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11.19.03 10:54 a.m.

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced - even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.

 -John Keats  

Previously in Xenology: Xen met Anne Marie. Xen decided to become a teacher. Emily hurt her knee.

And the Day Came
I did see Anne Marie once more a few days after hiking one-sixteenth up Cornish's, as I needed to go shopping for Christmas/Yule/Hanukkah. Granted, it was perfectly possible to have gone alone. However, Anne Marie wanted to spend time with me again and I thought this could best be accomplished in a public place wherein I had numerous tasks to keep me busy.
I solicited Keilaina's accompaniment, but she had a prior obligation to Petco. "But, Kei, I would really rather you come with me. Please. I explained the situation to you."
"Yes, and I growled. But I have to go to work."
"Not until two. We'll be at the mall, it's right next to Petco. I'll buy you lunch," I offered in singsong.
"Sorry. If I am late once more, they said they'd fire me. And if Anne Marie tries anything, channel the Emily within and hurt her."
The Demon Xen  
Yeah, I don't get it either.
"I only know how to do elbow strikes. They are hard to use as self-defense unless the Board Monsters attack. But you are right, you should work and not get fired. Thanks anyway."
I met Anne Marie outside the cheap movie theater. She was wearing overalls and a t-shirt and therefore had not tried to dress up. That, I thought, could be a good sign that she had no untoward intentions. Unless, of course, this outfit qualified as datewear to her, which could well be the case. She goes to an out-of-state college and thus could be full of such strange ideas.
As the cheapie theater is not currently connected to the Galleria (though I expect this will change in time) and it was raining ice needles, we had to travel the one-sixteenth of a mile in her car. I got in, buckled up, and turned to see her putting on a pout. The raindrops on the windshield turned dancing rivulets. Through them, I could see the Galleria morph and melt. I wondered absently whether her eventual sobs would steam up the windows and grew scarlet at what this might insinuate to passers-by.
After half an hour of stilted conversation, dry sobs, and her knitting a scarf, she drove to the Galleria. I tried to keep her occupied with helping me find gifts for most of the people on my list. As she did not actually know a single one of them - aside from a passing acquaintance with Kate when she was ten - she mostly nodded convincingly as I purchased sundry baubles. This is not to say she did not make me uncomfortable. I am not a headrest, nor was I willing to be so treated by her. Forced attempts at familiarity are met with alienation on my part.
As like last time, when she wasn't lamenting the pain Marvin caused her over four years ago or trying to be overly affectionate, she was a great conversationalist. Unlike the lot of Pagans I've met, she wasn't reacting against the religion of her parent and had actually given careful thought as to what her faith entailed.
Over bad mall food, we were discussing religion - punctuated with my cursing the terrible PR Pagans give themselves through concerted attempts at self-righteous lunacy - when Venessa walked by our table. She didn't acknowledge me at first, busily chatting with a friend from the Mansion. She was small in every way, likely weighing twenty pounds less than would look healthy on her barely sixty inch frame. She was dressed, as always, in a black suit. Venessa sucked the lollipop in her mouth absently though hungrily, her body overriding her body dysphoria to get at the precious calories.
"Fine, Venessa, ignore me," I teased as she unwittingly approached.
She focused quickly and smiled, her teeth seeming worn and red from the lollypop, "Hey! How've you been?"
"I'm good... mostly. Going to The Mount. Getting my learn on, as it were. Hanging out with Emily, though she can't really drive now. She hurt her knee dodging an assassin's throwing stars. You know how it is. What've you been up to?"
"Not much. Hey, I'm still around, you should give me a call," she suggested, biting her bottom lip.
I skimmed through Flea for her number, which she confirmed. "I will give you a call. Soon. Ish. I'll try at least."
"What more can a girl ask?" This was directed halfway toward Anne Marie, though she just shrugged in reply. Venessa and her friend bid us a quick adieu and were gone.
"Who's Venessa?" asked Anne Marie when they were out of earshot.
"She's an old friend, I guess. She's been there a few times when I really needed someone sympathetic to speak to, then she disappears for long tracts of time. Sometimes she just disappears when she turns sideways; she's very small."
"I noticed. Is she... okay?"
"At the moment, yes. She doesn't have cancer or anything quite so dramatic, if that is what you're asking. She shouldn't have anything wrong with her; which is not to say she doesn't... I am always a little surprised that she is alive and relatively happy," I confided.
The rest of the meal passed pleasantly as we chatted over the generalities of life. I considered that I had been judging her wrongly previously and was preparing to revise my opinion when she said, in a fashion that, despite its attempts, was anything but offhand, "I was telling my friend about you. She says you must have a really open relationship..."
I stopped dead. "No. I don't. We discussed this. I am deeply in love with Emily. I am with Emily. We do not have an open relationship. At all. Okay?"
She looked away and began, "Yeah, that's what I told her she's conservative so..."
This was an end. Any lingering comfort she may have engendered when she dropped the pretenses and acted like a person I would call friend was shattered by this attempted nonchalance about my hard earned relationship. Not only this, but she was calling my honor into question so she could indulge what I am certain she saw as some innocent intercontinental infidelity against her boyfriend Carl. I don't wish to have such meretricious contact with her or anyone. No ephemeral pleasure is worth it.

"Thank you for staying with me."
"M, you know I wouldn't be anywhere else," I flopped down on her bed and played with her teddy bear Macho. He was still in his karate gi, though this would have to change before M's surgery. "I would have this surgery in your place if I could."
"I know. That means a lot to me, but I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy." She began to cry quietly and grabbed Macho back to comfort herself. He has a tear absorbent head.
"Oh, don't cry, Emeleth! You don't even have enemies."
She did not make any move to quell her tears but explained, "I am just so scared. My knee already hurts like nothing I've experienced before. If this surgery does not go well - or maybe even if it does - I can't do Tae Kwon Do anymore. And I won't be able to be a nurse; they have to stand for hours at a time. That's my whole life."
Macho M  
Macho is scared
"You won't lose me or your Little Ninjas. And I think you will make a full recovery. I would tell you if I didn't."
She smiled through her tears, "No. You probably wouldn't. But it's nice to think so."
Methodically, she stripped Macho of his gi and dressing him in scrubs. Then, quite suddenly, she laughed. "I just had the most ridiculous thought. I wondered if Macho could come into the operating room with me to keep my company and I decided he could because he has a mask. Then I realized."
During Emily's surgery, I read Shadow Puppets or slept on the stoical loveseat. M's parents seemed more nervous that I was, but they had also not spent much of the night trying to soothe their daughter that the world would not end should her knee be opened.
Several hours after the surgery, they finally allowed us to see Emily. She was collapsed on a bed and the only color to her face was her pink ringed eyes.
"How is my brave little toaster?" I asked, slipping my fingers into her palm. She gave them a weak squeeze, her hands almost totally bereft of their vivacity. Even her skin seemed only recently reanimated.
"I've been better," she tried to joke, but began to cough. She began to cry, "I hurt so much. I..."
Emily's mother smoothed her hair back, that maternal gesture that comforts without reason.
"Could I have some more ice chips?" asked Emily of the attending nurse. "You have no idea how amazing these ice chips are right now... I feel woozy."
At these last three words, we were escorted back into the waiting room with nary an ice chip to keep us entertained.
Hours later, a surly nurse nudged me awake and informed us that we could go see Emily again. M was still in the neutral aqua gown that all patients are given and seemed considerably more lucid. I knew this latter part because she was bawling her eyes out over the pain and had the same desperate sharpness to her flitting gaze that I assume deer with bear-trapped legs possess. We sought to comfort her, but even the ceremonial maternal forehead brushing was not enough.
Eventually, after the nurse gave Emily a few deceptively potent narcotics and her figured regained its elasticity in my hand, her doctor came to check up on her.
"Dr. Awesome, I hurt so much."
He looked her over blankly, "You should, you just got your leg cut open. But it's nothing to worry about and you should try to walk as normally as possible with you cast on." To illustrate his point, he grabbed her leg roughly and shook it. "See, nothing to worry about."
To my surprised, Emily did not immediately begin crying, though her fingers turned to vices on my hands. Perhaps her childhood acting had imprinted her to the extent that she could mask her feelings, though the calm demeanor vanished when Dr. Awesome closed Emily's partition curtain.
"I fucking hate him now! How dare he do that to me?! I just came out of surgery!" she raged. Then, primordial guilt welling from within, Emily tried to explain his actions to herself more than us, "I know he is the same knee surgeon professional football player use but... I guess he wouldn't have done that unless he knew I could take it but he still... I hurt so much."
All of this is not to say that - to my great shock - Emily wasn't fairly mobile on crutches within half an hour. I would not have asked her to sit up straight (which was evidently not something she could do at this point anyway), let alone prove that she was fully capable of stunted locomotion.
Soon after getting her crutches and practicing moving at a fair clip, I had to bid Emily and her family a quick adieu. The winds were growing strong and, despite my better wishes to remain by my love's side, I had to attend another class of learning the economics behind full-day kindergarten classes.

Watching Joanie
As part of my Intro to Special Ed class, I had to watch a special needs child for eight hours. I was almost entirely morally opposed to such actions - the poor kid likely gets that enough from more professional adults and circus performers, she certainly doesn't need another set of eyes analyzing her sniffles as a sign of disability - but it was made clear to me that I could neither pass this class nor ever graduate should I choose to take a moral stance. Ergo, my morals were put in a shoe box until the project was completed.
After arriving at my old middle school and after signing in to assure I was not there to shoot the children, I sought out the resource room teacher who was, of course, in the teacher's lounge. If I had her job, the lounge is where I would spend every free moment. She moves throughout the school with her ten special needs students (two of which had been suspended for a month for some unnamed offense to the school code). She likely does this for less that Kobe Bryant's lawyer's intern's pool boy makes, so she is either incredibly noble or being blackmailed.
When I asked which student would be the best subject for my observation, the teacher conferred with the students' social studies teacher and recommended I observe Joanie, as she was supposed to be the most "interesting." However, the class began before she could clarify just want the "interest" entailed so I decided to observe her to see if I could identify any behaviors that would require classification.
I watched this girl for two days and my conclusion is that Joanie is guilty only of being from a poor black family. She was more polite and more interested than most of her regular education peers. Her only problem was that she is one of the more rambunctious patrons to my library, as is the case with kids her age, and she was well-acquainted with who I was. As such, she watched me, constantly. Do you understand how unnerving it is to be constantly watched by the very person on whom you are to spy? It really took a bit away from the whole concept of an observation; like my presence would thus cause her to behave better or worse than was common, though I took pains to not let Joanie know that she was the focus of my observation. This was wholly a futile effort.
And, of course, being able to quickly surmise that one is the object of an observation and change one's behavior accordingly to skew the result is in the DMV as a sign of mental retardation in the same way that glass is fun to eat. I confronted the teacher with my utter lack of findings thus far and was assured that the classification was valid and I had just chosen one of Joanie's better days to observe her. The teacher explained during the study skills/lunch period that Joanie often does not have her work done and loses her notebooks. This, again, did not seem a means for classification though it does insinuate that there should be greater contact between the school and Joanie's parent. She also told me that, during study period and lunch, Joanie tries to be overly social and therefore gets involved with a lot of "he said/she said" rumors and ends up causing a lot of drama. I was a bit surprised to hear this in connection with a conversation about classification, as I had just thought this was a natural stage for a middle school girl. Incidentally, I did not see any of this behavior during either of my visits, but can well understand Joanie's aptitude for it. She is, after all, a completely normal preteen and thus in need of numerous dispensations to correct her hormonal, racial, and economic handicaps.
Incidentally, to dull the edge of my snark, I was impressed at how little her peers took note that she was a special education student, if they indeed knew. Middle school is an atrocious place for a child to undergo their pupal stage and they act one by noxiously noting the slightest difference between two people.
I pulled the teacher aside at the end of the day and asked, "So, why is Joanie special ed, exactly? In the hallway between classes, you mentioned that she has behavior problems and a learning disability. She seemed to get off on answering the teachers' questions."
"I can't give out her classification, obviously. That would be a huge breach of confidence no matter what your teacher told you to ask." She smiled, aware that I was grilling her from a worksheet my professor had given me. I wouldn't have asked for the actual classification, though my teacher evidently felt that apropos. "Anyway, Joanie does love to participate in class, but she won't do the work. When we go to the home economics period, you will see what I mean." By this she was referring to Joanie's evidently characteristic disinclination to actually do schoolwork coupled with her behavior once removed from the confines of an inclusion classroom. This didn't mean much to me in the context of special education. Though I think preteens are pretty screwed up, they tend to outgrow it.
"So, you think she should have this classification?" I queried, obviously not buying this.
"Yes, definitely. When she came here, she was with the students with severe special needs and she was doing terribly. We saw that she should be in the normal classroom, so we petitioned to have her moved. She's doing much, much better in an inclusion classroom and is passing all of her subjects. She was mostly failing in [a completely] special ed [classroom]."
"That's really great. Looking at her and observing her behavior, I am kind of shocked that she was in complete special education classrooms; she seems mostly normal. I don't think her classmates even know she has special needs and you know how young teenagers are hyperaware of even the slightest differences."
She laughed, "Yeah, she is definitely doing a lot better. I think that this really works - I mean the students not realizing who is special ed - because I interact like just another teacher. They don't even think to notice who I talk to, because I answer every student's questions."
"I noticed that. It must be difficult."
She was a little confused. "What's difficult?"
"Oh, I mean, you have to be conversant about all of the subjects and be able to spit back the answer to the questions they ask."
"It's not so hard, actually. I'm in the classroom with them anyway and I meet with the classroom teachers all the time."
Moving on, I asked what Joanie's particular dispensations and services were.
"She gets to have tests read to her and I can rephrase the questions. She gets extended time of tests, though she doesn't usually use that one. That's about it."
"Yeah, I heard you clarifying a quiz question in social studies. Anything you think Joanie needs more of?"
"Parental involvement. I think Joanie doesn't try because she isn't being reinforced to try. She could be doing a lot better with a little confidence, but as it is she is academically and socially stunted."
"Why did you choose to this field? It's certainly not easy."
She smiled and looked far away for a moment before responding. "My next door neighbor when I was a kid was a special ed teacher. It just seemed really noble and rewarding. I really admired what he did... It is rewarding to see students actually succeeding, too, especially when they don't think they can."
"So, you like your job overall?" It was pretty evident that she did.
"Definitely. I wouldn't want to do anything else. It's not always easy. It seems like each new class is harder, but that is for education in general. Special Ed gets more problem students, of course, but all the teachers here think that the kids are getting harder to handle. We're having more pregnant sixth graders and more really violent fights. And so many of these kids just don't want to learn and they are just putting in their time until they can legally drop out. It's hard to talk to a kid who doesn't want to be here and who actually wants to be suspended." She didn't seem quite a jovial as when the interview began, but she had little reason to. What she described is what teachers have warned me against since I decided to become one.
I like 80's hair  
I didn't take a lot of pictures
"Wow, that's depressing... Any other problems? Particularly in special education?" I did still have to fill this damned worksheet out, no matter the turn the answers took.
"There are fewer and fewer people entering the field. The standards are so high and it costs so much to get a degree, why would someone what to do that just to deal with special ed kids? I'm glad I got into this field fifteen years ago, I don't think I could do it now."
The end product of my observation was that some students are placed in special education environments purely because they are inconvenient in the classroom. When Joanie arrived at the school, she was segregated away from most of her chronological peers and placed in a setting with children possessing severe special needs. Like, kids who couldn't speak and who had a marked tendency to soil themselves when they hear loud sounds. Several teachers had to take the administration to task and threaten to take to the union before she placed in an inclusion setting where she has flourished. Yet, though inclusion is quite a sight better for her, it is hard to disabuse oneself from the idea that Joanie is mostly classified because she her parents happen to be economically disadvantaged and of African descent. I did note that a disproportionate amount of the special need inclusion students were minorities (the two suspended students had Hispanic names).
Conversely, perhaps the classification is wholly warranted. Classifications are not easy to attain (or shouldn't be) for students who do not truly have the need. As Joanie was ostensibly learning disabled and had behavior problems, it seems difficult to differentiate - especially given only two days of observation - between normal middle school academic difficulty and rambunctiousness and those traits that would make one special needs. I think, also, that Joanie is not so much "well-behaved" as a choice, but as default. To behave otherwise would be undue and unwanted interest on her and I believe she mostly wants to be left alone unless she is receiving praise (which is why she is quick to raise her hand when she thinks she knows the right answer). Perhaps what I mistake for politeness is what the teacher referred to as Joanie being socially stunted. None of this is to say that Joanie doesn't need her academic dispensations. At the very least, it seems to provide her a security blanket that allows her to partially credit her success to an external party. It often seemed as though she would need fewer dispensations in a different environment where she has more external support. The classroom teachers all seem to feel that much of Joanie's special needs result from the fact that she receives very little support from her mother (No father was mentioned, so I am forced to assume Joanie's mother is a single parent). Of course, the mother is belligerently against giving Joanie any real support beyond the forced superficial, so I can't hold out much hope that Joanie will break the cycle of minority suppression that likely plague her parents.
Now the surprising part: I actually feel as though I am qualified to do this. Not teach special education, of course. I am not a goddamned masochist. However, the idea of teacher does not fill my throat with bile nearly as much as it did before I had this little imposed experience. I grant that this is perhaps a little late to be having such revelations; I am placing my future self under quite a burden of debt to achieve this dubious goal. However, I now feel that I can manage to incorporate this aspect into my identity without undue stress.
This is wholly selfish, of course. I'm not thinking of my future class; I did more than enough of that while I was at New Paltz. (They, coincidentally, just received state approval to actually educate teachers. I wonder what they were doing while I was there.) I do not despair at the thought and foresee a niche in this profession for me.
And, if it doesn't work, I can always change my identity and become a clown.

Soon in Xenology: Sleepovers. Recovery. Conor and Flynn.

last watched: Secondhand Lions
reading: Shadow Puppets
listening: A mix Zack made M. It's a good mix.
wanting: A teaching job.
interesting thought: Emily's life is far from over.
moment of zen: Feeling M's life return to her pinky.
someday I must: Watch M break a cinderblock.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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