Long ago in a school district far, far away and before people in a decision-making capacity realized that I had speech impairment and not a mental disability, I was placed in Special Ed. No one had to tell us that we were not part of society, from a young and impressionable age we all knew we didn’t belong. We didn’t learn the way the other kids learned, we didn’t speak clearly enough to be understood like the normal children, and obviously some of us didn’t look normal either. We learned early on we were the rejects, the misfits, and the nonconformists of society.
Now, they are called “special.” Does anyone realized what that tag means or symbolizes to a child born not normal to that child? To me, seeing the other children with autism, mental retardation, cleft lip or pallet, speech impairment, deafness, or blindness, I felt like I was an outcast. I was bussed several miles from the normal school the normal kids went to, to an old school made of brick and mortar called Eastmont. Across the street was the high school.
Fortunately, one of my teachers there saw my potential and lobbied in my behalf to put me in a regular school with the other normal kids. It was a bit of a culture shock but I did adjust, made new friends, and began to excel in school regardless of how I looked or sounded. But, in a truly obvious sense the damage to my psyche had already been done. For good or bad, I learned I was a different person and that knowledge affected me profoundly.
I’m certain had I been, “normal” like the other children I grew up with, my whole attitude, credo and political mindset would undoubtedly had been much different. My parents were conservative, voted Republican and insisted on living in neighborhoods of similar, white-minded conservative, Republican people. After I acclimated into the sphere of normalcy I should have gone that same track, but two things affected more than anything else: my Special Ed and the crap that I grew up on in the sixties and early seventies. I was cut of a different cloth and no matter how my parents and their friends saw things; I saw the opposite.
Early on my psyche was also affected by certain behaviors that other children did. I smoked my first cigarette when I was nine when one of my school friend pulled out a half-smoked cigarette from his dad’s ashtray. There were five of us in a circle during recess, taking turns puffing on the butt until it was done. After that I knew I wanted to be like the other cool people I saw on TV, the advertisements, and the high school teenagers across the street that we saw with cigarettes in their mouths.
High School I was the oldest and knew I didn’t belong because, well I was eighteen and a sophomore. I should already been going to college or joining the military. I would have done that except, besides being born with a speech impediment and harelip, I was also graced with scoliosis. That’s where the back is twisted sideways like a pretzel. So once again, I’m the nonconformist who talked funny and was three years older than anyone else when I graduated from high school.
Yet I was still forcing my oblong self into a square hole by trying to become popular like everyone else at that time, hence I began smoking pot and going to parties where beer and wine were consumed. I felt like I belonged and everyone seemed to like me. And I went to college with this knowledge that by abusing my body and mind I was like everyone else who went to college.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how stupid I was like the day after my stroke in 2002. I had to pick up the pieces of my broken self and start over again. An occupational therapist, his name was Roger, though I’m not certain, came into my hospital room. I saw him and I reacted with abhorrence, which I shouldn’t have. He too had a harelip like mine, though his plastic surgeon did a better job of “normalizing” his upper lip than mine did, which is why I chose to sport a mustache to hide my disability.
He saw my reaction and naturally it upset him and he told me he wasn’t any better or worse than me and to learn to get over it. I later apologized to him for my initial reaction. It was after all the same reactions I received growing up in Wenatchee. They saw the disability before they saw the person behind the disability and then made immediate assumptions about my mental capabilities. It’s something I still get to this day when someone at work goes out of their way to be nice to me. I am immediately on the defensive because they only see a part of me, not the intelligent, caring person, but someone “special.”
The other day at work a security guard buddy and I were talking about the people on the streets who go out and get high in our restroom, doing their crystal meth, heroin, or marijuana. He told me that when he was growing up and going to high school, he couldn’t even afford those drugs and whenever he was asked if he wanted to indulge, he always said no.
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed in horror, “You’re a nonconformist!”
“Yeah, I guess I am, aren’t I?”