An Hour in Special Ed

By on Nov 3, 2013 in Fiction

Computer in classroom

Here there are four students and three teachers. Here grunts and screams and moans fill the air. Here critical comments fall on inattentive ears. I have entered the Special Ed room at the junior high.

I work in a corner, replacing the lead teacher’s computer. I have ample opportunity to watch and listen as I wait for the transfer of data to the network drive. Kept apart by at least a few feet, the students seem almost unaware of each other. There is a boy, a Down syndrome boy, who sits on a sofa in another corner of this room. He holds a large ball and growls and howls for no apparent reason. It seems this is his usual demeanor: No one gives him much attention. A tiny girl in a wheelchair never makes a sound. She is in the center of the room. A slight smile shows permanently on her face. A very large boy, tall and stout, has figured out he can reach the controls of the “always on” wall-mounted TV. He speaks and seems to be higher functioning than some of the others. “Popcorn, popcorn,” he says repeatedly. He gets very angry when he doesn’t get the snack he wants. He hits and pinches the teachers, leaving a series of bruises on their arms. This brings on tales of other spats they’ve had with the large boy. “Oh, you gotta watch him — I don’t get close enough to let him pinch me.” He goes to a sink, picks up a glass, and starts to fill the glass with water. He feels the water with the hand that is not holding the glass, and a teacher notes, “See that? He’s checking to see the temperature of that water!” Small victories garner huge praise here. Large Boy says something that I can’t quite hear and goes back to his seat by the door. He’s still not over his disappointment at no snack coming his way. He sulks and waits. “Popcorn,” he says again, just in case anyone has forgotten.

All the while, there is a young man named Cody in a wheelchair just in front of me. He has wonderful auburn hair and a mischievous look in his eye. He makes perfect eye contact with me and smiles broadly. He clutches the remains of a soft rubber ball that has deflated and is now more a purse than a ball. He grunts, “Uhhnn, uhhnn,” as he tries to scoot the locked wheels of the wheelchair along the floor. He has some small success, managing to move about a foot and a half in a couple of minutes. “Uhhnn, uhhnn,” Cody says. He raises the arm that holds the object formerly known as “Ball,” and he tries to throw it to me. It goes about two feet beyond his chair, and a teacher picks it up. “Play with your lock box, play with your lock box, Cody.” Immediately his eyes seize on the contraption in front of him. It’s a homemade-looking wooden box. It has doors and latches on every side. Teacher takes the deflated ball, puts it inside the box, and closes all the doors and hooks the latches tightly. Cody goes to work and happily has that rubber wonder back in his hand in short order, a sense of smugness on his face. He’s played this game before. The teacher’s attention turns elsewhere, and Cody uses this time to scoot the wheelchair in another direction. This time he gets his hand on a yardstick and starts to wave it proudly. Teacher comes back and takes the stick. “Play with your lock box, Cody.” Cody smiles his infectious smile.

The lead teacher uses the telephone, which is near me on the wall. She calls the Office and informs them of the bad conduct of Large Boy. The Office calls the boy’s mom: She must come and get him. “Every day, it seems like, he gets ornery at the same time.” I wonder out loud if it’s because he can read a clock. The teachers have never thought of that possibility and look sort of sheepishly at each other. I probably ought not to voice what I think in here.

The school nurse arrives and, latex gloves in place, prepares to flush Cody’s catheter. I sit and pretend to be working at the computer (it’s still backing up this teacher’s documents). I just have to wait. Can it be over, now? Yes, uh, no. She has apparently saved every Barry Manilow album to her hard drive. GRRRRRR! It takes forever… I think of Lola and Tony and all that mess “at the Copa…Copacabana…

My job finally comes to an end. As I get ready to leave, Large Boy’s mom arrives. She is told again about his misdeeds. Bruises are again shown to all. She is asked why he is so hungry. “Did he eat breakfast today?”

“No,” she says, “he had a juice box.” 

As I walk to the door, I catch the lead teacher’s eye and say, “You should be all set.” She smiles at me and nods her head. From behind her, I hear the now familiar plaintive reminder for “Popcorn.” Cody and I gaze at each other one last time, and I walk out. The last thing I hear is the soft scraping of wheelchair tires and one last “Unnhh.



Born in Illinois, Wes Oldham is a long-time resident of Arkansas. He works as a computer technician. He enjoys gardening, fishing, brewing beer and reading. Having his life partner, Regina, in his life has turned night to day. He marvels at the human race. He watches and learns. He is astounded.


  1. Brings back memories, not bad for a hillbilly

  2. This story touches my heart. Anyone who has worked in a elementary school environment must certainly be able to relate to this story. There should be a special place in heaven for teachers who work with children with challenges! Great short story!!!!!

  3. Nice story. Bet it’s just one of thousands if you spend any more time in the class. Coming from our special ed background we can really relate.

  4. Been there/done that. Working with special needs kids is a daily challenge. These teachers are the heroes. I only had them for art class. You do what you can. Sometimes, with enough repetition, there are small miracles. Great observations, great short story! Keep writing!!!

  5. Wonderful! I’m not a teacher, but through your story I could imagine being in this classroom. Please keep on writing.

  6. Thank You for this insight. I have a friend that is a special needs HELPER, and the amount of patience and calmness that is required from these special teachers is amazing. The story makes me thankful there are people that will do this special task. Keep writing I could read stories like these all day. Blessings to you Wes.

  7. Way back when I worked with some special needs kids in high school. I remember them as being higher functioning kids. It was both enjoyable and tiring. I think all teachers are pretty awesome but the ones that work with these kids really rank up there. Thanks for that memory, Bud!