I Gave My Special-Ed Student Elvis and a Rifle
Tall, rail-thin and very pale, Gary was nineteen, nearly twenty, and a high school special-ed senior when we met in 1988. Try as he had, Gary hadn’t graduated. His disabilities primarily lay in reasoning skills and reading comprehension. These challenges, though, were not why we met. Gary was also Showing-to-Class-Challenged.
We met often as his ditching-class habit landed Gary at my door and because I took, I suppose, an extra interest in him and in all of our developmentally disabled kids. When I became Dean of Students at Gary’s gorgeously situated public high school in southeastern Vermont, it fast became clear that its board would have rather paid nothing for special programs and that if the feds weren’t going to fund them fully, the kids could go hang. Board members never said that but it’s what a majority of them meant when they railed against federal mandates, from having to replace ramps to having to hire a useful ratio of reading specialists- to-poor readers such as Gary.
So, I did take an interest, often sitting with them at lunch (they were not generally welcome at other tables), running baseball card raffles for them, and coaching a few in public speaking so they could make brief announcements at assemblies. I was, of course, by no means the only adult at the school who cared for these kids. It felt good to do it, though, and the feeling lingers.
When Gary first came to my door for cutting class he quickly noticed the laminated Elvis placemat pinned to my cork board. He stared at the photo’s ‘signature’. “Mr. W., when’d you get this? My mom loves Elvis! No one said you knew The King!” I told Gary that my brother bought it on a tour of Graceland. Gary asked, “You mean your whole family knew him, too?” I tried to clear it up and explained the consequences of further class-cutting.
Gary said, “But she’s so unfair!”
“Mrs. Trombley flunked me on a test only because she says I got the seasons wrong.”
“The four seasons, Mr. W. Just the four seasons.”
“What did you say they were?”
“Mr. W.! Everyone knows that. You’re a flatlander and you’ll always be. You ain’t from here. The seasons? More’n four anyways. So I didn’t know which four to put. Deer. Deer Muzzleloader. Black Bear. Turkey Bow and Arrow. Turkey Shotgun. Moose. That’s five. Trombley don’t know what’s what at all.” He shrugged bony shoulders and shook his head.
“Yeah. Missis. But she says I flunked because I don’t know about spring ‘n winter ‘n such and I needed to pass it. I want to get outa high school so I can work for my uncle Mark. He says he won’t hire me at the store except I graduate. She says she won’t say I’m ready.”
I exacted a promise that Gary would attend classes and I spoke to Rita Trombley and we agreed that we could find our way clear to pass Gary on this test despite his Hunting License-based ideas about the four seasons. After all, I told her, he showed his knowledge of the more traditional four seasons in my office and I told her that I bet I could find a special-ed kid in north Jersey in 1966 who’d swear that Frankie Valli was a Season. And that Jersey wouldn’t have fallen into the Atlantic. I also suggested that her schedule, the following year, would have her break-hour just before lunch, something I knew she considered a perk, one she’d never had. And
the rest of that test? Gary had done enough, barely, to pass.
But Gary showed to my office not three weeks later and this time brought in by our bus coordinator a moment after I’d heard a muffled scream from outside. It was just past 3:30 and Gary had been absent that day. I rose from my chair.
As burly Mike the bus supervisor hauled Gary into my office by the scruff I noticed Gary was walking stiffly and that he had a long, narrow bulge with a steel tip emerging from his left pant leg. It was a deer rifle. I asked Mike to leave us. Gary leaned, frightened, against my office window.
“Ah, Gary? Why do you have a rifle in your trousers?”
“Ain’t loaded, Mr. W.”
“I’m pleased. But I’m sure you know that you can’t bring guns to campus. Where were you, today, anyhow?”
“Why’d you come back to school at dismissal and why in hell did you bring your hunting rifle?”
“Uh. I was out huntin’ with my uncles and I needed a ride home and theirs’ is in the other direction–mine’s up the mountain, you know that, you been there…” [I had.] “And so they dropped me and I just got on the bus to go home but I remembered I had this rifle….” At this point I told Gary to take the thing from his pants and show me it wasn’t loaded and to give me the rifle and any unspent cartridges. He did.
Gary continued. “So they dropped me at the bottom of the driveway. Then when I was getting’ up the hill, up the driveway there…” [Gary pointed out my window] “…I knew I had to hide my rifle.”
“But not very well. Someone saw the muzzle.”
“Yeah. That girl screamed. Why’d she yell? It’s unloaded.” Then: “You gonna spell me?”
“Expel you? And, Gary, she couldn’t know it was unloaded.”
“This is very serious, Gary. You scared people on a bus. Very foolish decisions to skip school and then to bring your rifle here. They should’ve driven you home.”
Gary looked ill. I excused myself, took the rifle, told Gary to stay put and walked to my principal’s office having asked my secretary to alert me if she saw Gary leave. After a few minutes, the principal called the superintendent and he shared a proposal I’d made to him a few minutes earlier.
An hour on, Andy, my principal, Gary, and I drove up Gary’s snow-blown mountain to his family’s trailer. We asked Gary to explain the situation to his wheelchair-bound father and to his mom. We all agreed that we wanted Gary, finally, to graduate and work for his uncle. I told Gary’s mother and dad that we’d hold on to the rifle, the unspent shells, and Gary’s hunting license, until graduation, and that he’d do supervised study at lunch when a test was scheduled (for the balance of the year). They thought it was a good deal.
After graduation we held a very short Return-The-Rifle-and-Ammo Ceremony in my office. Gary would have to get a new license on his own. He smiled more broadly than I’d seen most kids smile to that point in my career. Gary and his family turned to leave. I said, “Gary, here. Take Elvis. The King would be happy, I think, for you to have him.”
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