Except Education

The Spectrum of Secondary Education

byChris Dahl



How I Got into Teaching, a Sort of Prologue

Chapter 1: Disorders That Run a Spectrum: 1 in 500

Chapter 2: A Disorder at the Other End of the Spectrum: The Debbie Harmon Affair

Chapter 3: Winston Westrup: The Case of the Empowered Student, or Another Shade of the Spectrum

Chapter 4: What if There Were No Spectrum?: The Violence Inherent in the System

Chapter 5: Different Shades of the Spectrum: Timmy and Lyle

 Chapter 6: The Dark Side of the Spectrum: Janell Dixie and the American Dream

 Chapter 7: Under the Rainbow: Balloons, Beepers and Beatings in the High School Cafeteria

 Chapter 8: Every Shade in the Spectrum: An Average “Class” in a School Ranked in the Top 100 of the Country “

Chapter 1

Disorders that Run a Spectrum: 1 in 500

“A queer thing I soon discovered about my little friends, and that was their lack of interest.  They would come to me with eager cries of astonishment, like children, but like children they would soon stop examining me and wander away after some other toy.”

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Some form of autism affects one in every 500 children in this country. Some do not talk very much or very well, and they avoid contact with your eyes; some mutter constantly to themselves and line things up in obsessive rows, constantly arranging and rearranging; some wring their hands beneath their chins like witches at a coven while their feet dance in ritual spasms. Now and then one will stare for hours on end at the show on TV with a dull, blank stare. In some it is obvious that this person is full of something he/she cannot comprehend with the mind he/she has been given and cannot control the strength of his/her muscle. That is why, almost poetically, autism is called a “spectrum disorder,” because it can be any and all of those things—and many more that have not even been listed here.

I met my first autism case when I was a substitute teacher in a farming town.  In this town, the skies were a hard, steel gray and the tin roofs of the dilapidated farmhouses were rusted, torn, and fragile in the cold winds that swept across barren fields.  All the land had been cleared a century before when a person could farm the land and make a go at it. But now there was nothing to stop those winds from blowing anything that was left away. And I always wondered how a kid like Schwartzy ended up in a place like that, among the boys whose muscles were hardened from hefting axes, whose eyes were keen from sighting rifles for deer season and who were always set against that wind. Schwartzy did not understand what he was in either, but that was because of how he was made.

By the time I had met him in his 14th year, he had the stubby legs, the short arms, the soft, pudgy midsection and large toy-soldier head-of—almost—a dwarf. His mother always dressed him in soft clothes and he walked—to quote Charles Bukowski—“as if music had never been invented.”

He had a mind like a computer with bad circuitry. I was substituting one day in the Special Education department when I was introduced to him. He looked up at me curiously and said: “Hello Christian Kahner of 31 Canticle Drive, West Apple, NY, 1x3x90. Age 25. Caucasian—“

That is when a Special Education Teacher interrupted him.

“That’s pretty scary,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” she said; “it’s just part of the Asperger Syndrome. They fixate on things and can’t let go of them.”

“Oh,” was all I could say to that. But he was harmless. He never lashed out like we who are told we are sane and we who are told we have adjusted to this society often do. No, instead, when that bulldog of a broken-down farming town sent some angry boys to throw his backpack in a rain puddle or to call him a “little retard” or a “fat ass”, all he did was cry—and cry—and cry —until his face was burning, wet and purple with some emotion that he could not even name. He would wail at the top of his lungs until his voice cracked and broke like a dog left out in the cold—and every teacher’s head was sticking out of the classroom door.  I do not know what happens in a world like this to a kid like that.  I do know, though, that if we –who are supposed to be so well adjusted and so finely developed—would shed tears before we shed blood, this earth would only be wet with our tears, not the blood of others. 

I lost touch with Schwartzy when I moved on to another district.

Johnny Walker, though, was another story entirely. I met Johnny, or he met me I guess, before the bell for homeroom had rung on my first day as a full-time high school teacher. I was, as they told me to do in teacher school, writing the objectives for the day on the board. It was early; too early, really for an English major from the Bronx who was used to finishing his bartending shift at 4:30 in the morning, not getting up at 5:30 in the morning, not having a batch of 30 kids at 7:15 in the morning.

It was about 7:00 a.m. when Johnny Walker edged into my classroom. He must have been 14 or so because he was in ninth grade, but he was thin, frail really, the kind of kid whose bones you see poking out of the shoulders of his shirt. He was always hunched forward in some sort of mischief, his thick black-rimmed glasses perched on the edge of his nose. Two pale, bony hands were constantly wringing beneath his chin; his eyes always darted around the room, looking for a victim.

Johnny’s eyes fixed on me, then shot around the room as I was writing on the board. I stopped writing as he began a low, almost inaudible snicker: he—he—he—he.

“Hello,” I said, trying to be the helpful-teacher-guy I had read about in all the teacher textbooks, none of which had mentioned anything about 14-year-old autistic kids with coke-bottle glasses on who are snickering in your doorway at 7:00 in the morning. “Are you looking for a class?”



“Are you lost?”



“Do you have your schedule with you?”

he—he—he—he—he “You know what I did the other day?” he—he—he—he—he

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

he—he—he—he—he “I went up to this girl and I said” he—he—he—he—hepenis. I said penis.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You said what?”

he—he—he—he—he “I said penis, penis, penis.”

They fixate on things, I remembered. “Oh, okay,” I said and I suddenly had this feeling that I should have stayed in bartending, where people paid great money, and tipped big, to be able to act like that. Now, it was all for free.

Finally, his personal aide showed up, huffing, panting, and leaning against the edge of the doorway with the hand that held his book bag. “Peter,” he said and gasped for air, “don’t run away like that. You’ll get me fired.”

And he was fired.

And Johnny was shipped off to a special school somewhere in another state, a ritzy boarding school no less, all on the tab of the taxpayers of that district.

The most absurd, the most amusing, the most insane situation, of them all, however, was what I like to call The Tom Collins Incident. It was my eighth year of teaching, my second in another state. In the eyes of administration and anyone else who had any sort of pull, I had done a real bang-up job and I was rated “effective in all areas,” got a handshake from my administrator in charge and was even asked what level I would like to teach next year. “Seniors,” I said. “I really had a good time teaching seniors.”

Of course, since I had done such a good job and all, I was awarded five freshman sections of ninth graders, most of them scoring in the L35 range on the FCAT (which basically meant they were in danger of not meeting the graduation requirements in reading comprehension), one in 3 of them classified SLD (Specific Learning Disabilities, which ranged from “impulsivity” to actual disorders like sensory integration problems), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder, which is usually not the disorder but someone who is too immature or who has not had the upbringing to show them decent manners; the culture of the schools usually cause symptoms that masquerade as this disorder; more on that later), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; see above but also add poor diet to this one), Emotionally Handicapped (which is where a student apparently cannot comprehend empathetic relationships), Bipolar Disorders, Autistic—something.   There were also those who were in Dropout Prevention classes and had been labeled as At Risk of failure.  My classes at times, reminded me of a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” so many of them with the spaced-out look Ritalin, Prozac or anti-psychotic drugs leave in a pimply 14-year-old who is trying to get used to high school.

It took me all summer and several bottles of scotch whisky to wrap my mind around the fact that I would have all freshman. But it happened eventually and all seemed ready—the calendar, the room, the computer, and the supplies—until about 20 hours before school was supposed to open. That is when the last faculty meeting was set to take place. As I found a seat out of the way, the director of Exceptional/Special Education (ESE) came up to me and kneeled next to my seat. I had no idea who she was.

“Guess what?” she posed to me.

“What?” I asked.

“You hit the lottery,” she said and laughed.

“Really,” I said, “oh good, I’m going home now that I’m rich.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s not quite like that.”

“Really? And here I thought I was rich.”

“No,” she said, “you see this year with the Choice Program we have had to take on some autistic units.”


“Yes, well, there’s one.  He’s from Tecumseh Middle School, and well Cathy Puddles just sings your praises, and he, well the powers-that-be, have decided that he should have all male teachers.”

“Oh, really? Why’s that”

“Well . . . you’ll see. You see, there is a meeting right after this one in the principal’s conference room—every one will be there. All the officials from the entire district, all his teachers here and his caseworkers from his old school will be  present. Everyone, and all the administrators from here, of course.”

“For this one kid?”

“Yes,” she said and smiled. “Right after this meeting.”

“Great,” I said, and there were fewer than 20 hours left before school started.

At the meeting, there was a congress of almost a dozen people. Our principal was there, along with an assistant principal seated at his right; seated at his left was the director of Exceptional/Special Education. Then, there were the delegates from the county, a thin red-faced man who had no patience for the proceedings; a tall gangly lady with huge glasses, who was the facilitator. She had a marker in her hand and all the time frames written down for the meeting on the board.

Next to the red-faced man was a man who had quit his job as a litigator and decided to go into student advocacy, “after [his] daughter went through the system and we felt that she wasn’t gaining and achieving as she could have, given all the resources that are out there, so that’s when I decided that my time might be better spent advocating for those who could not advocate for themselves . . . .”  And so he went on as my attention shifted from what he must have thought was a terribly valuable investment in the future of our children to his face and neck. He, to me, looked like a lizard. Yeah, I thought, no kidding, he looks just like a lizard: the eyes like slits, barely open, his loose gullet hanging down to his chest and his tongue dragging along his dry, chapped lips like a chameleon that has just snatched a fly out of the air. They obsess over certain things.


Across from him were a covey of ESE teachers and caseworkers that had worked with Tom—my newest student—during his middle school years. Then, Tom turned 18 and had to be promoted not for academic reasons or reasons of pity, mercy, or practicality, but for some reason called a social promotion.  Tom was supposed to have arrived by 11:00, but he and his mother were not there. The man who taught a class called Personal Interaction and Social Skills sat next to me. Next to him was the ESE teacher who had “sung my praises” and gotten me into this mess.

“Well,” the gangly woman with the huge glasses started, “since time is an issue here, we should begin.”  Then she turned to the covey of female ESE representatives from the middle school and asked, “Maybe we should just start going over some basic information so that we can all be on the same page, since we have sometime.”

There were scarcely 18 hours before school started.

“Okay,” one of the covey said as she adjusted her short hair and tried in vain to pull her pink blouse over her paunch, “you should all have a copy there in front of you. There will be a training this afternoon, when we go over this in more detail but let’s just start from the top and see how far we get. Okay, first Tom was born in the summer of 1986, which makes him 18 years old. When you see him,” and here the ESE teacher broke from the report and looked dramatically up toward the ceiling, her hands clutching at the air and landing fists full of air, “you’ll notice he is a very large, 6-foot-3, and right around 300 pounds. That’s why he has to have male teachers.”

Why? I wondered. So I could fight him if any problem broke out? I’ll be damned. That’s why I left my last school. I thought of the day in my last school in  New York after we had lost our third principal of the year. I had cafeteria duty and there was a rumor that two gangs were going to square off in the cafeteria that day, due to the void in power. As a show of strength, every administrator was called in, and so were the State Police. They stood side by side, the police with their hands on their semi-auto 9 m.m. pistols and the administrators with their hands on their radios for instant dispatch. I turned to the guy who had the duty with me and he said, “You know, this is really friggen’ dangerous.” He was a tall guy who was once a scholarship-caliber soccer player who had gone soft around the middle and had always been a bit goofy. “I mean, if something breaks out here, are you gonna do anything?”

“No,” I started out sarcastically. “I mean, maybe for $80- even $85-thousand but definitely not for $40,000.”

He laughed and there was no riot that day.  But here I was, 1200 miles away, with a one-man riot being put in my hands.

I glanced at the behaviors checked off at the top of the page: “Behavior is impeding student’s learning or the learning of others.” “Behavior is resulting in exclusion from participation in activities or settings with peers.” “Student is engaging in behavior that places the student or others at risk or harm and/or results in substantial property damage.” “Behavioral difficulties persist despite consistently implemented behavior management strategies based on less comprehensive or systematic assessment.”

I mean, if something breaks out, are you gonna do anything?


No. Not for this money.

As I flipped the page, I thought about a group of seniors I had right after the Columbine massacre. It was a class called Practical Communications but it could have easily been called Practically Communicating. We had a School Safety Drill one day where an administrator gets on the public address system and gives a code phrase: “Jim Morrison is in the building.” At that point, we had to lock the door to keep out the armed insurgents; pull down the shades so a sniper could not get a clean shot at anyone in the room; then, we had to put a green card under the door if all was well, and a red card if there was a problem. First, we had to gather all the students in the safest corner, lambs to slaughter, away from “points of entry.” While we were all herded into one corner, a student asked me whether I would take a bullet for any one of them. I responded, only half joking, “ I might get shot in the butt running away, but there are no heroes these days, not for this kind of money.”

So what was I supposed to do if an 18-year-old, 300-pound freshman comes at me in class?  Is there a drill for that?  As I wondered how I might handle this sort of violence, I noticed further down the page that it was stated that there had been referrals for defiance/disrespect, threats/intimidation, urinating outdoors, battery, tardiness, profanity, several incidents of inappropriate touching (rubbing/massaging) female students, and some aggression when blocked from doing what he wanted.

Then, some 45 minutes or so late, the man himself, Tom Collins, walked in. His head almost scraped the top of the doorjamb, his shoulders almost touching each side. His dark hair grew straight down on his dome and was cut straight across in bangs just above his thick black-rimmed glasses. There was a black t-shirt stretched across his chest and straining to stay over his stomach, a little lobe of flesh dangling over the elastic waistband of his cargo shorts. He waved his hands in the air frantically and creased his face with a crooked smile, apologizing, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he repeated over and over, “sorry, sorry, sorry.”

The gangly lady with the big glasses showed him where to sit. Tom sat down as his mother came in. The mother had an explosion of orange-tinted hair held together by a clip in the shape of a plastic banana; the hair standing straight up. The lenses of her glasses were a quarter inch thick. Her skin had been burned and tanned so many times that it had turned to loose leather with white spots. She apologized for being late: “Sorry, folks, but you have to understand that we’re in the process of changing his meds and one of the side effects is nausea in the mornings and even bedwetting, which makes him really upset, so it takes a while to get him all the way up here.”

Tom lived with his brother and his mother in a town at least 40 minutes south of the high school. The county had instituted a new initiative two years prior, the Choice Plan, whereby anyone, anywhere in the county, could choose any school he wanted to attend. Everyone wanted this school, which was a long enough trip when a “Regular Ed.” kid has to take a normal route for 1.5 hours from somewhere in the south county. But, Tom, an ESE student, needed special accommodation. So, here was the plan: a teacher aide would drive 45 minutes south to wait at the bus stop with Tom and leave her car there; then, she would ride the bus to school with him and escort him to all of his classes. At the end of the day, she would ride the bus home with him and then drive 45 minutes north to go home.

Also assigned to Tom would be an on-campus aide who would follow him to all of his classes, check that he is writing down notes, keeping his behavior in check as well.  The problem was that his on-campus aide was a woman who was about 5 feet tall and just as wide. Her limbs stuck out of the ball of flesh that was her trunk. In one hand she always had a water bottle with a sock over it to keep it cool. “I have to drink a lot of water because of my asthma,” she told me once. She had to keep up with Brian all day; she was the first line of defense if he were to “engage in behavior that places the student or others at risk of harm and/or results in substantial property damage.”  It was, I must say, quite a comical sight to see all three-hundred pounds of Tom Collins lumbering along with that goofy smile on his face while this woman, seeming to be half his height, waddled along in the August heat behind him.  Huffing and heaving for air because of her asthma, she would pause, lean against the wall, and drink from her water bottle.

Then, I took another look at him; he was sitting right next to me now. His hands were what my grandmother would have called “meathooks,” thick paws that looked as if they could barely bend. And his arms were just as swollen with  fatty muscle, like the raw muscularity of a bear. On his face, though, pushing apart his soft, round cheeks, was a smile that said it was not his heart or his mind that was violent, but that his violence grew out of moments when he could not understand this world around him; that, just then, he was happy.  In fact, as long as I knew him, he always wanted to be happy.  He just did not know how or when.

The gangly-lady with the big glasses said that she needed to lay down some ground rules in order to honor the schedules of the teachers involved.   This case, she said, was “time-sensitive.”

“Okay,” the mother interrupted just then, “I want to say before we even get started that I am a full participant in this thing here, and by my rights I have just as much say as this whole group here. It’s a one-on-one thing here.”

The two wrangled for power for a while, and that is what this whole thing was about: the adults in the room—not Tom.  At the same time, the Greek statue that I was sketching in my notebook, and not all the politics that swirled around him, fascinated Tom.  Everyone in that room would, if asked, say “I’m here for the kid.” But, at least 3 out of 4 would be lying through their teeth. The mother who claimed she wanted her son to have as “normal” as educational experience as possible was not even there “for the kid.” No, she was there to tell everyone that life had given her a gargantuan son who wets his bed; who can not read; who can not write; who can not speak; who can not control himself without violence; and that he might not ever be able to do any of that. But she wanted everything that was afforded to her by her rights, by this one-on-one equality the educational charter of this state grants her. She wanted to tell us in our own jargon and dialect, that all of this that was written in those papers may well be true, but that Tom and she, the mother, should not be blamed for this. It happens to one in every 500 kids, after all. It wasn’t her fault. He shouldn’t be known as a “retard.”  In fact, she went on, there were a lot of great books on this subject if you care to read them.  Then, she said it was a shame that he is being held legally responsible for behaviors that are “syndrome driven”. 

The man who looked like a lizard, her legal advocate, nodded in tacit consent.  She was right, he thought.  And all I thought was, Jeez, what if he killed that lady he attacked in middle school?  What if he kills this lady in high school?  I pictured her keeled over a railing after trying to escape, the water from her sock-covered bottle mingling with the blood from the wound on her head.  I saw Tom wandering off to hear his mother’s voice.

Then, after the gangly lady pointed to the agenda and ground-rules on the board, she said it was time to introduce ourselves.  Things went smoothly until it came to the ESE teacher who sat next to me. Tom snapped when he heard the title of the class: “What’s that?” he said. “What’s that name he said?”

“Personal Skills and Social Interaction,” the teacher repeated.

Tom wailed aloud. “You said I didn’t have to take any retard classes, mommy. You said.”

The ESE teacher tried to explain: “No, it’s not like that, Tom. It’s just a class that helps you in dealing with people and situations that we face everyday.”

“You said I didn’t have to take any retard classes this year, mommy,” Tom said and everyone could feel the tension ratcheting up notch by notch.

“It’s not like that,” the ESE teacher tried to explain, but Tom would not hear it. He wailed again, and he pulled his t-shirt over his head from the back of the neck, revealing his soft belly and love handles. He slammed his hooded head down on the table and crossed his arms over his nape.

There was a tense silence. Everyone looked at each other. Then, trying to break the tension, the ESE teacher made a joke: “See, that’s why you need the class,” and then he laughed.

Tom heard this through his hood, and he must have imagined we were all cackling in hysterical laughter, pointing at him, calling him a retard.   In their minds, these autistic kids have fantastic theaters.  The acoustics though are too loud, and the drama is too great.  The sensations are too intense for them.  A book dropped across the room resonates like a bomb.  A slimy jelly from a sandwich feels like an octopus crawling up his back.  An insult is worse than a bullet to the head for someone who has no sense of reckoning, no moral compass, no sense of action and reaction.  Then, without raising his head, Tom threw a fist in the air and erected his middle finger, flashing it to everyone: principal, assistant principal, teachers, caseworkers, everyone.

But no one did anything. He was an exception, so the rule did not apply. We all just sat there as he flipped us “the bird,” from the principal.

I tried not to laugh.

Tom eventually felt himself losing control and stormed out of the room. The student advocate followed him, his gullet shaking, licking his dry lips. There were only two things that pacified Tom: his mother’s voice and computers. So, after a few minutes of computer play, Tom was back. He apologized and shook his hands in the air, smiling again, like Richard Nixon, I thought.  “I am not a retard.”  The advocate, who now returned, explained to us how he had “de-escalated the situation”: “You see, I saw that he was getting worked up so I calmly explained to him that after a few minutes of playing on the computer, he would have to come back into the meeting.  And now here he is.”

“This is all syndrome-driven behavior,” the mother chimed in.  “This isn’t my son, really.  If you knew Timmy, you’d know that this is the result of his syndrome.”

Timmy was calm now but still didn’t know what was coming out of his mouth or how to stop himself from speaking the truth. I loved that about Tom. He took a big swig off of a bottle of soda someone had bought him, and immediately after he swallowed, he asked the lady in the pink shirt who had been reading to us all, “Are you pregnant?”

“Tom!” his mother yelled. “Don’t be rude!”

“No, no, no,” he stumbled, “it’s just that she’s really fat and last time I asked a lady why she was really fat she said she was pregnant.”

I put my notebook over my face, and I am sure everyone knew I was laughing.

That meeting broke up soon after that.  We were supposed to create a plan for success for Timmy that day, but nothing got done.  The mother refused to read the old confidential papers that had been negotiated in middle school, stating that “she doesn’t process information this way.  She was not that kind of learner, she said, spitting the venom of our institutional Esperanto back at us.   I began wonder if the mother was just on one long filibuster, the content of which was a litany of rights as she perceived them, culled from Internet sites and heard from student advocates who looked like lizards. But what was she stalling for? What time was her desired goal? What was supposed to be accomplished? 

Nothing, really, is the answer.  This lady, like so many people in this phase of our “liberal democracy”, believe that not only does everyone deserve the same equality of opportunity, but that they deserve the same exact appearance, the same exact outcome, the same exact process.  These were the parents, who have plenty of allies in the ranks of teachers and administrators and advocates, who took the concept of mainstreaming ESE students and ruined it.  As I alluded to earlier, originally, only one ESE teacher escorted a select few ESE students who had shown they were able to swim in the “mainstream”, and now drown, in small numbers into a class.  Then, one by one, other parents wanted their kids to appear “normal” as well, and they invoked their legal rights to have their children in the “least restrictive setting”.  Soon the mainstream was the exception; that is, there was no “main” stream left to sink in or to swim in.  There was no level to which to aspire.  If a class is 45% ESE, 25% Dropout Prevention,10% 504 Plan, and the rest average to low-achieving students, then what are we asking our students to learn?  How to tolerate being in a huddled mass?  How to watch as a teacher stops class to “de-escalate” a situation wrought with imminent violence?  How to be mediocre in the context of a mediocre group?  Whether you want to believe it or not, whether you want to say teachers need to figure a way to challenge these students, or lay the blame elsewhere, that is what is happening—and more and more as the days go by.

The most frustrating aspect is that the meeting produced nothing, and that Tom did not last long. Of the 15 days he was officially on my roster, he was there about five. He was late almost everyday, or he was suspended other days. His behavioral infractions could have been predicted: One day he wanted to hear his mother’s voice so he walked into the one place where he knew there was a telephone—the principal’s office—and started dialing up his home number.

That cost him a couple of days.

One day he wanted to get on the secretary’s computer, but she would not turn it on for him, so he picked it up in his “meat hooks” and slammed it against the desk a few times.

Finally, one day he got mad at that poor teacher aide, the one who was five feet wide and tall. He grabbed her water bottle with the sock covering it, and he squirted the water all over her face and chest.  Then, he hit her over the head with the empty bottle, very similar to the beating he gave another teacher aide with a sofa cushion in a resource room back in middle school.

Charges are still pending in both cases.

The jury is still out.

It was weird having Tom as a student. I definitely liked him; it was just that he was a hand full. He even thought I was funny. What does that say about me?  I do not know.  The last I heard, the mother escorting Tom off campus, after what we’ll call the “water bottle incident”. According to one witness who watched his exodus, Tom was groping his mother’s chest and crotch as they headed to their car. But that is all “hearsay.” All I know for a fact is that on the final paperwork necessary to reassign a student, especially an autistic “unit,” I wrote that I was sorry, but that pity was useless.  I wrote that as much as I liked the kid and wanted to help the kid, he has a dis-order in our finely tuned order that we call an institution and that he would never be able to function in those confines.  He would never be able to understand why he was being asked to do what he was being asked to do.  Sometimes, when all the “normal” kids are filtering into Timmy’s old class I picture the teacher aide huffing behind him, and I see him tottering along with that smile on his face.  I think of Lenny from Of Mice and Men and how Lenny did not mean to hurt anyone or anything.  But he always did.  And he died for it in the end.  That is the sadness of his disorder: that he will never be able to understand why?  Yup, he was a sad case, a little funny maybe, but I try not to obsess over certain things.



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