07/30/2015 01:25 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

My Shame As a Teenage Sped

Before I graduated from my special ed high school, the administration offered me a choice: I could receive a diploma with the name of my actual school, or a discrete diploma from a non-descript public school in the area. This choice extended to my transcript: one version described the school and its services, the other disclosed my grades as-is, omitting all references to special education.

Having this option galvanized the host of anxieties I already had about the lasting consequences of being a special ed student: How would people treat me differently? Would they pity or scorn me? Would it be harder to find a job? Could someone use my past to discredit me?

Such worries weren't absurd--I still flinch when the subject of high school arises. I feel afraid as I write this, not least because the prospect of misframing such a complicated issue stands to hurt more people than just me. But I keep going because however pragmatic these concerns seemed at the time, I know they served as rationalizations for the true impetus behind my decision to stay hidden: I was deeply ashamed of my school. I hated myself for attending it, and at seventeen years old, I would have given anything to put that part of my life behind me.

The shame of being a sped--this is what some of us called ourselves (and I've heard educators defend it as neutral shorthand, written as "Sp. Ed")--was an odd specter, both tangible and ephemeral; it stuck in my throat when someone asked me where I went to school; I felt it hovering as I got on the school bus every morning; it filled the room when a teacher couldn't get through her instructions and wasted the period chastising us for interrupting; it festered when I identified with her frustrations.

My shame stung me whenever the feeling that there was something about "us" that was different and inferior to "normal" society became impossible to ignore. Most of the time, however, it just hung in the air, tacitly shading my perception of self in relation to others, like the index card I had to carry every day for collecting "points" to earn lunch privileges, or the imploring stares and smiles of social workers that felt so deliberate as to be devoid of relation.

My shame, of course, was not entirely detached from reality; the fact that the school's director offered me this choice demonstrates his belief that there was something about his school that maybe we shouldn't boast about. If I asked him what that something was, I imagine he might have talked about discrimination, or assuaging the discomfort of bearing a stigmatized label. The school's seldom-spoken position was that shame was an individual experience, a pathological response to having been bullied, subject to others' disappointment, or generally misunderstood by an outside world that wasn't sympathetic to our "learning and adjustment challenges."

My school was supposed to protect me from this world while helping me prepare for it, thus overcoming shame was conceived as part of a general goal of transcending (or ameliorating) our personal challenges. This endeavor consisted of "growth," in the meritocratic sense.

This isn't remotely what the shame of being a sped is like, though. It isn't born of a stigma that only exists outside of special ed; everything about special ed is bound up with stigma because it defines kids through the lens of pathology and lack.

Though we were all in special ed for varying academic, emotional and interpersonal reasons, to be a sped was to represent a failure to embody or sufficiently resemble an aesthetic and moral standard of normalcy and functionality that others took for granted and we internalized.

That we were all so different from each other, yet unified by our perceived deficiencies, speaks to the homogenizing nature of the "special" label: it was a monolith of timidity and violent hysteria, mediocrity and savantism, not getting out much and possibly requiring physical restraint, right now. In my case it was subtle, which made being labeled in exchange for the services I needed a singularly rage-inducing experience. I was already ashamed of my difference, but I became ashamed of other people's differences, because they were our differences.

The pride I felt when an administrator called me a "borderline case" illustrates the way that shame manifested asymmetrically among the student body. Those of us who were better able to "pass" were more likely to express our shame as contempt for our peers, especially those who couldn't or refused to adhere to normative codes for behavior and appearance. When friends and I talked about "speds" and how we went to "sped school," it was as much an act of camaraderie as it was an implicit attack against kids who didn't sustain eye contact, or dressed and talked differently from us. I, in my ingrained self-loathing, resented that the adults in my life considered them my peers--but in deflecting their gaze, I internalized it, projecting it back onto the only other people who felt its sting. I traded positive self-discovery for a narcissistic power high, and it failed to protect me.

I'm not writing because I want to demonize my school, or attack everyone who worked with me as relentlessly ableist and ineffectual. I also don't have a comprehensive structural overhaul to recommend. That's going to take years of reimagining the discussion, and we'll have to consider how issues like race, class, gender, sex and citizenship complicate the picture--which they do, tremendously.

But I don't buy that there isn't a host of possibilities for many more children to live, love and identify comfortably with their differences. I'm tired of pretending there's nothing wrong with a learning diversity and mental health conversation that's dominated by people who, at most, have kids in the system. I'm tired of defending stigmatizing policies and dehumanizing language, just because they're society's alternative to throwing kids to the wolves.

I'm tired of being ashamed. And I'm tired of being complicit in others' shame. That's why I'm writing.