During my first week as a middle-school teacher’s assistant, a student named Michael asked me if he could put grape jelly on his hamburger. Michael was an overweight 8th grader with big glasses and a bad stutter. He was one of nine students in the TMD class where I’d been hired to work. In the world of special education, TMD stands for “Trainable Mentally Disabled.” It’s one of those pleasantly demeaning spec ed terms, carefully avoiding things like the word “retardation,” and instead opting to refer to the students as “trainable.”
“Sure,” I told him. “Why not?” Putting jelly on his burger was odd, yes, but seemed harmless. Then again, that could be because my personal tastes sometimes stray from the beaten path. I smother French fries in mustard, and when I eat vanilla ice cream, I like to put Bacos on it (it’s a delicious treat).
From across the cafeteria table, Miss Tee saw what Michael was doing. She rushed over and, in one quick motion, smacked him upside the head with the palm of her hand.
“What’s wrong with you?” she scolded. “Putting grape jelly on a hamburger like a crazy person!”
Michael hung his head in shame. He tried to stutter out an apology to Miss Tee. Working with Michael for the good part of a year, I’d get used to hearing people call him “crazy.” It happened on a daily basis. Michael giggled and clapped his hands when he was happy, cried like a child when he was upset, and would slap and grab his classmates when he was angry with them. Even those in the same boat as Michael – meaning his classmates – thought he was nuts. “Man, Mr. P,” his classmate Jermaine said, “Michael sho’ is crazy. Ask him how he got that scar on his arm. Ask him!”
There was a long white scar twisting down Michael’s wrist and forearm. About a year earlier, Michael’s father had left the car running in the driveway. An opportunist, Michael hopped in the driver’s seat, put the car in drive, stepped on the gas, and proceeded to drive the car right into a tree. He fell out of the car but, to his dismay, the car kept going. Miserable from mistreatment, the car proceeded to maneuver itself over Michael’s arm and then, just to add further humiliation, ran itself into a neighbor’s house. This left Michael’s parents with some large bills, and Michael with a big scar and a story he’d have to repeat a million times. I heard the story a lot. Every time Michael would finish telling it, the person he told would shake their head and say, “Boy, that Michael really is crazy.”
Of all the kids in Miss Tee’s class, Michael seemed the loneliest. People don’t want to be friends with the “crazy” kid. He was teased by the kids in the class, and when he’d walk down the halls and say hello to the other students in the school, they’d usually just pass by him in silence.
Michael and I sat at the last table in the school cafeteria during lunch. We’d look out at all the other middle-school kids. We saw the ones in all black, the ones with expensive clothes, the ones with their jeans sagged, the ones done up in nerd chic. To them, being unique was a celebration; choosing to be different was part of their blooming identities. When they passed by Michael, they didn’t understand how lonely it feels to be someone who truly is different. For the vast majority of 14 year olds, it’s an exciting time discovering the small idiosyncrasies that separate them from the rest. But while that majority finds peace with its quirks, the Michaels of the world are stuck with the confusion that comes with really being separate, the frustration of knowing exactly who they are.
I liked Michael. He was who he was. He was only a boy who stuttered, had a scar, and didn’t understand why grape jelly doesn’t go on a hamburger when, to him, it made all the sense in the world.
(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom. The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed. “Grape Jelly Burger” is Part Two.)