I am sitting on a park bench listening to a psychotic try to make sense of his world.
“Can you believe that lady cop?” he asked in a defiant voice. “People don’t need shit to own a cat.”
I notice a female police officer standing nearby. She appears to be walking away from us and toward a playground. The disheveled and angry man is wearing a worn blue parka and lime green sneakers. He reaches into a salvaged baby carriage and grabs a McDonald’s cheeseburger. A small white dog appears from beneath the bench and sits at the man’s feet. He tosses the burger to the begging dog.
“Cats don’t do nothing for nobody ‘cept themselves,” he complains.
I have no idea what he is talking about but nevertheless nod my head in agreement. I watch the dog hold the cheeseburger between his front paws and remove the meat patty.
“That cop wanted to give me a ticket for not having my dog on a leash.”
I try to redirect the conversation. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Name? He got no name. He doesn’t need to know my name to know who I am and I don’t need to know his name to know who he is.”
Fair enough. I wonder, for a moment, why I bothered to name my dog.
“You see that lady cop over there? She’s gonna take away my dog if I don’t put him on a leash. She says all dogs got to be leashed.”
“You’ll probably never see her again,” I said.
“Nobody wants to put a leash on a cat because cats know how to play the game,” he replied.
I was hoping to spend a quiet afternoon in the park before heading back to the airport and not be drawn into a cat versus dog conversation. But the word leash hit a sore spot.
Earlier in the day I had met a special education teacher who was trying to make sense of her world. She was very upset about the impending closing of her alternative high school. The principal in charge of the main high school-as well as the off-campus alternative high school- informed the teacher that her population of students “cost the district too much money, bring down test scores, and should be kept on leashes.”
I was upset but not shocked by the principal’s remarks. I teach at an alternative high school and derogatory comments about my students flow freely among some educators. Alternative high schools have a long history of being utilized as “dumping grounds” for students classified with emotional disabilities, regardless of their diagnosis. That is why despite considerable etiologic pathologies, a child suffering from social anxiety disorder will share the same classroom with a child suffering from oppositional-defiant disorder. The catch all design of most alternative high schools is a product of economics and ignorance. Students afflicted with severe emotional disabilities cost considerably more to educate on a per pupil basis and too many people believe emotional disability is a singular noun.
The teacher wanted to know why her students are treated so poorly. It’s a very good question, and one that needs answering. I have visited alternative high schools housed in school and church basements, trailers, and buildings that should be condemned. No other population of students is treated with such disdain.
One explanation is the fact that not all disabilities are alike or treated with equal resolve by those entrusted with the welfare and education of all students. Emotional disabilities fall on the far end of the disability spectrum, a place where people’s sympathies seldom visit. The “deaf, dumb, and blind” once shared a spot at this end of the spectrum until advocacy groups, journalists, and community outrage put an end to the systemic neglect of these children. The value of hearing impaired, vision impaired, and cognitively impaired students triumphed and a modern sense of civility brought hope and dignity to these beautiful children. Sadly, that same sense of modern civility is lacking with respect to emotionally impaired students.
The man on the bench interrupted my thoughts.
“You think a dog should be kept on a leash?” he asked.
“Don’t forget cats know how to play the game,” he reminded me. “They sure know how to play the game.”
Cats are probably more cunning than dogs but seeing one on a leash seems anomalous to the natural order of things. I have seen yuppies leash rabbits, ferrets, iguanas, Vietnamese Pot Belly pigs and sometimes their own children while strolling about Central Park, but I can’t recall seeing a cat on a leash.
“I guess fair is fair,” I said. “If dogs must be leashed, then cats must be leashed.”
“What do you think about tying a leash to some school children?” I asked. “The kind of students who misbehave in class?”
The homeless man stared at me, appearing bewildered and slightly perturbed by my question.
“Look and see what I have in this bag,” he replied.
He unraveled a rolled up Wal-Mart bag and started to remove bottles of pills. “Doctors say I have psychosis, hypo-sis, and some other kind of posis. So he gives me these pills. But as crazy as I may be, I would never think about putting no leash on a child. No how, no way.”
“No how, no way?”
“No how, no way,” he answered.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is calling access to quality education “the civil rights issue of our generation.” This right is being denied to tens of thousands of children suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis and other crippling emotional disabilities. One million high school students will become dropouts this year, and the majority of these teenagers are afflicted with emotional disabilities. 70% of students classified SED or BED will dropout of school and 75% will end up in jail within five years of leaving school. Students identified with severe emotional disabilities graduate at a lower rate than any other group of students receiving special services.
The term Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) is used to identify a child whose mental health condition causes him or her to have extreme difficulties at home, at school and with classmates. It is often called “The Invisible Handicap” because the disability cannot be easily seen. Children with mood disorders are often very intelligent and have the cognitive skills to complete challenging school work and be successful, that is why SED students frustrate and anger teachers not trained to deal with this population of students; hence the principal’s suggestion to keep them leashed.
Children do not make a conscious decision to live with a debilitating mental illness and they should not be treated as damaged goods. Alternative high schools are often the last stop for teenagers considering dropping out of school. These schools provide the small classroom settings and mental health support that fosters the growth of interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers - a prerequisite to the success of BED students.
My park bench companion decides its time to leave. He returns the Wal-Mart bag to the baby carriage and walks in the opposite direction of the police officer. The unleashed dog takes the lead.
Psychosis is a strange illness. Some victims are totally removed from reality while others are only partially separated from it. Fortunately for the man with the dog, he seems only partially removed from reality.
As for the principal who wants to leash SED children? You be the judge.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.