It’s so enticing. The mainstream. Maybe our children aren’t so different, so unusual. Maybe they are ‘normal’. Maybe they belong in the mainstream. But maybe not. Maybe our goal ought not be a mainstream education but a mainstream life. After all, we will spend about 12 years in elementary and high school, and, if we live to be 80, we will spend about 62 years in our post-high school life.
When I was 5 years old I was asked not to return to preschool. A psychologist told my parents I had “minimal brain dysfunction” and “would never go to college”. My mother responded by getting together with one of the pioneers in learning disabilities and starting a school. For me. But it ended at age 9 and there was no special school for me to go on to and she didn’t start another one.
The mainstream is where some kids drown.
I know I would have drowned in the mainstream as an elementary school student, and nearly drowned in the mainstream for junior high school and high school. I was bullied. I was teased. I was repeatedly stuffed into garbage cans, I had glue bored in my hair or on a seat I was about to sit in, and people signed my yearbook with things like “Dear Martian”. If I had been in a rougher school, I would have been beaten up.
I was suicidal for about a decade. Once, about age 13, I sat on the ledge of our apartment, 8 flights up over concrete, contemplating. But I came back in and wrote a poem:
Have you ever?
Have you ever been out on a ledge, looking down?
Have you ever felt fear and hate all around?
Have you ever seen warfare inside your own soul?
Have you ever known that you’d never be whole?
And yet, for some reason, you crawl on back in
Like Hamlet from Shakespeare, but which is the sin:
To jump, fall and die, and thus to be free,
Or to be a coward, like Hamlet and me?
Once, a year or two later, I couldn’t sleep. Around midnight, I wrote a suicide note to my parents then left the apartment and wandered around New York for a while. But I came home around 5 AM, tore up the note and went to bed.
After that, things got better, I skipped 12th grade and did college in 3 years. I graduated at age 20. My parents threw me a party and I invited the psychologist (he wrote back saying he was glad he had been wrong). Eventually, I got 2 MAs and a PhD. I am doing OK in the mainstream adult world. But I am fairly sure I would have done better had I been in special education longer. You may say that I was a kid a long time ago (true) and that things have improved since then. True, but not enough. We have anti-bullying programs — and we still have bullying. We have a new thing, too: Cyberbullying. And our teachers are, often, overburdened already with too many kids in a class, too many classes in a day, too much paperwork all the time. Things have gotten better, but the mainstream is still a dangerous place.
One thing we shouldn’t forget about mainstream education is that it’s a lot cheaper than special education; and state bureaucrats love to save money. The bureaucrats aren’t evil people — they’ve been told what to do, they’ve been told the budget they have to work with and budgets are being cut. Money must be saved. And a law saying we should all be in ‘least restrictive environments’ sells a lot better than one that says we should be in ‘the least expensive environments’ or one that’s called the “Let’s make teachers’ lives harder”.
How often does the least restrictive environment serve the best interest of the child and the adult that child will become? Not as often as some would like to think. But it’s an easy sell. It’s an easy sell to many parents, it’s an easy sell to the bureaucrats, it’s an easy sell to society as a whole. And it all came about with very good intentions — it’s certainly a lot better than what was going on before.
But the ‘least restrictive environment’ is often planned in one way, and then carried out in another. Plans are laid for highly skilled aides … and then the budget act falls again. And there are fewer aides. Or less skilled aides. Or no aides at all. And the classes get bigger, and teachers get even more overworked.
Some fish can swim in the mainstream; but some can’t.