Trigger warning: Use of the r-word and detailed description of a bullying incident by an authority figure.
It was eighth grade. Our history teacher, Mr. S, gave us a vocabulary quiz every Friday with words that I later discovered were on most SAT vocabulary memorization lists in order to broaden our vocabulary. To get full credit, you needed to spell the word correctly, recall its part of speech, and write the definition Mr. S had given us word for word. It was one of very few things that I believe he did well, and certainly augmented my vocabulary. But Mr. S was not a good teacher by any stretch of the imagination. He was fired at the end of the year, and he honestly ought to have been fired sooner for the way he treated his students. You see, teaching is far more than possessing book-knowledge and writing exams. Excellent teachers are those who empathize with their students, are genuinely concerned about their emotional and intellectual well-being, and whose actions and speech to and about their students are respectful of their dignity.
I had a close friend in eighth grade, Ben*, who was in all of my classes. Our school divided the 120-odd eighth graders into four sections, with whom students had all of their classes except math. My section included four other students receiving special education services, including Ben, all of whom were widely known to have learning disabilities and whose disabilities were often highly visible. Ben has multiple disabilities -- dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and another unspecified learning disability. He was several grade levels behind in his spelling abilities. (One time, he spelled very simple words wrong.) Other students often bullied Ben because he was short, overweight, and learning-disabled.
One time at recess, another student said to me, "You're a retard because you hang out with retards." I don't remember what I said. I like to think I said that neither Ben nor I were retarded. But I don't remember.
Another time, the four other students receiving special education services all happened to be out of the classroom at the same time for scheduled services during Mr. S's history class. "Now that a certain four people aren't here," sneered Mr. S from the front of the room, sarcasm dripping from his smile, "we can actually get some work done." The class laughed. I shifted my weight uncomfortably in my seat. I couldn't look at Mr. S. I tried to pretend he hadn't just said what he'd just said, but how could I?
But at least those students weren't there when Mr. S said that. That wasn't the worst.
It was a Friday afternoon. Our history class was lazy and tired and wanted the week to be over. We had several words on that week's list, including a word that I had discovered great pleasure in repeating -- vicissitude. None of us wanted to take the quiz. (After all, what eighth graders do you know who would enjoy these weekly vocabulary quizzes?)
"I'll make a deal," said Mr. S. He looked about the classroom as people straightened in their seats, eagerly waiting to hear his offer. "Ben, come up here." He looked at my friend as Ben complied and walked to the board. "If Ben spells vicissitude correctly, I'll give you all one hundred percent." All eyes were on Ben. I remember hearing someone snickering. Someone else cheered, "Yeah, Ben!"
He picked up the dry erase marker and faced the white expanse of the board, squinting closely. Some of us encouraged him. I had been studying with him earlier in the week to help him memorize the vocabulary words. With prompting and encouragement, he eventually spelled the word vicissitude.
But it shouldn't have happened. None of it. I should have spoken up. I wish I had said something so badly.
But I didn't.
In the last few weeks, I saw two stories in the news about special education students who made recordings (one video, one audio) of their teachers verbally abusing and bullying them (1).
Why does this happen? Why did I grow up in a school where that behavior was tolerated and allowed to happen? Why did it take the whole year before Mr. S was fired? Did no one go to the administrators? Or did the administration not care enough? Why did no one else speak up? Why couldn't I say something?
We're supposed to be able to trust our teachers. We are in their care and custody. They exercise great power over us while we are their students, particularly when young, and the words that they say can irreparably harm and have long-lasting repercussions far beyond the classroom. I know a person with a learning disability who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because an elementary school teacher spent an entire year bullying and abusing her.
This is not an isolated problem. These are not isolated incidents. They are indicative of serious, systemic problems both in our educational system and in our society. This is not the fault of the individual teacher's alone, but our entire communities share in culpability for these horrific actions. The school administrators and other teachers, the students who are bystanders, the policymakers, the people who encourage and promulgate ideas about the inferiority or otherness of people with disabilities.
And me. I didn't speak up. And doesn't change start with one person? One butterfly flapping its wings alone can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. I wish I had been that butterfly.
(1) Hibbard, Laura. "Julio Artuz, 15-Year-Old Special Needs Student, Records Teacher Verbally Abusing Him." Huffington Post. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
* Ben is not his real name, although S is the teacher's initial.