But since, apparently, all other children regard a solitary meal as keen punishment, I attracted some attention, sitting by myself in desolate corners of the cafeteria. But with my book propped before my lunch tray, I was entirely oblivious to the pity I excited, except on those occasions when someone chose to act on it.
One day in ninth grade, someone chose to act on it.
As I sat at the lunch table, book in hand and tray before me, two girls of about my age sat down across from. One was black and solidly-built, the other thin and white. The black girl introduced herself as Angie and her friend as Michelle. "We saw you eating alone every day and thought you might like some company," Angie told me, quite frankly.
Angie was the outgoing one of the pair, her companion reticent and shy. Angie's the one I really remember. She struck me as bright, savvy, and forthright. Not a "popular" girl, but she had a solid grasp of social mechanics. Much better than my own still-tenuous grip.
The first couple of times, they came to me to eat. Later, they invited me to join their friends. And I learned what social crime they'd been outcast for: they were in special ed classes.
That flabbergasted me. I figured Angie was at least as smart as I was, if not smarter -- hey, she'd figured out how to make friends and I still hadn't gotten that trick -- and I was in honors classes. Why was she in special ed?
"I'm in it because I have dyslexia," she told me, neither worried nor embarrassed. "But you're right, the classes are a real mish-mash of learning disorders. There are about a dozen of us, and some of the kids can't even count change. They really need to teach some basic life skills to some of them, not algebra or history."
One of the special-ed students I'd known for years, because she caught the bus at my stop. She was tall and broad, and I don't know how old she was or how long she'd been going to classes. She barely spoke but often made strange noises, and did not behave as though she had more than a rough, conditioned grasp on what was going on around her.
I can't imagine what it must be like to try to teach a class that included both her and Angie.
I can't imagine what it must've been like to be Angie, trying to learn something in that classroom. Something other than "this system isn't serving any of us very well".
I understand that it was a long fight to get special-education programs into schools, and now a similar battle is going on by advocates – this time to dismantle them and mainstream their students. Thinking of Angie, I have a lot of sympathy for that cause.
I didn't eat lunch with them for very long, though I can't remember now why I stopped. I don't think it was because I was embarrassed by them -- not because such a thing was beyond me, but because I can remember clearly enough other occasions where I did avoid otherwise friendly people because I thought they were "freaks" and I don’t remember doing that here. It might be that the school year ended, and the next year I was at a different building. It might've been that I drifted back to eating lunch by myself because I liked doing so, and because I wasn't sure of my welcome without being repeatedly invited. (Yes indeed, I can see myself thinking that the special-ed students were too popular and well-liked to want to hang out with me.)
But I'm wondering now whatever happened to Angie. But -- maybe in spite of or maybe because of her schooling -- I expect she's doing all right for herself now.
After all, I am.