“There’s something about that class.”

The teachers, aides, and parents have all confided this to me, during moments when the kids can’t hear us. The first time I heard it, I got confused. I asked,

“You mean there’s something about that teacher’s classroom?”

“No,” the sympathetic adult said. “There’s something about second grade.”

“Oh, you mean when kids get to this age, they act up?”

“No,” the still-sympathetic adult replied. “There’s something about that group of second-graders, in all three classrooms of this school. They don’t know how to act.” Apparently the kids regularly whoop and holler and push the teachers in a way that only middle-school teachers should be used to.

Reader, I try not to react to every little thing with “is that a criticism of me?” I didn’t actually react that way to this quoted person, or to the next grown-up with similar sentiments, or even the next one. But then…I got to thinking.

Regular readers know that the BUSD insists on mainstreaming Dar. Unlike every other school district around (by that I mean Albany, Oakland, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Piedmont, etc), Berkeley has no Special Day Class, no alternative for Dar except paying for him to attend private school. As policy, Berkeley won’t do that. In fact, Berkeley has sometimes done it, but in those cases, parents sign an agreement swearing that they will not discuss the BUSD’s role in such a move. It’s all very odd. If I ever get there, this blog will become less transparent in the name of Dar’s education.

About that education. Who knows how much Dar is really learning in a mainstream classroom. Has he acquired some skills? Yes. Would he have acquired more, elsewhere? Maybe. There’s no control in the experiment, so we’ll never know. When I have expressed skepticism, the aides and teachers have sometimes remarked upon Dar’s celebrity around the school, about the fact that kids love him. I’ve said (or thought), well that’s great for them, but what about for Dar? It’s not like he looks happier because of attention. Longtime readers have heard me say all this, so let me try saying something new:

Those aides and teachers may have a point. By that I mean, let’s take a good long look at Dar’s life, from cradle to grave. What is it worth? Who will he help? (I might ask the same of myself, but let’s not veer off-topic.) Do we know that he’ll help people with customer service from the comfort of his own home keyboard? We do not. Do we even know if he’ll help McDonald’s customers with their fries? We do not. Do we think that he’ll spend the rest of his life in a Cuckoo’s Nest-like environment. We do not…know. But we do know that right now, right here, he can perhaps help a bunch of 2009-born and 2010-born persons to be a little more tolerant of special-needs persons throughout their lives.

I here admit for the first time that that’s not nothing. It’s something. It might be the most important part of Dar’s life. It might be as much as Dar ever does for others.

But…is that what Dar is doing? During his first year in kindergarten, his teacher (who has more recently fallen in love with Dar’s brother) told us in a meeting, “I don’t know exactly why Dar’s noise bothers me so much.” But she tried. She guessed that it was because every other kid’s noise naturally rises to the highest level in the room. So when Dar “tee-tee-tee”s, as he must do, as he cannot be stopped from doing, every other kid in the room subconsciously begins to bring their own noise to that level. And perhaps their behavior to that level. The level where “non-verbal” actually means all-too-verbal, where we try to ride out this tragic contradiction. I’ve seen Dar’s behavior affect my own. He screams and I want to scream at him for screaming. 99 times out of 100, I don’t. But then, I’m not a child under the age of 9.

Dar has not been with the same kids every year. They mix them up amongst three teachers for each grade. But at this point, here in second grade, he has probably shared classroom space with almost all of them. “There’s something about that class.”

Has Dar poisoned the well, as it were? Is he comparable to a certain President, where everything he touches turns to chaos?

If you’re paying to live in Berkeley, you’re paying for diversity. On some level, you either love it or you’re getting seriously ripped off. What does diversity mean? It means the legacy of the first school district to voluntarily bus kids and one of the first to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday and Malcolm X’s birthday as holidays (and International Women’s Day, at least in the USA). It means hearing Asian languages as you walk through the halls; it means everyone speaks some Spanish as part of school events. It means #differentnotless. It means a wide variety of religions and nationalities and perspectives. It means that when you walk onto a Berkeley public schoolyard, you stare out at that panoply of skin tones and hair tones and think, everyone is welcome here. I don’t question that Dar is welcome. But I do…wonder how the parents feel about the particular shade of diversity represented by Dar’s severe autism.

You know, you don’t have to love every ethnic food under the sun. I do, but I know my wife doesn’t (I won’t “out” her preferences here). Something can be too much. You spit it out.

I have no idea if any of Dar’s classmates’ parents read this blog. (I certainly haven’t directed any of them to it, but it’s public.) And three to four years into regularly running into them at school, I get along very well with many of them. I like them. That’s why I worry for them. And I wonder if they wonder what more I might be doing for Dar at home, so that he would be less loud and chaotic. Believe me, I wonder that every morning at 5:30 when Dar starts “tee-tee-tee”ing, foot-stomping, waking up the neighbors, keeping us from sleeping…

I wouldn’t come into the house of a second-grader’s parent and leave a stain on their couch. And yet…part of me thinks that’s what I’m doing. I mean, sure, it’s Berkeley’s idea, and if we were to pay for private school ourselves, well, have you looked at the price of tuition lately? But still…I don’t feel good about it.

Autism, like North Korea or the plot of The Dark Knight, often forces you to choose between least-bad options. We’ve chosen this one but…there’s something about that class. And a class shouldn’t have to be least-bad. It should be great. I wonder if we took great off the table.

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