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  • Special Ed
  • Beth Peterson (bio)

It was an early morning, late September—fog lifting off the farm fields, the blacktop road wet and glistening and vacant. The wheat harvest had already come and gone, but the corn was still green and silky and lining the edge of the local roads, six feet high on the horizon. Here, a mile from the city, there’s one small strand of trees, then wild grasses and open air—so much open air you could never breathe it all in, not at once.

I was standing, shivering, with my ten-speed bicycle and a spiral-bound notebook, just left of the center lane on the northernmost end of Old Manitowoc Road. It was a perfect scene except for the squirrel splayed open on the blacktop a few feet in front of me, looking like it had been flung then run over, recently, and probably by a truck. Pieces of fur and skin were matted to the road, straight to the center line. One leg was dangling; its abdomen was split open and flattened like a gutted fish, except the blood was fresh and red, and running not only from its stomach but also its mouth, which was open slightly—like it might, at any moment, resume breathing.

It was the only roadkill that morning, at least on the mile-long stretch of road I canvassed. Other mornings there had been more, up to four animals in a single morning. Usually it was fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), and field mice (Microtus pennsylvanicus), though two mornings I’d seen birds (blue jay [Cyanocitta cristata] and unidentifiable), and once I’d seen a raccoon (Procyon lotor).

I make notes: 6:55 a.m., just north of abandoned schoolhouse, fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), adult, body disjointed, recently dead, then get back on my bicycle and ride home. [End Page 31]

It was tenth grade and I had been placed in special education science accidentally, though I did not know this at the time and wouldn’t for months. My high school was average, my town was medium-sized: around 20,000 students in our district, with 1,800 of these in a range of special education classes. Of course, these classes weren’t called “special education” to the students who were in them, or even on these same students’ academic transcripts. Most of the special-education courses at my school weren’t titled at all, and if they were, the titles were exactly the same as their mainstream counterparts—British literature, U.S. government, ninth-grade math—only the course numbers were modified slightly.

It wasn’t just my high school, either. Since 1975, when Congress first mandated “free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment” for all students, with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, public schools all over the nation have struggled with both what to call and what to do with, as the act labeled them, “handicapped students.” According to the Department of Education, the U.S. government spends upwards of $50 billion per year educating the over six million students enrolled in special-education programs in the United States. Some of this money is spent on separate courses set up for only learning-disabled students, and some of the money is spent trying to help students integrate into mainstream courses with the help of aides, additional instruction, or resource rooms.

In reality, there’s a huge spectrum of what lands American students in special ed: from learning disabilities (defined by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities as “significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities”) to developmental disorders such as Down’s Syndrome or autism that can affect a person’s ability to perform the most basic of daily-living tasks, like driving, cooking, or holding a job. Though many people immediately think of severe disabilities when they hear the term “special ed”—as if there’s a Mendelian distinction between one high school species and another—three out of five special education students function at high enough levels to spend almost all their time in regular classes...


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pp. 31-41
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