prepared to go to her job at McDonald’s. She cleared and wiped down tables at McDonald’s and was overjoyed to do that. She was around twenty-two. “I hate it.”   She looked down at her lap, seemingly talking to herself.

I reached to pull her seatbelt over her ever-expanding waistline. “Why?” I asked. “You like working there.”

“They make fron’ a me.”


“The kids; the kids; make fron’ a me.” Her eyes magnified behind her thick glasses, smudged and always in need of a good cleaning, searched for answers in my face that, even if I could explain, would never really ring true for her. 

Even now, my sister survives on the belief that people are essentially good; and each time she experiences the recklessness of others, her expression is consistently a mix of deep sadness, regret and the hope that she will be forgiven for being so unusual – so much unlike others that the most she could ever expect is to be forgiven.  

All people with Down syndrome have some degree of mental retardation or developmental delay.  They are, however, far from being incapable of learning, especially to the degree that emotional expression, social expectation and the way in which others treat them as normal.  They are very sensitive to being a part of the social group. I know I am well outside the boundaries of making a gross generalization, but it is my best judgment that people with Down syndrome are quite emotionally adept, genius at expressing affection toward others. Their intellectual capacity cannot be reliably predicted in infancy and early childhood, but their ability to express love and caring toward others is evident from a very early age.  (I am well within my comfort zone making this generalization, and I invite my reader to take exception with it.)

My sister entered school at around the same age as other children, only she spent her days in a room where the window in the door was covered with construction paper.   I never saw her at recess, and we never sat together at lunch.  Knowing her as I did, I could only imagine that she was content among her friends and teachers, never questioning the good intentions of those who were responsible for her care and education. 

My sister went from elementary, to junior and on to senior high school seated behind a window covered in construction paper.

When she was twenty, she graduated from high school; and for all her efforts, she was mailed a diploma and a copy of her yearbook.  Inside were an empty oval where her picture should have been and a barren, blank square where her biography might have been printed, if anyone had taken the time to gather the information from her.

Of course, when she got the book in the mail, she leafed through it.  She had no idea that her picture should be there, alongside the other members of her graduating class.  She couldn’t even have imagined such an honor. She was content to look over the familiar faces she remembered from school – the lunch lady, pictures of the abandoned hallways, the quad.

My mother, much less content, contacted the school and demanded that my sister’s picture be duplicated and sent by mail to everyone who had purchased a yearbook.  Not only should there be a picture, but my mother strongly suggested that my sister’s favorite color, her favorite song, her most commonly spoken phrase and her most cherished memory accompany the photo in exactly the same proportions as the oval and blank spaces that were provided to her on page 31 of her yearbook.

My sister was quite proud when she pointed out her own picture in the yearbook, after discovering it one day, glued perfectly within the spaces inside her yearbook – as if it had always been there, proof that she was like everyone else.  She looked up at me, through those damnable glasses, kissed her hand and brought it down on top of her own picture. “S’me,” she said, “S’me.” She laughed, extending her long tongue as she drew in more air to feed her belly laugh.

My sister has never been like anyone else, really. She is my cherished and pure spirit, someone who is never truly unhappy for long or without a friend.  Her life has been a hearty handshake, a warm and sincere hug and a promise for unconditional positive regard toward everyone she meets, no matter who they are or how they may have treated her in the past. I can never imagine comparing myself to my sister’s strength of character and her dedication to the idea that everyone possesses inherent goodness – if we just take the time to see it.

My sister’s medical and cognitive impairments have increased over the years; they unravel the mystery of her human condition more and more each day; but from the day she came home from the hospital, wrapped in a yellow, satin edged blanket, she was the most wonderful gift I could ever have imagined receiving. 

My sister provides me with special education.

From the day she was assimilated into our family and our neighborhood, complete with her own unique personality, her own strengths and her own weaknesses, she has taken every opportunity to become the strong-willed, sensitive and tremendously good-humored woman she is today.


The Use of Force

Bullying is imagined as a childish behavior, albeit quite harmful, often occurring on the playground or while riding home on the school bus. Bullying is generally perceived as a predictable event of adolescent development that we, as adults, are expected to discourage.

I can clearly remember a few times when I had been bullied as a child, by kids who were either bigger than me or just more aggressive.  The majority of my experiences with bullying, however, have taken place in adulthood, in my various workplaces while under the supervision of a bully – both male and female.  The broad leeway we give to managers in how they can use their powers over others less capable of fighting back is a bit more sanctioned – out of reach of the kind of criticism we use to judge children who bully.

I recall working as a child abuse investigator. I received a call from a person who reported that a seven-year-old boy was observed with bruises on his back. He’s covered with black and blue bruises.  His back looks like a Dalmatian.

How do you know this?

We were doing physicals at school this morning. I had to lift his shirt to listen to his breathing.  He’s really thin, by the way.  He’s not eating well.  He never takes off his coat. Poor little thing.

That morning I went to the school to interview the child.  I asked the secretary to contact the child’s mother and see if she could join us.

Can you bring the child out so I can meet him?

It was all very reflexive.

I’d done it a million times before.

I busied myself, sitting on a mini chair, trying to figure out how to get to my next investigation across town and still make lunch with a friend. I looked up from my notes to see a child standing silently in the doorway, hands by his sides, slightly slumped. He seemed frail, thin and withdrawn.  I greeted him by offering my hand, which he accepted.  He did not grasp my fingers; only placed his hand in mine and complied.  Staring at the floor, he whispered good to my question, How are we today? He was dark-haired with wide brown eyes and very pale skin. He was scruffy, somewhat stale looking – in need of some sprucing.  His hair was apparently cut at home. He was a bit underweight, but not exceedingly so. He was just small. He wore pants that were too short for him, tattered sneakers and a girls’ pink, quilted coat with a white, fur-lined hood. Somewhat confused by the coat, I continued with my standard introduction. My job is to help kids who need help.  I’m here to make sure you are doing okay. Are you doing okay? 

He didn’t answer; only looked at his sneakers.

I explained to him that I was told he had a problem with his back and I was there to help him, if he needed my help.  Can I have a look?  I just want to make sure you’re okay.

Mechanically, without saying a word, the boy complied.  He unzipped his pink coat and laid it across the seat of the chair.  He removed his shirt and turned around, revealing his back covered in various sized bruises.  My experience told me the child had been both punched and pinched.  He had apparently been choked recently, as well.  I contained my surprise and, instead, asked the child to put on his shirt and his coat.  Goodness.  Looks like something happened to your back; and your neck.  Can you tell me about it?  The child looked at me, tears brimming in his eyes, but didn’t speak.  His eyes, however, said, Help me.  I don’t know what to do.

My eyes said, I know you.

The boy’s mother arrived soon after and took a seat in the mini chair across from me. She was quite unremarkable, thin, with long brown hair and sunken cheeks. She wore a black, cloth jacket and jeans. She didn’t have her dentures with her that morning. A distant chime announced that the school-supply cart was making its rounds, selling novelty erasers, rulers, notebooks and stickers to the children who could afford to pay.  I reached for my wallet and handed the child a crisps five-dollar bill. Almost immediately the child’s mother reached and took it from the boy’s hand and pushed it into her coat pocket. I sat in amazement, not sure how to react.

He needs to go back to class, the mother said. You go on and get back to class.

The boy in the pink coat turned and left the room, ostensibly to return to his classroom.

Sorry we don’t have better chairs for you, I said.

The child’s mother folded her hands on her lap and looked at her knees.  I introduced myself and explained why I was there. I asked if she had noticed the bruises on her son’s back and neck.  Does he complain about pain in his back?

She leaned forward and folded her fingers into one another, as if praying.  She looked up at me, Kids do that.  They punch him in the back. They are forever punching him and choking him. His daddy is working with him – trying to make him tough.  He ain’t tough.  He’s more like a girl when it comes to things like that.  We are doing our best to make him into a boy. It’s gonna take time. The woman went on to tell me that her son was a sissy.  Her eyes told me she believed I would understand and not judge her for her son’s condition. Her eyes said, You understand; don’t you?

The woman told me her husband, the boy’s father, was concerned that the boy would grow up to be a queer and was doing everything he could to force the boy to fight back and stand up for himself.  That’s where that coat he has on comes from, she said. His daddy makes him wear it.  Things are just getting worse.  Them boys just punch him more.  Call him a queer.  His daddy told him when he starts standing up for hisself, he could take it off.  Don’t let him cry or nothing. Makes him wear it all the time. Day and night.  He even has to wear it to bed.

The door suddenly swung open and the school secretary, with her hand still gripping the doorknob, said, He’s up to it, again!

The woman and I entered the hallway, only to the see the boy in the pink coat sitting on the back of a much smaller child, pounding his fists into his back. Stop! the school secretary shouted.  I moved forward and lifted the boy off the smaller child and attempted to calm him.  Leave me alone, faggot! the boy shouted. I looked at his mother.  Watch your mouth! she shouted.  You wait until we get home.

I left that day, imagining what the discussion would be like at the boy’s home that evening, when they all got home and sat down to point out, as they apparently were accustomed to doing, the flaws in the child’s language and behavior. Maybe the child had finally won the right to put away his pink coat and replace it with a coat more fitting a boy, one worn with the stipulation that he would have to earn the right to wear it, every day.