I grew up in special education. I initially attended a small catholic school in my home town. Things started out well enough. There were some discipline problems, which isn’t surprising for a young boy. Eventually the teachers got everything in working order, and my mother was always available with her guitar and some volunteer hours to cover for me when a teacher needed to be appeased. About three quarters of the way through first grade though, something became apparent: I had no idea how to read.
This is ironic, since today as a grad student I do nothing but read. What had happened though was pretty simple. I needed some more attention, and a young inexperienced teacher was overwhelmed with a class of 20 plus students. After some very serious tutoring through the summer, I jumped ahead a few steps of my class. In second grade I was the first person in my class to raise my hand to read aloud, and I was excited.
Things weren’t perfect though. I struggled through elementary school, and never seemed to really adapt socially. I had a few good friends (two of whom I’m happy say I still see a few times a year today) but was usually omega in the pack of young kids. After a particularly bad experience in the 4th grade, and an experiment with another private school, my parents moved me over to the public program. The decision was perfect.
There’s an assumption that private schools are always better than public schools. In my own education this was not the case. I think the question requires more nuance to answer, and honestly depends on where you live and what you have access to. On the collegiate level I attended one of the prestigious public universities in the country, as well as one of the most exclusive private schools in the world; the truth is I can’t really compare them. Growing up though, for me it was the public schools that provided refuge.
After an evaluation at Boston Childrens Hospital, it was revealed that I was on the autism spectrum. The public schools were ready for me. I had an IEP in hand, and my grades shot up. I stayed in special education until I graduated high school. As an undergraduate and a graduate student, to compensate with issues surrounding my ability to physically write, I’ve been typically granted the chance to type on exams and when that’s not available: extra time. This was the same central accommodation I got from the seventh grade all through high school.
Throughout all of this, I really disliked the word special. I don’t care when it’s used to describe situation with some nuance, or as a positive description. I’ve minded how references to special education could be used as a pejorative by people who don't understand it. Much in the same way the word retarded has been used. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve been guilty in using these words in the same way. I remember after a particularly terrible round of teasing in coming home and asking my mother if I was mentally retarded.
Special education doesn’t mean that someone isn't intelligent. It simply means that the education system they are in needs to be adapted so they can take advantage of their strengths and improve their weaknesses. In my case it was a difficulty with hyperfocusing on (typically not school related) tasks and serious fine motor problems that left my hand writing in rough order. I traditionally scored well into the advanced categories on standardized tests. Several of my peers did as well. I attended Harvard University and I attend the top environmental policy program in the country. I was in and greatly benefited from special education.
As congress cuts budgets, I do worry that special education programs will suffer. Special education programs can be expensive. Towns that rely on their states receiving federal education funding could suffer. My senior year of high school a local politician in my home town once described our special education system as a cancer. I feel like many people simply don't understand that it has an important purpose. Our education system isn't perfect, and often times adjustments are necessary to benefit different styles of learning. Whether these adjustments are made to help someone simply get through high school, or to do the things i have, they are important.
This not a typical or easy topic for me to write on. While it comes up in interviews, I tend to be focused on environmental issues in my writing. It came up because I was watching Good Will Hunting. My father in his infinite ability to make me feel better brought the movie home one day. I was twelve years old and starting off in the special education program at North Andover middle school. I had felt bad about being in it. He put on the movie and at the end pointed out that the main character was smart, he just needed to be put into the right situation. That is what special education programs do: they put people in the right place so they can succeed.