Albert Einstein was slow. Or so we tell ourselves. We⎯the teachers, the mothers, the sisters of retards⎯feed ourselves this mythology so as to rewrite the narratives of those we want to teach and protect. And so, in order to remediate these young minds that are often flushed into the stagnant spiral of Special Education, we participate in and rely on these tales, even when⎯especially when⎯they are debunked by the most thorough of biographers and researchers. Fictions, half-truths, barefaced lies: our remedy and means of combat against those who choose simply to see our child, our brother, our students as nothing more than helpless retards.
“My niece is special ed.,” Ms. Calandro said. “Let me tell you, that child is retarded. And now she’s gone and got herself a retard for a boyfriend. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Just short of performing the sign of the cross, Ms. Calandro lamented the social and mental status of her preteen niece. Fellow teachers and long-time colleagues of Ms. Calandro, Linda and Shae, stood in the doorway of her classroom and smirked in a way that suggested approval of these remarks. I, the newest teacher on the hallway, pointed and clicked on Ms. Calandro’s computers because mine still needed to be unearthed from storage. I would spend hours untangling the dozens of cords meant to power up these sleeping, dusty giants.
It was my first day as a teacher at Eastland Middle, and I was scheduled to learn several things that day. I learned how to fill in the roll book⎯black pen only, circles mean tardy, pitch the whiteout. I found the single adult women’s restroom and my classroom. I learned and admired the way my heels clicked on the freshly waxed linoleum flooring. And, without inquiring, I learned how one teacher in particular felt about special ed. So, amidst curriculum research⎯6th grade activities on helping verbs and prepositions and correct comma usage⎯we stayed tuned to Ms. Calandro’s tale of her retarded niece.
Ms. Calandro’s tight curls, though natural, were reminiscent of a perm. She wore blue jean capris and a baggy t-shirt that hid the extra weight gained from her first pregnancy. Her lips were glossed in maroon and prettied up her often-vulgar mouth.
“I mean, I say that child needs to be fixed. We don’t need no more retards running around,” Ms. Calandro continued.
At the turn of the millennium, more than six million children were receiving some form of special ed. services⎯over 10 percent of the US’s total student population. Eastland Middle was no exception, with its special ed. population nearing 90 out of 900 total students.
Ms. Calandro’s classroom suited her physical style. On a canvas of green carpeting, a shade that mixed vomit with slime, and a chalkboard that, without water, simply smeared the ashy dust of chalk around, Ms. Calandro did what she could to beautify what she had. On a bookshelf, an enlarged wedding photograph sat beside fresh flowers her husband had sent via florist delivery. Her wedding dress, the brightest image in the photo, defied tradition, beaded burgundy flowers gracing the curves of her hips, middle and bust. Sentimental teddy bears took shelter on other faux wood shelving. And smiley faced posters reminded students that “Success is 90% Attitude, 10% Talent.” I tucked my hands underneath my thighs, listened and noted the cheery, rosy additions that couldn’t quite overshadow the offensive carpeting and aging elements of her classroom.
“Jesus, can you imagine if her and her little retard boyfriend started doing the nasty nasty?” Her voice twanged unnaturally for a South Louisiana resident. Baton Rouge, a university town, usually muted any drawl that tried to squirm its way into local speech. If anything, residents picked up a residual French twist from Cajuns who came to Louisiana in exile and have since infiltrated the food, dance and language of those nestled about the bayous and even those tucked in the more metropolitan capital city.
Linda and Shae covered their laughter, as if to admit shame in jesting at such a thought. “Ms. Calandro’s from Bridgewater,” Linda assured me. “They’re kinda country out there.”
Linda, dressed in a faded jean jumper with a mock turtleneck t-shirt underneath, was quickly becoming my translator for such situations. With Linda in her mid-forties and her co-workers ten and twenty years younger, she had become something of a mother hen, dispensing advice on relationships, pregnancy, marriage and sex. “When is that boy going to make an honest woman out of you?” she’d ask her twenty-year-old student teacher who hadn’t even finished college. “Oh, you’ve definitely lost your mucus plug. You’re probably going into labor,” she’d tell the very pregnant social studies teacher who had just returned from the bathroom in a panic. Her highlighted blonde hair retained an eighties-era wave, and her hips protruded as if a snug inner tube had grown around her middle. She would tell us that her husband loved her large ass, and she kept us up to speed on her Valentine’s Day purchases from Hearts, the local naughty trinkets store.
Ms. Calandro simply ignored Linda’s comment and continued her story: “And I try to help her, I really do. Flash cards, study guides, I work with that child almost every afternoon re-teaching her the lessons from the day while her idiot mother does Lord knows what.” Ms. Calandro’s words spit-fired from her mouth like tough watermelon seeds. “If I were her mother I would not let her date this little twit. I’d have ‘em both fixed. You know, she’ll start developing, get some breasts on her. She does not need to have no special children running around.” Then she sighed and put her hand to her forehead.
Linda and Shae leafed through old workbooks that had yellowed from time and housing conditions. These books, out of date and over photo-copied, absorbed the smell of Eastland Middle. Musty and a little moist, they were reminiscent of middle schooler feet, armpits and stale farts. As they, the veteran portion of our sixth grade English team, scrounged from the past, I browsed the Internet for new ways to tackle the curriculum. Ms. Calandro fingered a scar perched right above her upper lip and pulled her elastic waistband up over her belly button. I’d been warned that being the special education teacher on the hallway would most likely put me in the same lowly category as teachers’ aides, substitutes and glorified helpers. As Ms. Calandro railed her own family member for having learning disabilities, I faded deeper and deeper into the chipping Caucasian-beige paint. I tucked my chin and resumed the outward appearance of studious research, so as not to informally subscribe myself to her beliefs. Not on the first day, at least.
After all, I had a lot to plan for. According to Ms. Calandro, I would soon meet my very first group of retards.
In learning disability lore, Albert Einstein was a slow child. Because I try but cannot see an Einstein without those wiry gray locks and spidery wrinkles that creased his weathered skin, I construct him in child proportions with an aged, bushy head. I imagine this diapered bottom and bare belly as the anchor for the neck and noggin of a head that is spotted and tired, though brilliant. Like a centaur whose physical recipe is split directly down the middle as half rubbery human and half hairy horse, Einstein-the-child breaks at the nape, reminding us of what he will be, though his small feet have yet to carry the weight of his skull from the couch to the coffee table.
Except, Einstein was slow. Most forget.
This baby, who grew into a toddler who grew into a preschooler, said nothing but incomprehensible gurgles until his fourth year. Silenced by what some say was a language disability, Einstein preserved his speech until it puttered out and continued to flow decades after his physical death. From his beginning, he was unusual. Quiet, so as to give his parents rest before unleashing the inquisition and curiosity that would steer a life of discovery.
And then, since we are taught the correct order and timeline of birth, then speech, then books, he’s delayed yet again. Little Albert can’t read until he is nine⎯half a decade after his first full sentence is spoken. Though nothing much is documented about his classroom education, we, those who try to redefine learning “disability” as mere difference, place Einstein in a classroom, arm him with a label, and imagine him as one of our very own special ed. cases.
We grow giddy with the knowledge that this documented genius failed his college entrance exams. We wonder how he’d fare today had he been born American and during education reform we call No Child Left Behind. We assume that his eyes would cross with the overwhelming notion that the lead-filled circles of a standardized test would determine his intellect. We see him among our students whose stomachs churn and hands sweat beneath the number two pencil dispensed from the robotic test administrator who was once a relaxed teacher. We wonder how he’d sit⎯feet flat on the tiled floor or, more likely, toes tapping and expelling the energy that is building between the human and test booklet. We feel exhilarated that a man whose name became synonymous with smart may have been labeled special ed. had he grown up in our label-happy society.
The mythology of Einstein-the-slow-kid roots itself to synapses of those who need its truth. These roots are fertilized and flourish for however long necessary: until a muted child speaks, until he learns to write in cursive, until the Scantron machine spits out an acceptable standardized test score. Or, until the final document is signed and the child is exited from Special Education.
These myths are debunked, reversed by those who are unsettled by this parallel that recognizes the sameness in Einstein, a historic genius, and Darien, my sixth-grade-repeating, short-bus-riding freak. So when our myth fades, we pick up a second, a third, a fourth. We continue the narrative that successful humans can be different, slow even. Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade and stuttered before leading England to victory in WWII. David Sedaris had a speech impediment as a kid. Barbara Walters still does. And even Darwin, a self-proclaimed “slow thinker,” is added to a repertoire that exists to console us⎯the teachers, the sisters, the mothers of retards.
Retard: now a noun; it comes from verbs that simply mean any ordinary synonym of slow. Demur: to linger. Tarry: to delay. Retard: to make slower. Of course, retard and retard are different. We retard our car’s speed. We retard a measure of music before the director’s accelerando is given. But retard is a noun. Retard means stupid. Retard is a stupid noun⎯a stupid person, place or thing.
Some say that Italian immigrant school children were initially pronounced retarded. Because of their slowed progress in school, which had everything to do with a language barrier and nothing to do with a low IQ, these new Americans may have been the very first retards. Later, this noun punctuated 1960s slang as public schools finally started to receive partial federal funding for programs that would help students with disabilities. This action that gave disabled students resources was paired with the necessity to label. Retards, after finally getting help in school, struggle to shed a label that has since become part of ordinary adolescent speech.
When I arrived home after my first day, I shut my bedroom door and cried and whispered everything I could have said to Ms. Calandro to the stuffing of my pillow. Aside from the first bloody fight I broke up, Ms. Calandro’s speech would be the only thing that made me cry as a teacher. But I didn’t know that then. Then, I simply dabbed my eyes, breathed deeply.
A week later, I stood in my own classroom. It was speckled with little, wiry Einsteins⎯my very first group of retards.
Katherine Field is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Originally from Peoria, Illinois, she graduated from DePauw University and is a proud alumnus of Teach For America. As a TFA teacher in South Louisiana, she was reintroduced to the outrageously hormonal world of adolescence, as well as all things deeply Southern: crawfish, Zydeco dancing, bayous, street cars, Abita beer, and of course, bold and sturdy porches. She has two forthcoming articles scheduled to appear in Maniac Magazine.
“There was the next door neighbor’s blue wrap-around porch of my youth, perfect for sipping ginger ale and teetering on the white wicker rocking chair. There was the college porch on Hanna Street for swinging and gossiping and the chipping black Pittsburgh porch for listening to the hollering of Steelers’ fans. But greatest of all were the Red Stick porches⎯the porches with built-in overhead fans, humid-soaked cypress wood and generous space for rubbing the belly of a labrador retriever while waiting for a hurricane.”