OPINION | Yes, I'm in special education. Does it matter?

“Don’t let anyone see this,” I screamed inside my head.

The C+ in red marker was suddenly an afterthought. I wasn’t prepared for what my teacher had attached to the end of my 8th period test.

ThreeSixty Editor’s note: To protect the writer’s privacy, ThreeSixty Journalism is not disclosing his name. We have also changed the names of the other students.

Designed to keep me on task, my special education behavior chart was in plain sight. It’s the one thing that had caused me to stay inside a shell at my new high school. The reason I couldn’t be “me” around classmates.

“Don’t let anyone see this,” I kept repeating.

I frantically stuffed the chart into the back folder of my three-ring binder. Too late. It had caught the prying eyes of my classmate, Tim.

“Are you in special ed?” he blurted.

I immediately put my guard up. This was just like middle school again.

“Why does it matter?” I asked defiantly.

Before he could respond, I struck back harder.

“Are you gonna judge me because of that? There are a lot of people who have problems in this school that you’d never even know about. Do you have problems?”

This kind of reverse psychology was nothing new for me. Tim was a popular kid who always got away with saying what he wanted. He also spoke loud enough so that others could eavesdrop. I hated that.

Now they were all going to take shots at me, I thought. When one person knows, everyone does.

This, more than anything, is what scares me about being labeled as a “special education” kid. Classmates are unwilling to include a “slow processing” person — which is what I’m always called — in everyday conversations about sports or video games. Girls don’t want to go out with someone who has “special needs.” Students always think I’m behind, so why bother getting to know me?

Sure, I might be a little socially weird at times. Whenever I’m introduced to new people, I fidget and look for ways to distract myself. I’m always nervous inside.

I also speak carefully. It’s my way of listening to information and being thoughtful with responses. But to most people who meet me for the first time, I’m not fast or loud enough. I never show the same level of emotion that they do.

I’ve suffered those judgments at every one of my schools.

In fifth grade, I was shooting hoops by myself at recess when another kid, Charlie, grabbed my basketball and kicked it across our huge playground.

At first I was stunned. “What the heck? Go get my ball,” I told him.

He started laughing. Other kids gathered around to join him.

I snapped.

Even though Charlie was bigger, I punched him in the stomach and snatched him so hard by the head that his ear began to bleed. It was the first time I ever stood up to one of my bullies. Honestly, it kinda felt good to see him cry.

Looking back, that incident with Charlie was a turning point. I’m not the kind of person who explodes on classmates. But those constant judgments had been building. To always be the quiet kid. The slow kid. The nervous kid. The pushover. Bullies feasted on that.

What made the fight even worse is that summer vacation was only three days away. I never went back to that school again.

At my next school, I got in more fights and landed more suspensions. My principal, who I couldn’t stand as an “unfair” disciplinarian, eventually sat me down for a tough talk.

“You need to stop what you’re doing because in high school you’re going to end up behind bars. I don’t want to see that happen to you because you have so much talent that can be used on other things,” she told me. I went home crying.

All the labeling and bullying had taken a toll on my academics and social interactions. I also have ADHD, so with everything crashing down on me, there were days when I wouldn’t even remember a teacher’s lesson. My mom thought I needed extra help, so we worked with the school to design a special education plan for me.

Having this plan meant I could take extra time on tests and quizzes, learn lessons at my own pace, and work on behavioral issues constructively, for instance, by squeezing stress toys. The chart I received kept me on task with teachers, and I was always happy when I saw good marks. By the end of middle school, I even got into honor council and earned awards as Student of the Month and Principal’s Choice.

I thought to myself, this was the “real me.”

Today, I’m still not totally comfortable in my skin. At my first high school, the chart made me paranoid. Students, even though they didn’t know about my special education background, would ask me personal questions and I’d freeze up. Especially Tim, who loved to jab at me about autism or Asperger’s on the bus. The whole time I’d be thinking, “He’s trying to put me down so others won’t like me.” He always tried to make me feel “different.”

I’ve since transferred to a new school. Already, I feel more accepted. I also don’t need to use the behavior chart any more. Instead, I can work with a case manager for extra help. So far, I haven’t needed it.

People think if you’re in special education, it automatically makes you “slow and stupid.” I wish I didn’t have to justify why I needed extra help, but I can’t worry about my past. Now, my focus is on school and extra-curricular activities that will bring the best out of me. I’m able to showcase talents that a lot of people don’t have.

I know I’m always going to be quiet and nervous. I also know that the “real me” can be loud and fun, too. I wish I could loosen up around my classmates, but caring too much about what others think can really mess you up inside.

Until I learn to trust more, I’ll still be doing a lot of screaming inside my head.