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My son, Henry, just graduated from sixth grade. And now, at last, I am here to grade his grade school.

Let us begin with the name of the school, which I suppose I canít say here, so let's just call it Dixieland Primary. Aptly, this school was chockfull of white kids with the unofficial slogan being, "At Dixieland Primary, diversity is reflected in the faces of our white kids from around the world!"

In truth, I exaggerate, but not much. Having taught numerous writing workshops throughout AISD, Iím here to confirm the extremely un-stunning news that Austin remains just a little, uh, segregated by that fabulous corridor of death, I-35. Really, though, there are schools lilier still than Dixieland. To the west a bit, thereís an institution where they define diversity as: Everyone drives a different colored Suburban.

But lest I condemn that school I will say they have great resources for atypical kids -- kids with physical and mental disabilities. Which really, dare I say it, makes Dixieland pale by comparison. For at Dixieland, if you are differently abled, in my opinion, you are not welcome.

I found this out firsthand, in a manner I detailed in another piece that appeared here. To briefly recap, I came to Dixieland under great duress. I was escaping an abusive husband. Suddenly I was living in hiding. I had yanked my kid out of kindergarten mid-year, without warning, and moved him to the Dixieland neighborhood. The principal, letís call her Jabba the Hut for aesthetic reasons, recoiled and jiggled upon being informed that I held a restraining order against my ex and we required heightened security measures. Technically this didnít make us disabled, but it certainly set us apart.

She flatly informed me that should my ex come in for my son, she would allow him to take the kid. Then she would call the cops. Then maybe she would call me. Her teachers would not intervene, she said, adding for effect that this had happened beforeóan ex step-father had come for his ex-step kid. That time a teacher stepped in and got hurt, hence the new "policy."

Well, it didnít take much to scare me back then, I was already scared shitless. I withdrew the kid and moved to another state. Upon my departure, Jabba handed me my files. "Here," she said, "Take these. I donít know where youíre going and I donít want to know."

To her chagrin, I returned a couple of months later, bolstered by the healing strokes of time and a very good Taekwondo instructor. On my return, I re-enrolled the child at Dixieland. Jabba took me into her office. "I have one question for you," she asked. "Why did you come back here?"

Instead of saying what I shouldíve said, "Iíll have my lawyer call you to discuss that question, bitch," I looked at her and said, "Because this is where our family is." Just because I felt better then doesnít mean I felt good. I was still shaken enough to let her get away with asking me this question without my questioning the legality of the asking.

Lady Hut especially has it in for the mentally challenged and physically crippled. In all seven years we attended, the only person I ever saw use the mobility ramp was hers trulyó for days she needed a walker to haul her ass to her throne and within arm's reach of bowls-full of mini Snickers and crusty post-Easter Peeps.

Let me stop for a moment and tell you about a little federal law called IDEA which entitles ALL children to a fair and equal education. Parents with disabled kids have to attend ARDsómeetings to assess their kidsí needs and determine the best way to meet this law. These meetings often boil down to a big clash between parents wanting more for their kids and administrators seeming to want less. A lobbyist once explained to me that this isnít a black and white issueóitís a matter of perspective. Parents might interpret IDEA as entitling their kid to a "Cadillac education"óreplete with numerous physical and speech therapists, adaptive devices like computer programs, and so on. Whereas the administrators, always on a budget, interpret the law as requiring a "Ford Taurus education"ómeeting minimal requirements.

Jabba, too, had her own perspective on what the law meant. Airbags? She didnít even want to provide seatbelts. How did she get away with it? The old loophole routineóyou can point to a school with a better program and strongly suggest a family transfers there. And, as friends of mine with disabled kids will tell you, if youíve got a recently diagnosed and labeled child, youíre reeling way too hard from processing your grief and making a plan B for Life to contemplate suing to stay in a school where you are clearly unwanted and the principal sits ready to harangue you at every turn.

I, personally, know of several such cases at Dixieland. In one, a kindergarten teacher, upon being told of the pending enrollment of a mentally retarded boy, asked the parents, "Wonít his siblings be embarrassed?" After another ARD in which Jabba and effectively told the parents of a mildly autistic child they would no longer be attending Dixieland, the parents asked this same kindergarten teacher where they might find their child seeing as the final bell had rung fifteen minutes prior. The teacher informed them, "I donít know. Heís not my kid anymore."

And yet somewhere along the line, I had Jabba eating out of my hand, returning my calls promptly and eagerly inquiring as to my well being at every turn. Was this because she recognized that despite his "setbacks" and punk rock hair, my son, the straight A student and passionate violinist was an asset to her empire?

Hell no.

Hereís how it really went down. One day, having heard conflicting reports about school closures due to an ice storm, I hazarded up to find out from the Source herself what the hell the deal was. "Open or closed?" I asked. "Open," she smiled. She smiled? Huh?

"Well, since Iím here, what if I take my kid?"

"Then youíd be mother of the year!" she squeaked, moving closer and closer.

Confused, wondering if someone had laced her coffee with acid, I stared at her. Were we or were we not mortal enemies based on that restraining order business? "Uh, what if I take two kids?" I asked, referencing my friendís son, figuring Iíd save her a trip.

"Then youíd be DOUBLE mother of the year!"

Okay, pinch me, right? I semi-smiled the smile of a very nervous dog and then she hit me with the punchline:

"I take the Dallas Morning News!" she shrieked. "And I read all your articles!"

So that was it. Sheíd found out I was a columnist for the Morning News. I thought about that ó how so many times in my life Iíve encountered people who suddenly treat me differently because they perceive what I do as some sort of power or magic or voodoo. I speculated how she now viewed me and decided she either was worried Iíd write about her sorry ass or hoped that someday Iíd sing her praises in print.

Well here I am, now, finally, writing about her. I will say, for all her flaws, old Jabba did manage to attract a roster of some incredibly impressive teachers (one kindergarten specimen notwithstanding). And she did overlook the year Hen missed the TAAS test courtesy of jetlag. (Though she acted like this was a favor, failing to mention the TAAS-- and now the TAKSóis not mandatory, which it isnít, which I had to find out on my own so I could keep the kid homeóa move I suggest you try, also, but I digress.)

Next year, we transition. The new schoolís in the hood, though itís an awfully-white magnet dropped into an otherwise mostly of-color community of kids. Iíll reserve grading the place for another couple of years. For now, Iím optimistic. By virtue of Jabba's absence, Iím already thinking itís going to be good.
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About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, and the dotnovel thebelljar.net.  Her next book, a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks will be out in September 2003. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall almost-twelve-year-old ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...). 

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