Guest Post: Unpublished Interview With SPED Kids By Karina Martinez (Interview with Alex from Spinner)
It is a somber day as I approached the lunch table. This group of SPED students (Special Education) has experienced a tragic loss – their teacher was killed last night, run down by a truck outside her apartment. We’ve never had such a tragedy at Mark Twain High. Ms. Lorna Ashley had been teaching Special Education for four years and her class was always self-contained. That means the students were with her the whole day, for every class. Her current group consists of six male students, all gathered around the most beat-up of the lunch tables not far from their classroom. I have my faithful photographer with me – Jasmine Rodriguez – and we both try to look professional as we stop at their table. These kids have a reputation around campus for being weird and usually nobody ever goes near them. One of the boys is in a wheelchair, but the others look normal. You’d never know they were Special Ed.
I introduce Jasmine and myself. The boys stare at us like we’re from Mars or something. The white haired boy, Alex, the one in the wheelchair, has these amazing blue eyes that almost make me forget what I was there for. I explain that I write for the school paper and we’re doing a story on Ms. Ashley’s death.
“Why?” That comes from the light-skinned black kid named Java. He glowers and looks suspiciously at the camera Jasmine holds.
“Well, we’ve never had anything like this happen before,” I explain, “and it’s big news when a teacher gets killed.”
Israel, dark hair, really handsome, blurts out, “What the f**k?”
That catches me off-guard. “Well, I just mean, it’s something the school paper can’t ignore.”
Jorge, tall and thin with unkempt black hair, hands me a piece of paper with no expression on his face. It has a big red “V” scrawled on it. I exchange a nervous glance with Jasmine, who stifles a giggle, and then turn back to Jorge.
“What’s this for?”
“We’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Jorge says in a monotone voice, repeating my words to me. I confess I’m feeling creeped out.
Roy, the skinny white kid with snakebite piercings in his lower lip brushes hair from in front of his eyes. Those eyes look sad to me. “Ms. Ashley was a great teacher. She was like a mom to us. That’s all you gotta write.”
There’s a Vietnamese kid named Cuong at the table, but he just plays with a Gameboy like we’re not even there. Alex stares at me with those blue eyes and I feel like he’s looking right through me. I shiver. He’s the one our readers most want to hear from because he’s the most disabled kid we have at Mark Twain, being in a wheelchair and all. So I focus on him.
“So, um, Alex, do you have anything to say about Ms. Ashley?”
Alex’s intense look doesn’t let up at all. His white blond hair falls across his forehead and back over his collar. His serious expression doesn’t hide his good looks. If he weren’t crippled he’d be hot enough to date.
“Like Roy said, Ms. Ashley was the best teacher I ever had,” Alex answers, his voice filled with sadness. “She never got mad at us when we couldn’t do something. She just helped us find some other way. She loved us.”
I take notes as he speaks, still feeling those deep blue eyes looking through me. “So, you guys are Special Ed, right?”
“Yeah, so?” Java says. He’s big and buff and wears one of those tight shirts like football players wear. He looks scary.
“Well, our readers don’t know much about being special ed. Are you guys like, retarded?”
I ask it innocently because that’s usually what special ed means, but Java’s face turns stormy.
“We are not f***ing retarded!” Israel says loudly. Other kids milling about look over curiously. Now I feel embarrassed.
“Sorry,” I say. “It’s just, well, that’s what normal kids think about special ones.”
“We are normal,” Roy says. “For us. Right, Alex?”
Java looks ready to explode so I turn to Alex.
“Roy’s right,” Alex says, his voice tight with anger. “We don’t read or write good, but we’re the same as you.”
“Except you can’t walk?”
“The hell?” Roy blurts. He stands and towers over me. “Get outta here! You don’t know s**t!”
Alex places one hand on Roy’s arm and that calms him a little. He looks at Alex and Alex shakes his head slightly. Still angry, Roy re-seats himself.
“No, I can’t walk,” Alex replies, those eyes fixed intently on me.
I try to steer this interview into a non-threatening direction. “What’s it like, not to walk?”
“Shut up, bitch!” Israel says loudly. He can’t seem to speak in any tone other than loud. He draws more attention to me than I want. Then Jorge says, “Shut up, bitch,” and sounds eerily like Israel. I shiver again.
“It’s okay, Izzy,” Alex says. I think he’s probably been asked that question a lot because he just sighs and looks up at me from his wheelchair. “What’s it like to walk? I never have so I don’t know.”
That answer floors me and I have no response.
“See?” Alex goes on. “Normal is different for everybody. Maybe you could print that and the kids around here might stop talking s**t about us and calling me Roller Boy all the time. We got feelings same as all of you, and we’re not losers like everybody says. Roy could fix anything in this school that breaks down. And Java could kick ass on the football team ’cept people keep calling him a dummy. He’s not. None of us are. We’re just born different.”
I’m trying to write down every word because it’s all so amazing and so unlike what I thought these kids were like. I guess I thought they were dumb because that’s what I always heard. I realize that this is the first time I ever interacted with them. Alex stops talking and I stop writing. The others are staring at me and I feel like I should say something, but don’t know what. Then it hits me.
“Could I try out your wheelchair?”
“The f**k?” Israel says even louder. The “F-word” seems to be his favorite.
Alex looks at me with open-mouthed surprise and I realize I didn’t ask the question very well. “I, uh, I just thought I could write a better story about what it’s like to be crippled if I sat in your chair and, you know, wheeled around a little.”
Roy leaps to his feet again. “Get lost. We’re not freaks and Alex ain’t crippled! He can do anything you can and more!”
Jasmine giggles beside me and I nudge her, trying to salvage this interview.
“It’s okay, Roy,” Alex says quietly. “Let her try.”
“Alex! She’s just messing with you.”
“No, I’m not, really,” I answer quickly. “I just want to feel what it would be like to sit all the time.”
Roy’s angry look makes me realize I said the wrong thing again. I’m really wishing Ms. Jacobs hadn’t given me this assignment. Alex touches Roy’s arm again in a calming way and pushes himself up and out of his wheelchair onto the bench so easily I think I gasped. His arms and upper body look pretty buff, but he moved so fast I’m shocked.
“Go ahead,” he says. “Try it out.”
I feel all of them mad-dogging me as I step forward and uncertainly sit in the chair. I try to push forward, but my feet on the ground get in my way.
“Your feet go on the footrest,” Alex says and points to it.
I look down and see where he’s pointing and place my feet there. Then I start wheeling around. It’s fun, I find myself thinking, almost like riding in a Go-Kart. Jasmine snaps some pictures of me in the chair and of the SPED kids watching me.
“How is it?” Jasmine asks.
Before I can stop myself, I say, “It’s fun.”
I spin around and head back toward her. Other kids standing nearby laugh and point.
“Let me try,” Jasmine says.
I hop out of the chair and she plops into it. Wheeling herself around in circles, she makes like she’s going to run into another kid standing off to the side. The kid lurches back and Jasmine laughs. All the students standing around laugh and point to Alex and his friends. I hear one of them say, “Hey, it’s Roller Girl.”
“This is so cool,” Jasmine gushes, and I catch Alex’s facial expression when she does. He looks like someone punched him. Those blue eyes look so hurt I almost feel like crying. I hurry to Jasmine.
“Give him back the chair.”
Reluctantly, she steps out of it and I wheel the chair back to Alex. He gives me a look that pierces my heart and I realize how hurtful what we just did is to him. He slides himself deftly into the chair and pulls his feet onto the footrest.
Roy steps up to me. He’s really mad. “Had enough fun? Get the f**k outta here and leave us alone!”
I step back as all of them stand up to mad-dog me. Even the Vietnamese kid stops playing his game to glower. I exchange a nervous glance with Jasmine, who hurriedly snaps a few pictures.
“I, uh, well, thanks for talking to me,” I say uncertainly. “I’m, well, sorry about your teacher and all.”
Jasmine grabs my arm to pull me away. I can’t help but look into Alex’s blue eyes one last time. He looks so hurt, more than he did when I first got here. I understand these kids now more than I ever did before. They feel pain and sadness just like we do, and they deserve the same respect.
“I’m sorry, Alex, about the chair thing. See ya around.”
Alex doesn’t answer, so I turn to follow Jasmine away into the crowd. The other kids are still laughing.
Karina Martinez for The Daily Cougar
Note: This is how I wrote up the article, but Ms. Jacobs decided not to run it. She felt it would embarrass Alex and his friends, and then she spent an entire period teaching us proper ways to ask difficult questions during an interview. I know I blew it, but at least I now understand that the kids we call Special Ed are just as human as I am, and I plan to treat them that way from now on.