A Special Challenge

(Baerbel Schmidt - Getty Images)
By Samantha Cleaver
Sunday, February 18, 2007

IT'S READING TIME ON VALENTINE'S DAY. Her dark hair pulled back with heart hair bands, the little girl and I are reading books. The two boys crawl under the table, giggling. I tell them, as sternly as I can, to sit.

One of the boys -- let's call him Spidey for his favorite comic book character -- climbs out, annoyed, and hits my leg.

"Timeout," I tell him. I put the book down, draw three lines on the chalkboard to let him know he's hit the limit, and buzz the office. The 5-year-old's face hardens.

"Sit in timeout," I tell him. "No," he says.

We stare at each other. After a long moment, Spidey looks away and stomps to the timeout chair. I sit at the table, pick up the book and read. He bangs his hand on the cabinet behind him, waiting for me to tell him to stop. After I read a few pages, he starts to play with the cabinet doors, the nearby fan, the posters on the wall. As he plays, he watches me. I see him in my peripheral vision but don't react. He gets up, takes my wet gloves off of the radiator, puts one on the floor and steps on it -- a challenge. I breathe in, close the book and hand out papers for writing. "Good job," I tell the girl as she copies hearts onto her paper. The other little boy sits in his seat, watching Spidey. Still standing on my glove, his eyes on me, Spidey tips the fan, threatening to push it over. I remove it, my hands shaking. As I walk away, my young adversary runs toward me, slapping at my back and arm.

I turn and take Spidey's hand. With the other, he reaches up and smacks me. I pick him up, football style, and hurry to the office. As I walk, Spidey flails, hitting and scratching my arms. When I put him down, he climbs onto my leg and sways from left to right, trying to topple me. Finally, we get to the office, and a guidance counselor takes Spidey's hand. "I got it, Ms. Cleaver," he says.

I walk back to my room, counting to 10. It was supposed to be a fun day, full of all the Valentine's activities that I'd enjoyed as a child -- a party, making valentines. Instead, it has erupted into a standoff between Spidey and me. I'm more than halfway through the school year as a special education teacher in training at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Northwest Washington, and so much has gone wrong that I should have expected this.

Yet, somehow, I've held onto hope. A lump forms in my throat. I try to shove my negative thoughts aside.

Back in the room, the writing papers and markers are forgotten, discarded on the table. I take out a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a present from the other little boy. "Choose two," I tell my remaining students, and I pass the box. We sit in silence as they watch me, concerned, chocolate dribbling down their chins.

I JOINED THE D.C. PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN JUNE 2005 as one of a group of 86 D.C. Teaching Fellows, an alternative teacher certification program geared toward career-changers. After six weeks of summer training resulting in a provisional teaching license, the trainees agree to work for two years in "high needs" areas, while the District pays for courses toward full certification.

When the teaching fellows program was launched in 2001, one of its goals was to help solve the city's chronic shortage of special education teachers. The most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that 17 percent of D.C. public school students receive special education services; the national average is 13 percent. The numbers are deceptive. About one-fifth of these students are in private facilities, their tuition paid by the city because their parents have successfully challenged the District for not providing an adequate education. For the 2005-2006 school year, 30 of us were assigned to special education. But by the end of the first year, only 23 will remain, and by last month, all but seven will say they plan to leave the school system when the program ends.

I was 25 years old and had spent the previous two years earning a master's degree in public administration at the University of Delaware. Interested in working in education policy for a nonprofit or government agency, I took courses in youth and family services and helped to administer a camp for children with disabilities. But I was told that people won't take you seriously if you haven't taught. So, with graduation looming, I came across the D.C. Teaching Fellows on the Internet.

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