My special ed class consisted of troubled boys abandoned by society. In our collective defiance, we loved and supported each other like no one ever had.
Greg spoke often of his intention to become a diesel mechanic – diesel, specifically, due to his love of large, loud machines. When I was much younger, I had known dim-eyed and angry boys who would announce their destinies as professional football players with the same earnestness. But their proclamations were aggravating and hubristic, as if destiny were a prize held in reserve for them to claim. Greg differed from them in that respect.The modesty of his dream conveyed a true and desperate hope his utter certainty belied. Greg would be a mechanic, that’s all he could be. A mechanic, or nothing.
By the time I was 15 I’d been in special ed for the full eight years of my schooling life. My autism had been caught in kindergarten, when I slept on the floor, hissed for the feeling it gave me in my teeth, and paced in circles. In those days the pacing was the problem. When I moved my body, my senses redirected from the loudness of the world and was drawn into a calming locus. A time was a set aside during the day to exercise that stimming impulse, to bounce around on an exercise ball until I was tired enough to refrain from distracting the class.
My eighth year marked a turning point. A quiet thought while passing by a neighbor’s house became a flood of memories, of lies and secret degradations in a basement. I became volatile, my schoolwork suffered. My father was a doctor and my family was solidly on the upper half of the upper-middle class scale. It was decided that I would stay in special ed into my freshman year, to work out my troubles with the other troubled boys.
I was intimidated by the high school boys at first. These were the truly bad influences, so said parents and administrators and cops. They mainly came from the low-income housing and trailer parks on the north and east sides of town, mostly white but some with Latinx and native backgrounds as well. Functional teen alcoholics, meth addicts, thugs, greasers, juggalos – the sorts that society deemed problems. But I wasn’t wholly out of place. In my autism I read as something like a store brand cola to a normal kid’s Coke: Similar in the big ways, just off in the details, enough to tell the difference.
Because I was a freshman, my schedule was fixed, and I had to spend every morning in a “homeroom” class that primarily involved students sitting and being watched by teachers. Three days of the week I spent with my standard homeroom and the other two with a special ed equivalent.
The difference between the two homerooms was stark. Standard homeroom was ordered and quiet and boring, mostly gossip and watching the clock. By comparison, special ed was positively freewheeling. It was physically located in a separate department within the school building, ostensibly demarcated by year and class session in the same fashion as the school at large, but in practice all doors were open. Kids not in the class milled about, virtually unsupervised. A typical session was more like freeform talk therapy, with the boys kicking their heels onto the desks and saying whatever they felt like saying, making regular runs to the school shop for soda and candy.
I remember sitting together in our windowless room and it was as though there was no space outside of ours. Steve was brought in for sniffing markers. He had a job as a shelf-stocker and would show up in juggalo clown makeup when Insane Clown Posse rolled into town, protected from dress code reprisal by the supermarket workers’ union. Billy was animated and bright (and, to my recollection, openly gay), but ruminative, dwelling on little fuck-ups, and like many others he was trying fruitlessly to get emancipated from his present but distant parents. He hated drugs but would boast about doing the hard stuff, passing off little red bumps as track marks. Sean was the toughest-looking of them, with a swimmer’s frame and a jaw drawn tight. He was smart and driven but fell into meth early and always struggled with it. And Greg was there too, husky with his hands black from engine grease, rueing the latest Yankees win, daydreaming about the American muscle in his car magazines. Greg preferred chew to cigarettes, and he spoke in clipped, direct sentences that grew longer the angrier he became. I took to him first because he was the biggest and the oldest of the core group and there was an attentiveness that seemed to break through the practiced apathy we all adopted. He was typically the first to question our teenage judgment, and the first to call bullshit when we tried to deflect.
At the margins, coming and going on a whim, were autistic kids significantly more impaired than I, 20-year-old football players with slow cadence and poor comprehension, the revolving door of hooky-playing punks and proud dirt bags. All boys, all with home lives that were cold or else catastrophic, marking their countenance. Our teacher was an elderly and devout woman who seemed to have learned that a firm hand did no good with us, and just tried to steer us away from blue language and explicit subjects. She sat to the side while we talked and looked at us with sad, helpless concern. It was as verboten to provoke her. She wasn’t at fault for anything.
The boys knew that they did not reflect the classrooms that anyone wanted to see. Out of homeroom, the boys usually canvassed behind the music hall building to smoke or swig cheap wine from nalgene bottles. I went to all my classes but never did the work. Greg liked to sit just outside our homeroom – from the windows in the hall you could see the school’s teaching auto shop, where Greg would tune up cars for free. Unlike geometry, it made him feel capable.
I hadn’t actually comprehended the significance of the term “Special Ed” before I joined the group, the eggshell thinness of it. It was bandied about with discomfort even among the mealy-mouthed liberals who supposedly birthed it. The term felt like acquiescence. We’re going to pretend these children are anything but futureless, it seemed to say. On the inside of it, you became conscious of the full gamut of offerings a school is supposed to provide – foundational education, behavioral training, coherent notions of what you were owed in adulthood (work, salaries, property, and so on) – and the inability or unwillingness to provide those things to everyone. Disability, whatever its merits as a category inviting solidarity and empathy, did not seem to be ascribed to us for our benefit. Rather, it served as pretense to sequester us from the other students, to protect them from us. Special education claimed those children whose presence read as disordered.
But when our minders left us to ourselves, as they often did, the ways the boys carried themselves and one another defied my pessimism about the possibilities between us. I was pleasantly surprised by this. The boys in my neighborhood would back me into corners until I couldn’t move, pull our conversations through as many switchbacks as they could until I became unable to speak and wept. Given our freedom, my special ed group elected not to show its teeth to one another. I can remember nothing like it in the time before.
Some people I’ve known in the years since, mostly women exhausted from dating men, have expressed to me a burgeoning belief that within the confines of our American culture, men cannot love – not women or themselves or each other, not truly – and whatever faculty that had allowed us to has atrophied so thoroughly we wouldn’t recognize it were we to regain it. But even as I can’t shake some essential truth in that, my memories of the group pull me away.
I come from a WASP family of the professional class. Emoting was not our way. Following the remembrance of my molestation, when I was most volatile at school and things were at their worst, my father found a picture of me as a child, before the violation, and he came straight to me, threw his arms around me, and wept. There was some want in me, at that moment, that I couldn’t grasp, and when the moment passed it slipped below the deepest, most vivid anger I have ever felt in my life. I sat with him until he stopped crying and left. We didn’t talk about it. I have never directly discussed any of the significant traumas or joys of my life with my family.
I came to the group resigned to the cruelties of boys and the repression of pain. I was defied. When someone in group forgot to take care of himself, the other boys remembered. They asked and gave help, cursed their absent parents, commiserated over girls, made plans when someone needed a place to go to avoid a drink or a pipe for a day or a weekend. They told one another how good they were doing, the things they envisioned for each other.
They were still undeniably masculine in the way that they saw themselves (unsparingly, as machines evaluated on proper output) and the way they related to the world (unsparingly, as to any fundamentally hostile place). But one another, they afforded profound clarity, forgiveness, and permission. The incongruity of the way they related to themselves and one another was disorienting. In The Will To Change, bell hooks wrote of patriarchy that it “...demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples,” and that adolescent peer groups are among its most relentless propagators and defenders. But what struck me about our group was that the neurotic fear (or hunting) of weakness pervasive among every other group of boys I’d known was absent.
Perhaps it is that they lived through the same things in the same way that allowed them such defiant love. They didn’t play emotional shell games with each other the way other kids I knew did. We argued about engine specs, scoffed at the panic over shock rap’s influence on school violence, and discussed the possibilities of small-scale meth cooking. We were in our room when someone burst in to inform us that the twin towers had been attacked, and watched them come down, dazedly laughing at the surreal quality of the dust clouds, watching TV reporters get lost in them.
I was raised in pristine protestant communities, where people went to live in proximity to one another, apart from one another. The love that community was said to engender felt cold and faint to me, like air from a broken vent, after the kids who hurt me slipped back into it unnoticed. A book I’d read once called God’s love for his creation agape and the term stuck to my mind as something less benevolent. It was the love of a God with no eyes on the world. The boys loved in a way foreign to the so-called communities I knew, and they heard and carried one another to a greater extent than an absent God ever would. It was a love that never balked or tired.
One day Sean asked me why I was there with them, and the others echoed the sentiment. It wasn’t to imply that there was no welcome for me, but simply to acknowledge that the school was ambivalent about pushing me away it had pushed them away. For all my poor boundaries and extreme moods, I lived in a good neighborhood, my parents were respectable, we had money. I was only there with the boys because I didn’t care enough not to be. This irked Sean, as it should have. The boys harangued me every time I let a deadline slip.
They all had small, working-class dreams, the kind that wouldn’t make them famous or rich but pull them farther from precarity in some way: Greg had his engines, Billy wanted to own a pizza place. Sean was going to kick meth for good and make a life as an underwater welder down in Florida. Steve just wanted a girlfriend. I wanted those things for them, I feared they would be denied, that they were already denied. I wonder where the boys are now. Do they sit in backyards and garages and provide the same care, so blunt in its language, as men? Are they still fearless for one another?
I wonder if they remember me. If I needed them as much as they needed each other, I wasn’t in a place to admit it, and I only realized how important they and the space they filled were to me in retrospect. I was there when Greg read his rejection letter from Denver Automotive & Diesel College, and he dropped out without a diploma. Billy ran into me years later, running me down on the side of the road in his T-bird, beaming like a proud father and entreating me to visit him at work, a pizza joint staffed and run by rough men I knew to be the boys’ antecedents. Two years out from the end of the group meetings, Sean’s single father died after a long battle with a neurodegenerative disease. He entered the foster care system at 17, and I never heard from him again. I graduated with a 1.2 GPA and remade myself in a protracted college stint that my parents paid for. I got so many more chances. I keep getting them.
I often think of Elizabeth Bowen’s observation of women’s intimacy growing backwards, starting with the deepest confidence in one another and advancing into easy distance. This feels correct to me (at least insofar as what intimacy is supposed to look like) and yet the difference between men’s and women’s intimacy seems less reflective than polar, the difference between a desert and a forest. A forest-dweller might come upon a succulent and see its life as barely there. A desert wanderer happening upon an oasis thinks it a paradise. Loving a man is quiet and lonely, like loving the desert. I miss the desert. I wish that I could see my group of boys again.
Over many years I have known many incredible women, and it has never troubled me to convey to them the profundity of the gifts they’ve given me, but the best of the men that I’ve known were still regarded as though from the top of fragile structures, such that if we reached for one another we would collide and collapse. When we part it is as thought they were never there at all.