The bullying usually came at recess. It looked like this. One minute my classmates played ball as I stood alone, wishing I could be with my twin sister who was in hospice care. The next, I was surrounded. A blow to my lower back brought me to my knees.
“Hey, gimp,” a boy snarled, referring to the leg braces I wore for my cerebral palsy. “We saw you with that group of retards you hang out with.” He continued, “Spending so much time with them must mean that you’re a retard, too, huh. If I looked like you, I would just shoot myself in the head and be done with it.” Another kid stepped forward and spat on me. About a stone’s throw away, a teacher sat on a bench. I hoped she would step in. Instead, she just watched as I ran toward the monkey bars and clumsily climbed them as the other kids pelted me with rocks. All, that is, except one.
Jesse was a foster kid. School officials labeled him a troublemaker because of his smart mouth. He carried a slingshot and spent most of his time in detention.
As my heart pounded in my chest, Jesse fought off my attackers. Then, he focused his attention on me. I was shocked by the tenderness in his voice. “It’s okay, Mary," he said. “You can come down now; you’re safe. I promise.” Jesse had to help me down from the monkey bars. “Thank you,” I whispered, hugging him.
A part of the daily routine
I was in fourth grade when this happened. That spring day in 1994 wasn’t the first time I was bullied, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
Fortunately, I had the love of my family, friends and several dedicated teachers, who sustained me during this difficult time. Such strong support empowered me to overcome obstacles created by such prejudice. At the same time, my supporters also cared for me during my twin sister, Lisa’s illness and ultimately, her death from complications of cerebral palsy. Still a child, I was devastated by the loss. Therefore, the bullying I endured while mourning Lisa’s loss only magnified my grief.
I was mainstreamed in school. That means that despite having special needs, I was deemed competent to attend classes and complete coursework the same as students without special needs.
Some of the cruelest episodes of bullying happened to me then, often, while going about my daily routine. I could hardly walk down the hall between classes without being hit, slapped or tripped by classmates. I learned to live in fear, becoming hyper vigilant, feeling like having special needs placed a target upon my back. Physical education class turned into an ordeal. Frequently, I had to participate in activities that, due to my special needs, I was not able to do well. Even with my leg braces and problems with balance, I was required to jump rope or cross a balance beam. Consequently, I had trouble playing with the other students in these courses. Making matters worse, unless special needs students were mainstreamed, school rules at the time prohibited us from contact with students without special needs. Unfortunately, such isolation also prevented special needs students from even eating and playing with the other students. So it was no surprise that when students in these physical education courses encountered me, several reacted out of ignorance and fear. I paid the price by being chased across the playground, cornered, insulted and spat upon. Often, my parents or I would report these incidents to the school, but ultimately, nothing was done to stop the bullying.
So I was grateful whenever I could take modified physical education courses, usually with special needs students whom I had known since kindergarten. Time spent with them was a refuge, a safe haven. Even though we were different races, religions and ages, we became a surrogate family. Each of us had different diagnoses, which included cerebral palsy and osteogenesis imperfecta. But our bond was still strong.
Bullying not limited to classmates
Students in my mainstreamed classes were not the only bullies. Many teachers did not want mainstreamed students in their classes and were not shy about saying so. One teacher told me in front of the whole class, that, “if I cut my hair, changed how I dressed and stopped wearing my leg braces, then maybe I could get a prom date.”
Even some special needs teachers didn’t know how to treat their students. After herding everyone to the baseball field during a bomb threat, some special needs teachers placed emotionally challenged students inside the fenced enclosure of a dugout. Then they closed the door and padlocked it. Stunned, I remember thinking the special needs students in the dugout resembled zoo animals on display. I asked one of the teachers why it was necessary to incarcerate the students. “It’s for their own safety,” he said.
To combat bullying, I think teachers and students sharing courses with mainstreamed students should be required to complete mandatory sensitivity training. Also, there should be counseling offered to parents and their special needs students, as well as their teachers.
As for Jesse, the boy who saved me on the playground that day more than 20 years ago, we remained friends until his death in a car accident about a year later. He sat with me at lunch. He taught me how to use his slingshot. He always saw the ability in me, not my condition.
“Not everybody’s that ignorant,” he would often tell me.
He was right. Fortunately, during my school years, there were also compassionate teachers and staff who stood up for me and encouraged me to achieve my dreams of going to college and becoming a writer. I graduated from the University of South Florida last year. It was one of my proudest moments.
— Mary Schille is a volunteer at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa and a strong advocate of its #CutTheBull initiative. She hopes that sharing her story and her ultimate educational success will encourage more sensitivity towards children who have disabilities and give hope to our patients and families.