Canned Peaches, Pizza and Beer, and the Laconia State School for the Atypical

April 22, 2010

For my day job—and yes, I do have a proper job, as blogging has yet to bring in the big advertising bucks promised in the “How to make the big advertising bucks blogging from home” webinar I took last November*—I work in an integrated public school classroom with a mix of typical and atypical kids. If you’re saying “Wha?” at this point it means you’re not up to speed on special needs lingo, but have no shame. The lingo changes with the weather. If I ever do get a job where I’m writing fulltime, it probably will be working for the public school system coming up ever-changing special needs descriptors that, however well-intended in more accurately identifying all the manifestations of atypical conditions and behavior in humans, just succeed in further mystifying us all.

Physically challenged, differently-abled, autistic spectrum, developmentally delayed. . . I could go on. But this language-morphing is old news for anyone who grew up in New Hampshire in the vicinity of the Laconia State School for Feeble Minded Children, the Laconia State School for the Mentally Retarded, the Laconia State School and Training Center, the Laconia State School. And after reading those labels, aren’t you glad that language has morphed? Aren’t you glad that “atypical,” however vague that phrase might be, has replaced “feeble-minded,” “retarded,” “idiotic,” “insane,” “imbecilic,” “diseased”? I am.

And growing up near the Laconia State School, especially in the early eighties following the Title I legislation that began the mainstreaming revolution—mainstreaming in the community, mainstreaming in the schools—meant growing up in an integrated community, or at least a community that was developing into integration, as State School inmates left the school (and yes, they were labeled as “inmates” as if they were in a prison, which, if you read enough about the school’s checkered past, was often a pretty apt descriptor). And when integration is what’s normal, it begs the question of what atypical is to begin with.

It was normal to go to mass at Our Lady of the Lakes as a kid and sit behind atypical parishoners who talked back to Father Boisvert as he gave his homily, as if it were a conversation and not more of a lecture, just as it was normal to race those same atypical parishoners to coffee and donut hour after mass because otherwise they’d decimate the plate of chocolate-glazed donuts, leaving only sad and stale plain donuts in their wake. It was normal to go to a friend’s house whose mom took in atypical adults as part of a foster care program and pass through the living room where those atypical adults were eating bowls of canned peaches and watching “Donahue” on television. And it was normal to serve atypical patrons coffee when I worked Bingo at church or serve them pizza when I worked at Paras Pizza in high school, and beer as well because as my boss Mr. O’Connor said when I asked if it was okay, “They’re over 21. Why wouldn’t it be okay?” and I had to admit he had a point.

I know I’m making this sound simpler than it is, if only because I’m avoiding the minefield of emotional disturbance that erupts into violence, the minefield of emotional disturbance that manifests itself in sexual predation, but outside of those minefields of behavior (the exception rather than the rule), it’s easy to wonder what’s typical and what’s not.

Isn’t it typical to race for a chocolate donut, to love pizza and beer, to eat canned peaches as you’re watching TV? Maybe growing up near the Laconia State School back then we were in the advent of the new typical, the new normal, what I now see every day in my integrated classroom at work. There, a kid in a wheelchair is normal, as is a kid who’s nonverbal, as is a kid who may never learn to tie his shoes but who can dance like nobody’s business when we have music every Thursday afternoon (and yes, I do make sure his shoes are tied before he begins jumping around). In the classroom where I work if you didn’t have the paperwork in front of you, most of you probably would have a tough time even identifying who is typical and who isn’t, just like most of you might have a tough time identifying yourselves as one way or the other. So as you make your way through your day, giving in to an obsession here, a proclivity there, consider how you might be labeled. Perhaps I can help you—it’ll be good practice for when I quit my classroom job and write fulltime, every day coming up with new and confusing descriptors for how we’re all different but the same.

*No, I didn’t really take a webinar on how to make big bucks blogging. Give me a little credit.

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