“There are monsters biting at my brain,” Becky told us. She was five, maybe six. “They won’t go away.”
“At night? In your dreams?” I asked.
“No. In the day.”
“When in the day?”
“Just sometimes in the day.”
“What do they look like?”
“They have teeth all over.”
“Can you tell them to go away?” I asked her. “I mean, look right at them and yell at them to get out of there?”
“I tried that. I even put up signs in my brain saying GO AWAY! FUCK OFF! CLOSED DOWN FOREVER! But it didn’t do any good.”
We were sitting at the kitchen table. Rodney and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. What a kid. Where did she get the idea to do that?
“Well, that certainly was a good try,” I told her. I wondered if there was any connection between “biting her brain” and the fact that she is “brain damaged.”
“Can you draw us a picture of one of the monsters?” Rodney asked her. We got her a pencil and paper and she drew a shape with teeth all over it. She said the monsters were white.
“I have an idea,” Rodney said. “Let’s make some cookies that look like your monsters. Then, every time they come into your head, you can take a cookie and eat it. Shall we do that?”
Becky considered this plan, and said yes. So Rodney made some cookie dough and cut out monster shapes using Becky’s drawing. Then he put cornflakes all over them for the teeth, and put them in the oven to bake. When the monster cookies were cool, we put them in a big glass jar on a low shelf so Becky could reach them.
A few days later, she took a cookie and ate it. The monsters never came back. We finally threw the moldy cookies out.
Pushing Me On
At the school meeting before ninth grade, my math teacher announces he can’t give me extra time for in-class tests. He refuses to change the way he teaches. My mother tells him that it is the law, and he has to make reasonable accommodations. He doesn’t care. He’s not going to change. I groan in silence, knowing that he is the only one who teaches advanced honors algebra. All the other teachers at the meeting say they are okay about having me in their classes.
I am the only one who comes here on a school bus, a special bus for disabled students. When we stop at a red light, the driver leans on her horn until the light changes. When a certain commercial comes on the radio, she’ll sing along. Sometimes, the bus is late getting me to school. This becomes a point of contention between me and my first-period teachers. When my mother and I tell the bus driver that I need to be at school on time, she complains about our streets being too narrow.
I try to start a club for students with disabilities. I have an idea for a disability awareness day. Some of my teachers think it’s a good idea too. I put out a call on the daily announcements for interested students to meet in a certain classroom. While the announcement is being read, I hear sneers from the students around me, like, “Who would want to go to that?” I keep my mouth closed. I am the only person who shows up at the meeting. This is the one wheelchair-accessible high school in the county. I know I’m not the only student with a disability. If I were, I wouldn’t have even tried to start a club.
My problems with the other students intensify this year. When I drive my scooter through the halls, I hear “Missed” from someone who has thrown something in my direction. One day as I sit on the grass to eat lunch, there are students on the roof of the building throwing gummy bears at me. I get up and leave.
One such lunch time, I go into my academic counselor’s office. She gets me all excited about a biology class that focuses on ecology. Three biology teachers will co-teach it. I come home feeling something good is coming out of my loneliness, and I share this excitement with my mother.
Many things go wrong with the biology class. One teacher has a habit of asking math questions (e.g., what is the name for one followed by a hundred zeros?). I am often the only student who knows the answer or at least the only one who raises her hand. Because I raise my hand so frequently, the teachers ask the principal to tell me not to ask questions in class. My speech is too slow and takes up class time. If I have something to say, I should wait until lunch time. (This sets many things in motion, including the addition of speech therapy to horseback riding as another weekly extra-curricular activity for me.) The principal tells this to the aide who works with me, and the aide tells me. I am furious about this because I don’t get a lunch break anyway. When the teachers “lose” two of my weekly assignments and give me an “F” for the first half of the semester, that is the final straw.
I switch to a different biology class taught by the only other biology teacher at the school. After I change classes, the two papers are found. The new class works out just fine. When the teacher announces that she’s not going to teach biology next year, I am stuck. In order to graduate, I would need to take another biology class next year. What am I going to do? I don’t feel like taking one of the other teachers’ classes, but they are the only ones who will be teaching it.
While all this biology stuff is going on, I am having problems with other teachers as well. My Spanish teacher wants us to work in groups. One day, she hands out a worksheet and tells us to get into groups of two or three. I start out by asking the people who are sitting by themselves. They say they want to do the assignment alone. Then, I ask people already in groups and they say no. When I tell the teacher this, she announces to the class: Becky doesn’t have a partner–does anyone want her in his or her group? The whole class goes completely silent. This incident prompts the Resource Specialist to go into all of my classes and give talks about disability awareness.
My first-period class is California history. We discuss Mexican history and the Native Americans as well as the early explorers. I like the slant in this class. One day, the bus makes me late and the teacher comes to the door and literally pushes me out of the classroom saying that he is giving a surprise quiz, and I can’t come in because I am late.
I like to think that he and the other teachers pushed me all the way to Cabrillo Community College. I left high school after the tenth grade.
The lunchtime crowd had left, and it was too early for dinner, so we were the only ones on the restaurant’s patio overlooking the creek. It had been my idea to come here. I needed a drink. As I sat with my hand around my glass, Becky looked straight into my eyes and told me, in that serious way she has, that she was quitting school.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. We had just come from a meeting at her high school, and I can’t remember now if it was the meeting I called because her biology teacher told her not to ask questions in class because her speech was too slow, or the meeting I called when her history teacher pushed her back out of the classroom after the special bus dropped her off late, or the meeting that was set up because her Spanish teacher had said to the class, “No one picked Becky for their group, so who will take her?” and no one had answered.
“I’m tired of being the trailblazer,” she told me, her brown eyes wide and sad. Her word for herself made me think back to the time ten years earlier when I had watched her go eagerly into her first-grade classroom, her walker drawing curious looks from the other children. She was filled with excitement and expectation, and the innocence of a six-year-old.
“Okay,” I said, knowing what she had been through in her first two years of high school. That is, I thought I knew. It would be years before I found out things that neither Becky nor Anna told me at the time. “What do you want to do, then?”
“I want to take the high school equivalency test and go to Cabrillo,” she said. “You can do that when you’re sixteen.”
I looked at her, and imagined her going to our local community college. I smiled.
“Let’s drink to that,” I said, and clinked my margarita against her lemonade.