Runaway Labels

Sherry Killam teacher, writer, visual artist.

     Sherry Killam

I got the call at 5:10 on a Monday morning.

My first assignment: Drive through the fog halfway around the bay.

Turn east, toward the fields of artichokes and Brussels sprouts.  Report to the school at the edge of the eucalyptus grove.



They need someone to cover a Special Education class for children with ‘learning disabilities.’  The regular teacher broke his leg skiing on the weekend and left no plans.  I’m sorry for Mr. Johnson, but this is the call I’ve been waiting for.  Any class, anywhere. I need experience. 

I have no idea how the day will go, so I wear sensible shoes and arrive early.

The walls in the classroom are an uncomfortable green and too close together.  Fog seeps through cracks around the windows and leaves damp circles on the linoleum.  The smelly mixture of Pine Sol and broken crayons in shabby shoe boxes gets me thinking of games to play outdoors.

The jittery school secretary walks me to the curb where the children disembark from a miniature yellow bus.  She calls out the names, then whispers the labels, of eighteen students.  They lumber and lurch into the room through a temporary chute of orange cones and yellow rope.  She hurries away with a muffled “good luck.”

The list of children goes like this:  three Hyperactive (can’t and won’t be still); four Trainable Mentally Retarded (need lots of extra help with absolutely everything); three Dyslexic (they scramble written symbols); one Hydro-cephalic (water on the brain), two Severely Emotionally Disturbed (a tragic accident and a probable torture), one Autistic (forever in her own world), and four Aliens (Spanish speaking children of the workers who pick the artichokes and Brussels sprouts).

After introductions and a fruitless round of charades, I gesture for everyone to come with me to the playground.  I grab a basketball and point first to my chest and then to all of them.

“I’ll teach you a new game,” I bargain with an big nod, “but first, Follow the Leader!”

We make a colorful parade, each of us marching to a different drummer.  When I get to the free-throw line on the basketball court, I turn around to see the last of them scurry off the blacktop and vanish into the  forest.

The pounding of kettledrums between my ears blocks the impulse to scream and chase the nimble children. Blood does rush to my legs, though.  Like my primitive ancestors, I am instantly primed to outrun a saber-toothed tiger.  I hear giggling in the bushes.

“You already know some outdoor games, huh?  Well, let’s see if you like this one.”   I start shooting baskets and supply my own running commentary:

“She dribbles, she shoots, she misses.  She takes the ball to half court and runs in from the other side.  She makes it!  She tries a hook shot.  It’s close, but no basket.  She’s getting tired.  She needs some help out here!”

The three boys with reading problems are the first to join me.  I deliver a bounce pass to the tallest one, then make him dribble around me to get to the hoop.

“He hits the rim! His friend is there for the rebound!”

The autistic girl approaches the sideline at half-court and plants herself with her back to the game.  She remains rooted there the entire session, her head fanning from side to side.

The bright-eyed children of the migrant farm workers put their toes on the painted sideline, lower their heads, and wait.

“Bienvenidos!  Que cantidad de jente en la calle!” I pant as I hand off to the one with the deepest dimples.

It is sporting of them to play along, especially since the only Spanish I can think of  means something like, “Welcome! What a big bunch of people in the street!”

I keep counting and expanding the commentary as the cast of players grows.

“Let’s hear it from the cheerleaders! More yelling, more clapping, por favor!  Can we see some jumping?”

“Would you mind holding on to this pole for us?”

“Who will walk William to the drinking fountain?”

Gradually, my Runaway Labels are all accounted for and we are a full troupe again.  Eventually, we flock to the cafeteria, exuberant, hungry, and willing to stay on course in a herd.  I can still hear the comments fly on the way:

“I was the best!

“I was the best, too!

“I coulda made more baskets.  My shoe was untied.”

“I held the pole.”

“I’m hungry!  Move faster, you retards!”

The smallest girl takes my hand and whispers, “Some of the kids in this class don’t have no brains.”

Note to self: Calling names is quick and dirty, like a sneeze.  But labeling children locks them in categories that stick forever.  Like a chronic disease.

I find the Staff Lunchroom and join three teachers who seem deaf, dumb, and blind.  No one looks at me.  No one smiles.  No one speaks.

They don’t like me. I don’t belong.  I’m a rookie substitute.  No one cares how my morning went.

Then I crack and blurt out the whole story.

“It’s my first day and I lost it. I didn’t just lose control—- I lost the class. I took them outside and they scattered.  Every one of them disappeared. I didn’t know if they’d come back.   What was I supposed to do?”

“Oh, Mr. Johnson uses a jump rope to take them anywhere,” says the skinny one, slurping her soup.

“Excuse me?”

“He has them all hold on to a long rope to keep them together,” her cohort adds from behind a magazine.

The third crone nods as she blots her lipstick and ends the conversation.

“That’s the only way he lets those kids leave the room.  Didn’t he tell you?”

In the long shower that night I shake my head again and call Mr. Johnson every name in the book.  Then I vow to get there even earlier the next morning, so I can find that rope.

Image of school children walking in a line past orange traffic cones and yellow rope.

Runaway Labels Digital Painting by Sherry Killam

26 thoughts on “Runaway Labels

  1. Barbara

    I love the blog, but please consider putting these wonderful stories and insights into book form so I can make it a gift to friends??

    1. Sherry Post author

      Thanks for the encouragement, Barbara. It is an evolving idea and long range plan, dependent on my tech capabilities and energy level.

  2. Susan Cartwright (Susie)

    As a parent of a special needs child I loved reading your blog. We were so lucky to have kind, compassionate teachers for our son. They became our friends and I really do not know what our family would have done without teachers like you, Sherry…..the kind, that care so much. Thank you!

  3. Martha Bakke

    Loved reading your account of “my kids”! I taught Special Education for 32 years, from self-contained EMH/TMH to LD/EH/EMH resource. Some of my stories could curl your hair ! Your stories brought back many wonderful memories, tears, and smiles.

  4. Jennifer Tatum

    I can tell that I would really enjoy an entire book filled with these kinds of stories, Sherry. Your story tells it like it is and your writing style makes me feel like I’m right there with you. The way you used humor and fun to attract these kids (instead of yelling, threats, or just quitting in despair!) is so inspiring. Can’t wait to read more.

    1. Sherry Post author

      Thanks for this welcome response, Jennifer. I know you are facing some of the same situations right now, so you can relate.

  5. Cindy Stodddard

    Loved it!
    Sounds like things that have happened to me.
    One nice little moment this holiday season. A big guy, one of the aides, the go to guy you need when someone gets out of control or when you need help with certain kids who don’t want to go home,was hovering over a kid, I think one of the younger “screamers” who needs potty help. We were talking about the holidays, main part of the class was having a Christmas story
    read to them. I was saying how the holidays weren’t the same since my mom died, family has fallen apart. He told me how this was true for him and his family too, and he started to cry.
    Pretty amazing moment, seeing this huge hulking tough guy crying over Christmas memories.
    Yes, I am looking forward to reading more of your stories.
    Maybe I can learn something too.
    Great idea!

    1. Sherry Post author

      Thanks for sharing that, Cindy. Those moments are the ones that few realize happen in a classroom…..yet they do time and again. There are so many things that we all share, just by our humanness. A day never went by that I didn’t learn something.

  6. Carol Bell

    Thank you for starting this blog. So much of this story I could relate to it as I substituted two weeks for a class like this in the 70’s. One child got on top of a very high cupboard and would not come down…. very challenging and like you no plans or help ..just walked into the class blind. I liked your story .Laughed and enjoyed the fact that you didn’t crumble in tears and run away…but rather you used creativity and ingenuity and got their attention by doing something interesting and active and universally understandable to get their attention and interest. I liked it very much and will hope you continue writing … Happy New Year!

    1. Sherry Post author

      Thanks, Carol. I can tell you’ve ‘been there’, and you also chose not to crumble. It is a challenge to show up every day and be present with so many different personalities and issues (including whatever is going on in our own world, huh?)

  7. Kim Bruce

    Great story (true) story Sherry. It takes a special person to play with special needs children and by the sounds of it you have what it takes.

    I look forward to reading more.

  8. Sheri Enochs

    Enjoyable, thank you for sharing this delightful story. Late 70’s, I hope, that it was alright to dump all the ‘unknown problems’ in one room?

    1. Sherry Post author

      Thanks, Sheri. This was actually Early ’70….. Paradoxically, so much cool research was going on about learning, but it was dispersed mishmash into systems that were squeezed for resources, and then as now there was a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude.


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