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For several years, I worked in New York City’s District 75 (special education district), first as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher. When I told people where I worked, they would often pause, look at me with a mixture of awe and pity and say something like, “That must be hard.” Now, I will be the first to agree that teaching is a really, really tough job, but that’s not really what folks meant. They meant that it must be hard working with those kids.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were days when the little boogers drove me up the wall, when I drove them up the wall, when some of us showed up to school sick, or exhausted, or just plain distracted and things very quickly started to resemble a sequel to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because that’s what seems to happen when humans spend a lot of time with each other, day in and day out, for years on end. We all have our bad days, and sometimes we take them out on the ones we love.
But most days, I came into school and got to spend time with a group of incredibly loving, funny, curious, interesting group of people who showered me with pictures, cards, thank-you letters, sorry-I-stole-your-iPod letters, candy, and hugs that I continue to treasure. Most days, I went home after work and just laughed for minutes on end, remembering something someone had said or done. Most days, I got to spend hours reading and talking about some really great books with an intelligent and appreciative group. And that’s why I kept coming back for as long as I did.
More recently, I have had the pleasure of helping with a writing workshop at an Alternative to Detention Program for kids ages 12-16 who have been arrested. When I tell folks where I’m going, I sometimes see that familiar look. And I feel almost guilty that people seem to think I must be some sort of saint when I think about how much fun I’ve been having, laughing as we try to build Rube Goldberg machines or discuss how to handle Incredible Hulk super powers (hint: elastic waistbands and the ability to pull off your shirt quickly).
Don’t get me wrong, there are special heartaches associated with working with kids who are court-involved. When my babies got arrested, or ran away rather than take a chance on a new foster home, well, that really sucked. But if all anyone ever hears about any job or activity is the worst parts of it, then it starts to seem like the sort of job that only someone who is much more qualified and virtuous could possibly do. Court-involved youth and youth with disabilities (and there is a lot of overlap between those two groups) start to seem too different to go to school and generally hang out with everyone else. And while the consequences of that separation, distance and suspicion are more obvious and dire for the kids who get isolated into special schools or prisons, I really believe that we all lose out.