Special Needs

by

11/24/2019

Neighborhood: Featured, Kips Bay, Manhattan, Murray Hill

From 1966 to 1969 — grades 1 to 3—I attended the Adams School. Occupying three separate buildings, in the East 30s near Lexington Avenue, it was a “private school” for roughly 400 students aged four to 21 facing learning or emotional challenges. In reality, the school received most, if not all, its funding from the New York City Board of Education, which at the time lacked sufficient special-ed facilities for its pupils.  

I have never been entirely clear on the disability I suffered from or why the New York City Board of Education would not accept me into its regular school system. The range of impairment among the school’s lower school students ran the gamut from severe to little or none. Unlike most of my classmates, I had learned to read by the first grade and was invariably considered the “smartest” in the class, which usually consisted of 15 or fewer students. While the Adams School appears to have enjoyed a good reputation during the time I attended, that had changed by 1977 when the State Comptroller, Arthur Leavitt, charged the school with misusing millions of dollars in state funding. The school was closed the next year when the State Department of Education decided not to renew its contract due to its failure to correct safety hazards and remedy deficiencies in its educational program. 

What follows is a series of brief vignettes, memories that have managed to persist, possibly distorted or colored by emotions, over the last 50 years.  

Violence is my primary recollection. Violence among students lacking in impulse control and violence employed by teachers as an instrument of control or punishment. Many of my memories are rooted in the van rides to and from school that were provided by the Board of Education. 

First day of school, September, 1966: My father takes me to school in a taxi. He is having a fairly lively conversation with the cabbie. We stop, and the cabbie, a young man, offers to get out and walk me to the school. I’m not sure why my father isn’t accompanying me. Is he remaining in the cab to be driven back home? I don’t know, but I remember the cabbie leading me down some steps. I enter the school on my own and identify myself to someone. I don’t know who. A blur of activity follows as I am led from class to class. Eventually, I end up in a classroom where the teacher, Ms. Tromka, introduces me and tells my classmates I am joining them because I was “too smart” for the other classes in which they had tried to place me.

One day, shortly after beginning school, I have to read parts of a children’s book out loud to the class. I think it is so lame that the text consists entirely of one to three letter words. I know bigger words than that. 

Ms. Tromka is a bubbly, bespectacled woman. To say that most of the children, myself included, are rambunctious is an understatement. We all fight a lot. Ms. Tromka controls us by pulling our hair. But she remains cheerful when doing so. 

In my class there is a little red-haired girl named Elizabeth. She also rides the bus with me. Ms. Tromka begins each class by asking us about the morning’s weather and writing it on the blackboard. Elizabeth always says it is sunny and cold, regardless of the weather outside. She has become attached to the rhythm and sound of the phrase, “sunny and cold,” especially the “cold.”   Over time, other classmates develop affinities with various phrases.    

One day, Garry, a little forever angry boy with a crew cut, charges at Elizabeth with a pencil.  What provoked his ire I do not know. However, I come to the rescue, wrestling him to the ground and taking his pencil. The other students are gathered around watching my act of heroism.     

Not all my actions are so noble. One day, I bump the head of a talkative boy named Chip against the wall as I pass him in the hallway. What drives me, I do not know. Do I think it’s funny from watching cartoons? He responds by banging my head against the wall several times. We are pulled apart. 

There is a mischievous boy named Joseph, who likes to pull his penis out of his pants and say, “Lilli Pippi Lilli Pipi, Lilli Pippi, baby.” Soon I find myself doing the same thing. All of us think this is funny.   

One day, we are being monitored by a teenager from the upper school. One of the kids questions his authority, pointing out that he is not a teacher. The teen responds, “I am a teacher to you.”  He speaks with an impediment that can be clearly heard when he utters the word “teacher”, pronouncing it “teatza.” The child mimics him, lisp and all. Soon we are all taunting the teen, saying “I’m a teatza to you.” When the teenager is teased, he slaps whoever his tormentor is at the moment. I eagerly join in, telling the teen, “I’m a teatza to you,” receiving a smack to the top of my head in return.

There is an Indian teacher, a young woman I’ll call Sarita, who has a bindi on forehead. She neutralizes unruly children by twisting their arms behind their backs, usually until they cry. It is a combat technique heretofore unknown to me, exotic and fearsome to behold. I am sure to be on my best behavior in her presence. 

A child named Willie, who is at least three years older than me and over a foot taller, targets me for special treatment, always on the lookout when our different classes are together, finding me and hitting me whenever the opportunity arises. One day, shortly after having endured one of these episodes, I tell Sarita what Willie has done. Later that day, I find myself sitting alone in a classroom, possibly because Sarita has told me to wait there. The door bursts open and in stumbles Willie followed by Sarita. Though Willie is almost as tall as Sarita, he is clearly no match for her. She has twisted his arm behind his back, and he is crying. She tells me that Willie would like to tell me something about what happened earlier today. Willie blubbers that when he had confronted me, he had been trying to protect me, not bully me. Willie never bothers me again.

So Ms.Tromka pulls hair, Sarita twists arms. There is one other teacher who instills fear, a youngish compact man I’ll call Mr. Kramer. During our first class with him, someone asks what seems an innocuous question. Mr. Kramer bangs the desk with such force that we almost jump out of our seats. Another irksome question and Kramer again bangs the desk. He seems so strong that no one dares challenge him.   

A lot of the chatter among male students concerns who can beat up whom. Can Sarita beat up Ms. Tromka? How about Mr. Kramer and Mr. Blau, the principal who stands about a foot taller than Kramer? It is generally agreed that notwithstanding Blau’s height advantage, Kramer could bounce him from wall to wall without a problem.       

In addition to my heroic acts described earlier, I endure my share of humiliating incidents. One day, after trying unsuccessfully to “hold it in,” I pee in my pants while in class.  I tell my teacher who instructs me to go to the office and inform the staff there what has occurred. I head to the office and tell a woman there what I have done. She hesitates, not knowing how to react, and then puts on an angry face and speaks to me crossly, telling me to go inside the headmaster’s office and, when asked, to let whomever is present know what has occurred. I enter the office and sit in the corner as instructed. When eventually I am asked what I am doing there, I respond that I peed in my pants. The administrator, appearing unconcerned, sends me back to the classroom. 

Most of my friendships with other children are made while riding the van that takes me to and from school. One of these friendships is with a child my age named Michael. He is much bigger than me, temperamental and very thoughtful and articulate for a boy that age. During one of our conversations, we talk about the nature of God and whether he is a physical being who can be seen and felt.

There is also an older girl who rides the van with us, bigger than me and even bigger than Michael. She enjoys tormenting Michael. They sit facing one another, and she slaps him on one his thighs. He responds in kind. She is wearing stockings, and her thighs seem to be made of iron while Michaels are big and flabby. There is a loud noise when she slaps the flab. The two trade slaps, one after another after another. She does not appear pained by his slaps, which seem to bounce off her stockinged thighs of iron while Michael registers increased amounts of pain as the confrontation wears on. It ends when Michael finally gives in and begins to cry. This happens on multiple occasions. 

There is a Puerto Rican boy who rides with us who I’ll call Manuel. He likes to talk and sometimes taunts the driver, who responds by threatening to tell Manuel’s parents. One day, as Manuel debarks the van to go home, we see the driver say something to Manuel’s mother. She starts to hit and kick Manuel as he walks from the van to the tenement in which he lives. As he is entering the building, she picks up the lid to a trashcan and bashes him over the head. He begins crying as he runs inside.

There is another boy who rides with us named Paul. He is severely shy, never under any circumstances engaging any of us in conversation. One day, as he enters the van he says, “When you get on the bus you say ‘I, I’ (pronounced eye-eye).” He says this rhythmically, with inflections on “get”, “bus” and “I”. One of the girls says she thinks that what he said sounds cool, and repeats it, inflections and all. Soon Paul has a hit on his hands, and we are all saying, “When you get on the bus you say ‘I, I’.” It does not make him any less withdrawn.

In the third grade, I am placed in a small class of about 10 children. Our teacher is Mrs. Payne.  With a couple of exceptions, all my classmates seem to be very slow. One of them, Dick, is fat, has a crew cut, walks very stiffly and slowly, and speaks in a slow monotone. During one brief period, in which we are being tutored on how to use the telephone, he calls me at home repeatedly and can only ask, “What are you doing?” He is incapable of extending the conversation beyond that. There is another boy, also named Peter. When reciting the “ABCs,” he insists upon repeating “LMNOP, LMNOP,” as if it must be said consecutively to successfully recite the ABCs. Most of the children still do not know how to read or solve the simplest arithmetic equations. 

I soon begin feeling like the king of the class, due to both my cognitive skills and fighting abilities. One day, when the teacher is not in the classroom, I tell my classmates that I am the strongest in the class. To demonstrate this, I walk to Dick, pull him out of his seat, throw him down, and then do the same to another boy, Joel, who resembles Dick. They both compliantly get back in their seats after I’ve thrown them on the floor. A friend of mine, Russell, responds that he can also take out Dick and Joel. To demonstrate, he mimics my actions, separately pulling Dick and Joel out of their chairs and throwing them down. Again, Dick and Joel get back into their seats without a whimper.

Though I am king of the class, I am also becoming aware that something about this situation is not right. My twin brother and all his friends attend a “normal” school. My brother reads the newspaper. He and his friends are learning history and current events. Why aren’t we doing this at the Adams School? Why am I grouped with children who can’t read? There is something wrong with me. I want to be like my brother, his friends, and everyone else.  

One day, late in the school term, we take a spelling test. Most of the words have several letters.  Mrs. Payne announces the words, and I write them down. She can see my answers from where she sits as I write them. With each correct answer she tells me how well I’m doing and how amazed she is at my spelling ability. I get a 100 on the test.

Shortly after that, I take some kind of standard written test. I am the only one in my class given the test, and I take it sitting at a big table.  

Sometime after taking that test, Mrs. Payne announces to the class that she has good news. I will be going to a “regular” school next year (a private school named Downtown Community School). Russell says he want to go there too. She responds that he’ll be remaining at the Adams School.

I begin going to Downtown Community School the following year without being left back. I still have occasional bursts of aggression and belligerence, but it becomes more and more controlled as time passes. By high school, the fighting has come to an end. Remaining “normal” and “well behaved” has become a priority. Though I do well academically, the insecurity about having attended the Adams School lingers. It lingers, in some sense, to this day. Must being “smart” be so treasured? Sure, it confers social and evolutionary advantages. But still…

*** 

Peter Margolies grew up on the Lower East Side during the 60s and 70s and spent his entire career working for the federal government. He has written and recorded several songs and has a blog containing some original philosophy, which he is attempting to compress into a book.           

 

     

  

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