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the marginalized

I have a thing for the marginalized.  For example, in the early to mid-90s I was a special education teacher for kids labeled SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed).  Then just the other day I realized that pretty much all the dogs I take care of for my dog-walking business are SED (the poor things are all rescues with various forms of PTSD).  After reaching extreme burn out from the SED kids I swore I would never take on such a demanding and needy population again, but here I am:  Pepper wanted to bite my head off the other day when I tried to separate him from his owner.   Why-oh-why do I do this to myself?!?  Maybe on another level, I can relate to a lost and damaged soul and I want to help them, as I wish for help myself.

Back in 1993 my first husband started teaching high school history and I was between careers (I usually switch careers every few years).  He would come home with stories of the handicapped kids who had a classroom next to his, and I was touched.  I felt it in my gut.  There was a nonverbal 19-year-old boy named Nachman who was as small as a kindergartner, blind in one eye, and would kiss your hand if he liked you.  I wanted in!  I immediately started as a substitute teacher for the county special education classes.  The county was in charge of all the dramatically handicapped kids who were located at the local public schools but who were in their own self-contained classrooms, unable to integrate.  That first year I worked with every age and every handicap. I learned a lot about love, acceptance, tolerance.  It was so fulfilling I decided to go for my teaching credential.  As I was going back to school, taking night classes, the teacher for the SED class at my first husband's high school disappeared and they desperately needed someone to take over.  They asked me, offering an emergency teaching credential to make it possible.  I don't think I even hesitated to say yes - not much was more compelling to me at the time than teenage angst.

Well.  These kids had a lot more going on than agnst.  They heard voices.

Our classroom was located at the very end of a dark hallway - no other rooms next to us.  I had two adult aides and 911 on speed dial on our classroom phone.  I was taught take-down techniques.  And my students ranged from the chronological ages of 15 to 20, but emotional ages of more like 6 to 15.  I'd have anywhere from 5 to 10 students at a time - they tended to come and go.  But I loved them.  They drove me to drink but I loved them.

Many of my kids were physically beautiful giving no hint of the turmoil inside them.   Some were docile, lost in their own world but a few of the boys were violent, one was even murderous - total serial killer material.   That sad guy came from a family of genetic inbreeding and total dysfunction.   He never stood a chance.  Instead of doing his school work or socializing, he would stay at his desk madly scribbling pictures of violent death and carnage (when he could get away with it - obviously he wasn't "allowed" to).  That is unless tall and lanky Matt would pick a fight with him then chairs and desks were thrown.

Of course I was scared but I was also full of ego-filled pride at being willing and able to watch over a population like that.  I took care of the kids no one else wanted to.  I felt like a tough guy.  But also like the most compassionate person on earth.  However, those weren't the right reasons to do such a job and ultimately I failed them.  I was never properly trained for the job and the support available to me on any given day was never enough.  I don't know if it was normal for other hormone-fueled high school SED classes, but in my room very little actual book-learning and education took place. As awful as it sounds mine was more of a containment center.  But I gave them love and attention, a few social skills, and something they were totally unused to:  acceptance.   Even reminiscing like this hurts my heart.  I only lasted in that job for a year.

But you know what?  If I was a stronger person I would get the right training and do it again.  I still think it's cool.  Everyday was fascinating, and an opportunity to give.  But what I didn't realize about myself back then was that I was way way too sensitive for such a job.  I myself am much too emo.  And I've definitely gotten more fragile as I've aged because these days I can feel too raw and vulnerable to even go to the post office and navigate the parking lot.   Yet here I am with these crazy dog clients and I don't quite know how it's happened.  I must be a magnet for the marginalized.

To be totally candid and revealing, I'm feeling a little SED myself these days which is why I am stressing out over my dogs' behaviors.  I don't mean to be flip when I say SED (what an awful label anyway!) but I really am feeling unglued.  I told my psychopharmocologist Dr. Smith so just the other day.  I'm trying to figure out why I feel so weird but for now I am blaming it on holiday stress and strain.  I think so many women, especially care-taker types like me feel hyper responsible for giving their loved ones a special Christmas.  We try so so hard to make it perfect.  They/I feel such pressure to make everyone around them feel good.  Which is a monumental, and of course impossible, feat. And on top of that the frantic holiday traffic (I got in a car accident - at said post office in fact) and crowds rub my every nerve raw. I felt tremendous excitement but total grief and confusion as well these last two months.  Mine and everyone else's.

So I'm pretty sure it's my sensitivity (sometimes over-sensitivity) that is what draws me to people who live on the fringe or some sort of subculture.  I identify with them.  I was an awkward youth and felt different than everyone else, sometimes downright alien.  It is why, growing up in Wonder white-bread suburbia, I was always drawn to the the Jewish kids who went to Hebrew School instead of CCD like everyone else, the gay kids or closet gay kids, and the punk rockers and high school drop outs (this was 1979-early 80s when punk actually meant something).

Part of me, my old teenage self, may still think the marginalized are cool but the fact is that it can be extremely difficult to be marginalized.  To be labeled, looked down upon, ignored, neglected, and not validated.  So I just don't know that I have the strength in me to support such a population.  I'm talking about my formerly-abused rescue-dog clients now.  Is it healthy for me to take on Butch the Chihuahua who barks his high-pitched bark at me non-stop the entire visit?  Or like Pepper who might bite, or Pedro who attacks his litter-mate when he is scared.  God bless their little hearts but I'm not an animal behaviorist.  I just want to take them for a stroll and hopefully have a little cuddle.  Ok, that's a lie.  I still want to save the downtrodden.  But I'm thinking I might need to leave that work to someone with more fortitude and better mental faculties than myself because today I couldn't even manage to get myself into the shower.


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