So let me start off by saying this…You may not agree with everything I’m about to say in this letter, but that’s okay. I do hope that at least it causes you to listen and hear the experiences of a girl who lived through a very real experience. So now that I’ve gotten that out the way, please let me introduce myself! My name is Rasheera Dopson and this is my truth. To read my entire story make sure you go and check out my new book Beauty with a Twist! Purchase your copy in the store today!
I HATED being in Special Ed. There I said it! Wheew it’s like someone let the air out the bag. Like I finally slaughtered the large elephant in the room. Let me say it again for those of you in the back... in case you didn’t hear ( oh wait this is a blog, so you’re technically you’re reading ). I HATED being in Special Ed. I came to this realization some time ago, really it was my junior year in high school and I believe it was the moment my teacher told me my chances of getting into college were shot due to the fact that I was in special education and taking remedial classes. Now let me back up just a minute and rewind because you may be asking how did I end up in special education?
Well, it all started around the 3rd or 4th grade when I started having problems in school and I guess my teachers noticed I really couldn’t do simple math. Man did I struggle. I was always the oddball in school just for the simple fact that I was considered medically fragile so I missed school a lot because I was sick all of the time. As you can imagine due to the prevailing episodes of sickness plaguing my childhood, it sort of became a norm for me to miss school and my teachers visiting the hospital to come and see about me.
And you see all that was sweet, lovely, and fine because who wouldn’t want to pity the little black girl with the single mom who had a bunch of surgeries right? I mean come on you talk about St. Jude commercials being a tear-jerker, I was the walking billboard back in the day for chronically sick children. Like I said everything was all lovely and fine as long as my illness and education where two separate entities. They never clashed and therefore no problems ever existed. Well, all of that changed when I got to the 4th grade. It just so happened that my body was getting stronger which means I sick less often which meant that I was more present in school. Do you see where I’m heading with this… do you sense a problem coming?
Yea my chronic illness clashed with my education like the Titanic in the Atlantic ocean and I’m not sure that my family or teachers knew what to do. I was sort of an anomaly in my community. There weren’t many 10 years olds at the time walking around with 70 plus surgeries.
In turn as a solution to my medical conditions and my educational matriculation clashing, the final solution was to put me in Special Education. Now, I will say looking back 15 plus years later even if that wasn’t the best solution, at the time it did seem the most viable. I guess my parents and teachers figured if mainstream education was too fast for me then Special Education would be a placeholder, a safe haven for me until I was able to catch up. But you see for me, it was the complete opposite. I didn’t feel safe in Special Education, I felt trapped.
Special Education for me began a label that I despised and other kids taunted. Another item on my list that would cause me to be rejected by society and made to stick out in the midst of my peers. In school, we didn’t call Special Education, Special Ed, but we called it Resource. Smooth Huh… No! Not smooth, because like kids do, we all figured it out and Resource became like this secret code that couldn’t be mentioned out loud.
Whenever my teachers assign classwork, and of course because I was an IEP student receiving special education services my work was automatically modified. Whenever I would have questions about my class assignment or what to do, my teachers would gently hand me back my paperwork whispering “ you can talk to your resource teachers about helping you.” I would walk back to my desk confused thinking “ what is the point of putting in a general education classroom if all you’ll ever do is treat me like a Special Ed student.”
What I hated most about special Ed is that most times, I didn’t feel helped, but I felt hidden. I felt like my school didn’t have a place for students like me. How was I ever supposed to grow if the work I got was always remedial? How would I learn anything else different if all of my peers were performing significantly below grade average? How would I ever excel, if I was always told that mediocrity was the standard to reach.
Being in Special Education didn’t help or motivate me, it branded me. And when I went to apply for schools, the didn’t see the challenge or any academic rigor all the saw was a student with subpar test scores. You know on college transcripts the admissions office can’t tell what you look like, your transcripts don’t even state that you were in Special Ed. All that your transcripts state is a score and where you fall within the student percentile. And one of the things about being in special education or at least the school I was in, most of the test, class assignments are not even considered to be on the full curriculum scale.
It was a miracle that I went to college and graduated with a degree and I wish that wasn’t so. There were so many doubts in my mind and regrets about my educational process that I wish weren’t true. And that is largely due to my experience being in Special Education.
I’m currently a fellow in a program called GaLEND short for Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities at Georgia State University. A few weeks ago we had a guest lecturer come to our class to talk about the power of social media and using that power to wield information and advocacy pertaining to disability and policy issues. In that lecture the speaker said something so profound, he said: “ Special Education is not a place it’s a service.” And those 7 words stuck with me.
Because I can remember countless times going to my Special Education classroom and being totally separated from my peers. And I remember how embarrassed I felt. Not wanting others to know why I got to leave class 30 minutes early every Tuesday and Thursday. That the services I received in that isolated classrooms were below average compared to the general population and how I didn’t know how I felt about all of it.
To be honest, it wasn’t until I got older that I realized that I never had a learning disability so to speak. I was diagnosed with an environmental learning disability. My intellect was completely intact. And if I can brag on myself a little bit, I’m pretty dang smart for some who received subpar education. The issues weren’t just the lack of inclusion, integration and the adaptation of learning styles in the general education classroom. What was missing the most was a supportive learning environment that said every student has the capacity to maximize her learning potential without the fear of failure or not measuring up to her typical peers. Oh, how my 14-year-old self needed to hear those affirmative words. I didn’t need to be placed in Special Ed I needed a supportive inclusive learning environment.
I know that there are so many thoughts on these issues but I believe my experiences and others like me offer such an insightful perspective. My purpose for writing this essay was not to bash the Special Education system, because I know there are many educators working behind the scenes to make classrooms better. I’m not saying Special Education is wrong but what I do know is that inclusion is RIGHT! In moving into the future, as we are creating classrooms and building systems we have to keep these discussions in mind and close to heart when were thinking about the impact we want our schools to make on the lives of every student.
In my new memoir, Beauty with a Twist I talk a lot about my experiences growing up in school, having a disability and all the dynamics that come with it. And overall I may have HATED being in Special Ed, but I can say now that I absolutely love inclusion! And I am willing to share my story until every classroom out there reflects the environment each student needs.