Mara A. Cohen. Pentimento. Issue 3. June 2014. Original URL: http://www.pentimentomag.org/issue3readerspen
On my brother's first day of kindergarten, the teacher phoned my mother.
"Daniel needn’t attend school tomorrow," the teacher coolly informed her. “But don’t worry. The principal arranged for Daniel to attend a special school for the mentally retarded.”
My brother wasn’t a typical kindergartner. He was smaller and less coordinated than most children his age. His gait was stiff and unsteady and his diction a little garbled. Sometimes he drooled. Sometimes he wet his pants.
Danny was born with Familial Dysautonomia, an exceptionally rare and little understood disease of the nervous system causing disruptions in his blood pressure, heart rate, the ability to perceive pain, regulate body temperature and swallow properly—a range of reflexes and instincts most of us take for granted. But Danny’s intelligence and personality were unaffected. My brother’s playmates adored him. He was a precocious reader. Danny was ready for kindergarten.
But it was 1970. School officials were accustomed to acting with impunity when it came to children with special needs. Local school districts operated under a patchwork of state laws. The few services available were provided at their discretion. Some children with disabilities were placed in regular classrooms with no services. Others classified as “uneducable” were turned away. No due process was in place for parents to challenge the edicts of impenetrable school bureaucracies.
After I was born, my parents decided the apartment they’d been living in with Danny was too cramped. They purchased our first home based less on floor plan than on the Cherry Creek School District’s progressive-sounding philosophy of “educating the child as an individual.”
Before signing the mortgage, my mother needed to be sure. Having heard about special schools where children deemed uneducable were warehoused, she met with the principal to disclose a few pertinent facts about Danny’s physical condition: the delays in his motor skills, his volatile health, his erratic bladder control. The principal was reassuring. “Don’t worry—other children have that problem too.” Danny would be welcome.
With the groundwork done, the phone call from Danny’s teacher hit my mother like a set of brass knuckles. Being a street-tough product of Newark public housing, she was ready to rumble. Jumping into our family’s Toyota Corolla, she raced to the school. The receptionist claimed the principal was out. My mother wasn’t buying it. Blue bell-bottoms flaring and platform heels boosting her height to a good 5’2’’, she pushed her way into the closed office where the principal cowered behind her desk.
“If you dare send Danny to a special school,” my mother snarled, “I’ll take you and the school system to court!”
Technically, Colorado law was not yet on my mother’s side. The principal could see she wasn’t bluffing. Both women were aware of legal challenges being mounted in other parts of the country on behalf of school children with disabilities. They both knew a lawsuit would expose the school district’s new slogan of tolerance and acceptance as a fraud. My mother was as serious as a switchblade. The principal backed down.
My brother returned to school on the second day of kindergarten. In keeping with the school district’s philosophy of individualized education, special accommodations were made on his behalf: Danny was taken out of the kindergarten class each day to receive reading lessons with the second grade and then returned to play with his peers.
Danny eventually earned his bachelor’s degree. I can’t say what became of his kindergarten teacher.