- Posted January 18, 2014 by
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The written word: Your personal essays
Lessons from Riding the Short Bus
- Jareen, CNN iReport producer
So what makes my Kindergarten teacher different? I was in Special Education. It was a Special Education Kindergarten class that was the only one offered in my county, close to an hour away from my home (by bus).
I lived in Mount Joy, a rural town (borough) in western Lancaster County, PA. My twin sister and I had been in special education preschool for being delayed in language. I was a bit on the "slow" side. When we reached school-age (i.e. Kindergarten), my sister and I required a full-day program in separate classes. We needed to learn to socialize and communicate. Prior to our early intervention, my twin and I had "twinspeak", we had our own language. When I think back to this crucial child development period, we did not have the stimulation or interaction that fostered language development. As a result, we were developmentally behind than our peers.
Kindergarten programs in our area were only half-day programs. We required special education services to help us in our language and social skills. In PA, special education services are done through the Intermediate Units, not through the school districts. In our area, we had Intermediate Unit (IU) #13. It serves Lancaster and Lebanon counties. The problem was, there was only one full-day Kindergarten program that met our needs. As a result, my twin stayed in our home school district (Donegal) for pre-1. It was full-day, but she had "resource" services to supplement classroom instruction. Yes, she will tell you that she "skipped" Kindergarten. However, I was sent to the IU's program. It was housed at Nitrauer Elementary in the Manheim Township School District in Lancaster. This was ironic given that my family later moved to Lancaster when we started high school and I ended up graduating from Manheim Township.
As the stereotype goes, I was "special" and I rode the short bus. Yes, those of us in special education didn't ride the regular bus. We rode the mini-bus. Also, with the stereotype, my Kindergarten class was in the Special Education wing of the school. "Mainstreaming" was just starting in the early 80's. This wing was in a completely isolated area of the school, away from other classrooms, the cafeteria, the gymnasium, etc. My "short" bus stop was also in a separate area of the school. We even had our own playground.
My teacher was Neil Wenger. Yes, I remember him well. He listened. He was always positive. He was also encouraging. I think back and I can tell that he really liked being a teacher. There was only 11 of us in the class, and none of us knew we were "different" from anyone else in the school. Mr Wenger taught us to right letters. He taught us that letters represent sounds. When you put sounds together, they make words. I remember him taking my hand and helping me trace letters that formed words. I felt like I was learning a new world. He was always nice. He was patient.
My bus ride to school was long, an hour long. We had students from all grades in the bus and they all went to different schools, but we were all "special". I was first introduced to sign language when I was on this bus. There was a boy who looked like he was in junior high. He was deaf but he tried to speak because he saw us speaking. But, when he wanted to communicate, he signed. I was so fascinated by his signing. I tried signing to him by making up my own signs. I wanted to communicate with him. He taught me how to sign "Happy Thanksgiving" and "Thank you"-- at least that's what I remember. He probably thought I was an annoying 5-year-old.
Mr. Wenger was so passionate in his work. He took us on field trips, but we always had to walk to them (not sure why we never traveled by bus). I remember going to the local farm (it is Lancaster, farms were everywhere), making butter and milking cows. We also took a field trip to the local dentist office.
We did not have a "normal" gym class. Mr. Wenger was also our gym teacher. He taught us to do a headstand! I was in awe when he did a headstand for us!
Like I said before, "mainstreaming" was just being introduced. Mainstreaming is when special education students are introduced into the "mainstream", or regular, classroom. We would have visits with the regular Kindergarten class. I loved going there. They had their own jungle gym in the classroom and they had a piano!! I was very familiar with the piano. The "regular" Kindergarten teacher would play an arpeggio in C-major when she wanted the class' attention. After our visits to this classroom, I would go home and play the arpeggio. Anyway, there was one day that I distinctly remember. There was a girl in the "regular" classroom. She had blonde hair and wore a cute dress. She and I were playing in the classroom's jungle gym. She said to me, "We have to be nice to you because you are different." I remember thinking, "I'm different?" At that point, I did not know I was different. My "special" classmates didn't seem different to me. I was so confused on how I was different.
It wasn't until much later that I realized that I was in special education. My parents kept our report cards and when I found my Nitrauer report card, it didn't say "Kindergarten", it said "Special Education". Also, it was a report card from the IU, not the actual school.
When ever I mention I was a special ed student, often people don't believe me, initially. I've thrived in school, did well and graduated college, then grad school, twice! I have two graduate degrees. Who would have thought that I was in special education, or that I rode the "short bus"?
It's been over a week since I had this dream, and every time I think about it, I'm reminded that we value the work of our early education teachers. Mr. Wenger was special. First of all, he was a male teacher in an elementary setting and he was a special education teacher. In my dream, I thanked him and told him I credit him for my success today. I want to make this dream a reality. I want him to know he made a difference in my life. I want him to know I think about how he has helped me.
A few days ago, I reached out to the IU #13 and asked if there was a way for me to thank him. As far as I know, they have not been able to do so. This was 30 years ago, so I imagine this may be difficult. I'm asking for your help in connecting me to him.
The "short bus" was real, but I don't think I am any more different than anyone else. It's all about how we shape our lives based on our experiences.