Special Education sucked and even though something like that wouldn’t happen in today’s modern society, when it’s 1965 and it’s a pretty small town in the far far-away miles from any large town and you’re only in the third grade anyway and you still limp and one of your eyes droops and there’s “epilepsy” talk floating around downstairs when they think you’re asleep like you can’t use a dictionary anymore even if you already know what “epilepsy” and “thrombosis” and “embolism” and “intra-cerebral hemorrhage” more or less mean and it’s pretty obvious you need more attention than your old regular third-grade teacher can give you with a whole class full of regular normal kids so basically when it’s time for you to go back to school they send you into the big room with the mongoloids and the retards and the really messed up kids you hardly ever saw before with even their own special bus.
And that’s where they stuck me after I got out of the hospital. I still had physical therapy every afternoon after school with either my mom or a nurse pulling on my legs and arms usually until I cried and then a little bit longer. I also had speech therapy three times a week at school where I was excused from bead sorting exercises and went to the room by the nurse’s office and said “pa pa pa” for twenty minutes while the speech therapist held a mirror in front of my face saying “pa pa pa,” too, and I would try and try and try to keep watching her lipsticked lips and not ever look at the mirror but it was hard but at least I usually didn’t cry until I was on my way back to the Special Ed room and I could hear the hoots and moans of my new classmates. Sometimes some one or two of them would see me as I slipped sideways through a crack in the door and would say, “Hi, Naomi!” and then some other few would start saying “pa pa pa” because a lot of Special Ed kids took speech therapy and knew the exercise.
I usually just read library books all day at a table under the window anyway since I could still read and do math and everything even if my side was twitchy and I had all those scars. That’s what I was doing and that’s where I was when Diana finally came over, came rolling over with her arms all hooked up and crooked and her feet sort of pulling the wheelchair along. She was scooting herself toward me, little bit by little bit, and a foamy white rope of slobber was dangling from the corner of her crooked mouth and as she breathed it would go part way back in her mouth and then fall back out as she exhaled. No way was I looking up from my book and I tried to let my lengthening hair cover my face and eyes.
Finally, even though I was mostly looking straight at the pages of my book, a book of Greek mythology I had read and reread millions of times, I could look sort of sideways down past the edge of the book and see her navy blue Keds with the scuffed-up dirty toes from all her scooting right next to my everyday loafers which were kind of getting scuffed-up, too, because of my limp. I just had to look up and try to ignore her saliva string, the big dark wet spot on her corduroy jumper.
“Uh yeed?” she asked me.
“Uh yeed?” she repeated and waved a twisted little arm sort of at my book.
It took me a second.
“Do I read?”
She nodded and made a noise.
“‘Course I read. Why else would I be sitting here?”
“Yeed a may?” she continued. “Yeed. A. May?”
I thought about it.
“Read to you?”
Again, she nodded and made the “yes” noise.
“Can’t you read?”
She looked at me for a moment, wobbling and squirming in her chair.
“Ant unna ayesh,” she said and waited for me to figure it out.
“You can’t turn the pages?”
She nodded vigorously and then twisted herself, small and knotted in the huge looking wheelchair, to gesture back over her shoulder with her chin, to point with her chin at the Special Ed teachers behind her.
“Ay ont ep may.” She tried to whisper but it didn’t really work since she had to struggle so much to say anything at all.
They wouldn’t help her and already it seemed that was about what to expect here in the big room and I, maybe now we, were pretty much on our own. Most of the Special Ed teachers spent most of their time walking around the tables wiping stuff off of people and pulling things out of their mouths and saying “Good. Good. Go-oood.”
“Jeez,” I said. “Scoot over in here and I’ll hold the book like this, see, and we can both read it but I’m not going to read aloud if you can read to yourself. Tell me when to turn the page, okay?”
“‘Kay,” she answered and we spent the rest of that period together and even all of the next period reading together. When the real ‘tards were doing zippers-buttons-snaps-&-bows, Diane and I were reading about the Gorgon, Persephone, and Io. I turned the pages and found out she a was faster reader than me even with all those Greek names and was always waiting for me to finish the page which made me a little bit nervous and I sort of starting skipping words to keep up.
“Have you read this one before?” I finally asked her.
“Yethsh!” and the force and the suddenness of her reply pushed another puddle of spit-foam out of Diane’s mouth and it dripped across her chin to splash in her lap. “Aye ofv ayih!”
“Yeah, I love it, too.”
We didn’t say another word to each other until it was time for special Special Ed recess when they made us go outside and play by ourselves and sometimes I would look at my old classroom and see the stuff my old friends had taped up on the windows like geometric snowflakes scissored out of huge sheets of newsprint or tempera paintings of some field trip they’d taken to the dairy farm or the state capital or someplace like that.