When someone is being traumatized they have a few options: flee, fight or disassociate. I’m not saying that the trauma I endured in grade school from my teachers compares to that of people who have experienced sexual or physical trauma. I have what my therapist called “little ‘t’ trauma,” consistent, traumatic experiences from persons in authority who were supposed to instill self-esteem. These experiences had a significant impact on me, my adult life and relationships.
Years ago I experienced what I later named my “special ed depression.” This depression carried into my adulthood, and often manifested when I was still, not working and sat with the feelings from my childhood. As a kid, I had internalized the messages from my teachers, extended family and the media that I was less than. When I became an adult I felt that anything that was subpar in my life (whether it was material goods, friends or lovers) was deserved because I was a product of a childhood significantly impacted by disability. What I realize now is that it wasn’t “special ed depression” because my special ed experience, once I got to public school was the best thing that happened to me academically. I was with teachers who understood me and had my back. I think a better name for my special ed depression would have been “dealing with asshole teacher depression” but that isn’t as catchy, thus the title of the essay.
Growing up with a Learning Disability, I suffered numerous emotional infractions at the hands of teachers, which I then internalized. Because I was “little ‘t’ traumatized” by my teachers regularly, I had to find my own way of getting through the school day. My favorite coping mechanism in 8th grade was avoiding class, and I found preposterous ways to escape the classroom. My escape plans ranged from collecting “mission money” to fund evangelizing people in developing countries to spending the better part of December and January hanging out in the school’s storage closet.
Like many Catholic girls and women, I had a hang-up about the Virgin Mary. I suppose this came from third grade when I was selected to bring the offering (communion and the money collected during church) for the All Saints mass. For the non-Catholics, let me explain. This particular mass is one of the funner masses that you have in Catholic school. All Saints Day is celebrated the day after Halloween, so there’s an opportunity to wear costumes.
I was selected to bring the offering because I told my third grade teacher my costume was “spiritual.” My plan was to get a bed sheet, cut multiple holes in it and be Charlie Brown’s ghost. My mother thought this was unacceptable and instead made me dress as the Virgin Mary: long, white gown, blue satin headdress, and China Flats with embroidered flowers (total old-school Lowrider style). Since donning this costume I suppose I overidentified with her, so later, when the part of Mary in the 8th grade Christmas play went to Lori (a Protestant with short hair!), I was pissed. I wasn’t going to play a frickin’ angel! Instead, I volunteered to “do costumes,” meaning I organized the decades-old costumes that were stored in a chaotic, musty closet. Inside it were remnants from the 1950s so it was obvious that no one had touched the space in years. I saw an opportunity in the dank clutter, and somehow parlayed the duties of “costume coordinator” into overhauling the entire storage room. I had become the 13 year old, stuttering, Italian Martha Stewart. Reorganizing took weeks, which meant some days I wouldn’t even attend class. It was a relief to be out of the classroom and spend a day going through tinsel and old pictures. Anything to save me from diagramming sentences, reading out loud, or being shamed for giving the wrong answer was better, so I welcomed the isolation.
Why did my teachers allow a student to basically cut class? My guess is that I was easier to deal with away from the classroom. Every year in Catholic School my parents were told “if your daughter requires accommodations, then she does not belong here.” I never understood this because I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have made an accommodation. Compared to spending time with my ableist teachers, being alone in the Christmas storage closet was a sanctuary.
When I wasn’t busy cleaning closets or collecting mission money for the heathens of the world, I could usually be found in the girls’ bathroom. These excursions of elimination took at least 20 minutes and usually occurred when taking turns reading out loud in class. Teachers, if you want to get rid of a kid who stutters and has dyslexia, tell them you’re going to have the class take turns reading. They will either send themselves to the nurse with a stomach ache or head to the bathroom to avoid the “little ‘t’ trauma” of reading in front of an audience of unforgiving peers.
As if 8th grade isn’t difficult enough for your average thirteen-year-old girl, for the first time in my Catholic school experience I had two teachers, not just one. Unfortunately, both teachers were assholes which meant I was never asshole-free that year. They made my life hell. They were inconsistent with the accommodations I needed, embarrassed me in front of my peers for things related to my Learning Disability, and just generally bitchy. Once, one of the teachers literally but indirectly called me a “twat!” Who does that?
Each day was peppered with little verbal and emotional aggregate assaults on my self-esteem. The teachers complained that my 1980’s Espirit leggings and big sweatshirts were signs I was immature, yet I was dressing like everyone else if not better. As an adolescent- especially one who watched entirely too many comedians- I started to respond in ways that bordered on the inappropriate. But let me first tell you what they did, so when I tell you about showing the boys and teachers used maxipads, it doesn’t seem so bad. (Yes! My first period joke—a passage into womanhood for all female comedians).
The times where ableism would flow most freely were parent-teacher conferences. At a typically tense conference my mom yelled at my teachers when they acted like I wasn’t going to do much with my life. My dad had to kick her underneath the table to get her off her “my kid isn’t just going to work at McDonalds her entire life” soapbox. That didn’t make me very popular with the teachers, but at least I knew my parents believed I was an intelligent, capable person because they were advocating for me.
In another conference, my parents talked about appropriate accommodations for my learning disability. Everyone agreed I would only do half of the inordinate amount of daily Math and English problems. The homework was all drill and kill, practice without learning anything new. It was busy work. After the end of the semester I received my grade: an F. I approached my teachers about it.
“Why is my grade an F?”
“Well, you only did half of the work. So I could only give you half of a grade.”
I explained, “Well, my accommodation was to only do half of the work and then you base my grade on that.”
“Well, you only did half of the work so you get an F.”
Now I could have done none of the work and still have gotten an F, but it was a total abuse of my teacher’s power, and it remained on my report card despite my objections. Another “little t trauma” strikes again!
Once I had to give an oral presentation with one of my friends. I worked very hard at it, felt like I did a really good job, and I did. I got an A-. My friend got an A. The only reason I got an A- was, and I quote from my teacher, I “didn’t speak clear enough.” Really Ms. Nolan? Really? You’re going to give a stuttering kid with a learning disability a lower grade because their speech isn’t as “clear”? I knew at that time she was bullshit, and it really upset me. This was the moment I started to fight back against ableism in the 8th grade. And when I say fight back, it wasn’t in terms of advocacy or activism. I didn’t have an identity as a person with a disability at that point and didn’t know that there were people fighting for our rights. Instead, I made fun of the teachers.
During recess, my teachers always used the childrens’ bathroom. Like most bathrooms, there was space between the floor and the door so you could see their feet. Because these women hadn’t gone through menopause yet, when they pulled their panties all the way down to their ankles, it often revealed a bloody maxi pad. Now for someone who despised these teachers this was a goldmine. I spent most of my recess and lunchtime hanging out in the bathroom just to catch a glimpse so I could laugh at the teachers and mock them. Once I opened up the bathroom door to expose the boys to the teachers’ panties and their maxi pads. The boys cringed and the teachers had no idea. I was never caught! On the last day of school I got a picture of my teacher’s feet in the bathroom stall. Unfortunately she wasn’t on her period that day.
I’m sure from the perspective of an outsider my behavior must have seemed obnoxious. In fact, many of the teachers and kids in my class saw me that way. In the 8th grade I learned that the stranger I acted, the less my stuttering or Learning Disability mattered because they were overshadowed by my weirdness. I would have been much better off socially if I had started to wear all black and paint my face like Robert Smith of The Cure, but that wasn’t my style. Having been exposed to comedy at an early age and idolizing people like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and my favorite comic at the time, Emo Philips, absurdity was my genre to identify with. It was a defense that I would embody for years to come.
Naturally, I continued to stutter throughout school and my Learning Disability never let up, even with the Fs on my report card. The treatment from the teachers added to my already growing sense of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is the idea that if you try and you fail, and try yet again and fail, then soon enough you stop trying. This is intensified for some people who feel that no matter what they do, they will fail because they have little control over things. If they’re successful, it’s because of luck and not something that was within their power. If you have a Learning Disability or you work with people who have them, then you can recognize this. If there is a success, it’s because of a reason outside of their control (the test was easy and that’s why they received an A). Even successes are met with this mindset, so it can be difficult to change. Luckily for me there were people in my life (my parents) and others who would soon come into it, who would help to modify how I thought about myself.
Unfortunately, activism wasn’t yet on my radar. I didn’t know how to protest in the traditional sense of the word. Instead my protest was one that you see in many “mild-moderate” special education rooms across America: protest through silly acting out. I later learned there are better ways to advocate for yourself and to act out with purpose. My need to act out in more absurd ways was repressed until I was able to go back to my comedy roots and use standup as a means for activism and self-expression.
*This is a slightly modified version of my essay that was published in Critiques which can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Criptiques-Caitlin-Wood/dp/0991573404.
Picture of the legs of my 8th grade teacher.