It's a universal truth that high school sucks. But there are levels to the suck.
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TRANSCRIPT OF “HIGH SCHOOL HELL”
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MALE VO [00:03]
This is Bad Attitudes.
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Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.
In my sophomore year of high school, I had to make a tough decision — that turned out to be not-so-tough after all.
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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.
I’ve been sitting on this story because telling some parts of it could make me come across as a whiny bitch who holds grudges. I finally decided that if that’s what people think of me after hearing this episode, then so be it. Acknowledging that something happened and that it affected you isn’t holding a grudge. It’s recognizing that the past exists and that events that occurred can impact your present and your future. Elements of this story impacted how I make decisions, how I choose my friends, how I treat my friends, and what I expect from other people. I might even say that it impacted my eventual decision to start this podcast because it was one of my first experiences with what I would call malicious ableism.
Of course, I say all this and at the end of the episode, you might be left thinking, “Uh, Laura, none of this was that big of a deal.”
So, let’s take a trip back to the mid-nineties, that golden decade, when I was a sophomore in high school. That’s around age 15 for any non-American listeners.
Before I get into the details, it’s kind of important for you to know that, at the time, ninth graders in my district were still split between middle and high schools. At that time, elementary schools were K through 6, middle schools were 7th through 9th grades, and high schools were 9th through 12th grades. Today, they’re split more traditionally. K through 5 for elementary, 6 through 8 for middle, and 9 through 12 for high school.
I mention this because 10th grade is the first time I attended school in a high school setting. I had the choice to either go to high school in 9th grade or stay in my middle school in a program that focused on language arts, and I, like a majority of my peers, opted to stay in middle school for one more year. If I had wanted to jump ahead to high school, I would have had to enter the school’s International Baccalaureate program, a highly intense program, which I was not interested in.
Instead, I and all my classmates who stayed in that language arts program went into the International Studies program in high school, which was basically a step below the IB program. Still advanced, but not quite so intense.
My sophomore year began inauspiciously. It was getting close to the beginning of the year, and we still hadn’t heard whether I had been accepted into the IS program. We reached out to the school and were told that they had “left a message” on our answering machine, but since they hadn’t heard back from my family, they assumed I was not interested and therefore I was not in the program.
One problem. At the time, my family did not have an answering machine. Remember, it was the mid-nineties, and my parents weren’t super fast to adopt this particular technology. We got one pretty quickly after that, though.
After some strident advocacy on the part of my mom, my admittance to the IS program was guaranteed and we thought we were off and running.
At this time, the district was also building a new high school to offset the overcrowded conditions at other area schools. The school was set to open at the beginning of my junior year, and rising juniors in the school’s zone would be given the option to stay at their current school for the last two years of high school or to transfer to the new school. Going into my 10th-grade year, I was absolutely sure I would NOT be transferring. I had been going to school with the same people since the seventh grade. And because I was in advanced classes, we’d all basically had the same schedule the entire time. I was not going to leave my friends.
Of course, reality has a nasty habit of changing our perspective.
The high school I attended for my sophomore year was old. My parents graduated from the same school in the seventies, and it wasn’t new then. But, more importantly, it wasn’t very accessible, and we learned the hard way that the administration wasn’t overly concerned about making it more accessible. Sure, it had an elevator, but that’s about where the accommodations started and stopped.
There was one — just one — accessible parking spot in the school’s main parking lot and the school staff had the habit of letting anyone park in it for any reason. We complained about that, every time. Not only was it a pain in the ass for me, it was ILLEGAL. At this point, the Americans with Disabilities Act was in full swing, so there was no excuse for this kind of abuse. The staff, including the school’s resource officer, didn’t like that we repeatedly pointed out the illegality of their behavior, so if my grandma — who picked me up in the afternoons — ever forgot to hang up the disabled parking placard, they would harass her. Not politely remind her to hang up the tag, but legitimately harass her about it.
Both the front and back entrances were at the top of incredibly steep hills. Only the most jacked manual wheelchair users could have traversed these hills without assistance. Going up or down, they were dangerous. Case in point, during the first week of school, a fellow wheelchair user was going down the back hill and flipped her chair. The staff thought the proper reaction was to tell everyone around her not to touch her because she was bleeding a little from cuts she sustained in falling. Yes, blood-borne diseases were a serious concern, but is yelling at students not to touch someone who has fallen really the proper response to an injured student?
The school did have a ramp with a slightly less steep grade installed in the front of the school, which made it much easier for me to get into and out of the front entrance. To the best of my recollection, that might be the only concession they willingly made.
On the first day of school, I learned the hard way that the door from the cafeteria to outside had a step. It was sheer luck that I didn’t flip my wheelchair that day. I can still remember the way my heart jolted when the front of my chair went down that step. If I had at least known it was there, I would have been prepared and could have mitigated any potential negative effects. But, like I said, I got through that moment based only on luck.
One of my classes was in a mobile classroom that could be reached either by going down that dangerous back hill or by going back through the school, out through the front entrance, and around. Guess which route I chose. Unfortunately, the sidewalk leading to my classroom would flood anytime there was even a suggestion of rain. Not just water, but mud and debris as well. Badly enough that it would prevent me going to class. I spent a lot of those class periods in the school library.
We asked the school REPEATEDLY to fix the sidewalk, but they never did. You know who did? One of the gym teachers. This particular gym teacher had been a PE teacher at my elementary school, so she knew me and my family. She saw the issue with the sidewalk and saw that the school was not making it a priority, so she took the initiative. On her own time, with her own money, she went and leveled out the area where the sidewalk flooded so that I and other students could access our classes. Don’t you fucking tell me teachers are paid enough.
The main school building had three levels. The main entrance level, the second floor, and an auditorium that was accessed going down from the main level. The elevator only accessed the first and second floors. One day, the school was having a dance to celebrate some British exchange students. I have been an Anglophile since the first time I heard an English accent, so I was for damn sure going to that dance. The administration swore up and down that the dance would be on the main level in the mall, the large open area where students would congregate at the front of the school.
I bet you can guess where this is going. When I arrived, there was not a soul to be seen. The school looked empty. Desolate. Unless you went and looked for the lower-level auditorium. Where they were holding the dance. Which I could not access. Obviously, I didn’t want to make any kind of a scene, so I just turned around and left. There have been plenty of times in my life where I didn’t feel included, but never before that moment had I ever felt so blatantly EXcluded.
To this day, I can’t say for sure whether the administration was mistaken or whether they simply lied to me about the dance’s location.
I know it sounds like quite a jump to think that a member of a school’s administration would lie to a student, but you have to remember, that by the middle of the year, most of the administration (not the teachers) wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence when they passed me in the hall. Usually, you might expect at least a smile or a head nod, but no. They would walk past me without even looking in my direction. Why? Because my parents advocated for me and the accommodations I needed and we wouldn’t be satisfied with crumbs. But even if the parents are absolute hell to deal with (mine weren’t), you don’t take your frustration out on the student.
I was miserable attending that school, probably much more so than I let on. But I was still adamant that I wasn’t going to leave my friends. I was willing to suffer two more years just to be able to stay with them.
One thing to know about the elevators in public schools, at least at the middle and high schools I attended: You have to be provided with a key in order to use it. But, at both schools, the keyhole was too high for me to reach without assistance. Because that makes sense. So whenever I went anywhere in the school, I had to have someone go with me, almost exclusively so they could turn the key for the elevator. I usually depended on one of my friends for this task.
I belonged to the Key Club in the 10th grade, which is a service-based club. One day, my friend — I’ll call her Darcy — and I thought there was a meeting. I had already told my grandma I had the meeting so she was going to pick me up at a later time. We went to the designated meeting space after school and no one was there. After waiting a few minutes, Darcy said she was going to go look for a teacher and see what she could find out.
Darcy never came back.
Seems like Darcy suddenly remembered she had an orthodontist appointment and she had to run to catch her bus. Which left me stranded on the second floor with an elevator key I couldn’t use.
I don’t know how long I waited, but eventually I ventured out in search of a teacher myself. Thankfully, my social studies teacher was still around and I got her to turn the key for me. But I was livid. My so-called friend abandoned me knowing full well I would have been up shit creek without her there. In fact, just like I’m not convinced the school administration didn’t lie to me about the dance, I’m not convinced Darcy didn’t abandon me on purpose.
Did she call me at home that night to make sure I got home all right? No. Did she apologize the next day at school? Of course not. But my other friends felt perfectly fine giving me a hard time because I had told my mom what had happened and she said something to Darcy about it when she came bouncing up as I was getting out of the car that morning.
That entire incident changed things for me. I was still loathe to leave my friends behind — even after suffering bad treatment — but I knew I couldn’t stay at that school. I was already miserable, and being shown so blatantly how I couldn’t even depend on the people I called my friends made things even worse. So it became a real easy choice.
And it was a choice I will never regret. If life was a musical — as it should be — I would have spun through the halls of that school singing at the top of my lungs about freedom backed by cheerleaders and an entire marching band. The school was all on one level — no damned elevators. All the rooms were contained in that one building — no damned mobile classrooms. But, more than that, the administrators were actually interested in making sure their students could succeed in their environment. For the first time in my education, I was going to get a taste of real independence. Ironic, considering “independence” was the name of my previous high school.
But, as always, that freedom came with sacrifice. And it took time for me to realize the full extent of that sacrifice.
I gave up the security and comfort of being surrounded by the same people I had known since 7th grade for the insecurity of an unknown situation. It turned out pretty well; I reconnected with some people I had known prior to middle school, but it wasn’t the same. We hadn’t forged the bonds of those awkward adolescent years. We had different shared experiences with totally different groups of people. Even though we were friends, they weren’t the friends I had come to rely on.
During my junior year, I worked so hard — too hard — to maintain those friendships I had left behind. I made the calls, I made the plans. By the summer before my senior year I realized that I wasn’t as important to my friends as they were to me, and I vowed not to be the only one making the effort any more. If they wanted to see me, they would, and if they didn’t, well, I would power through senior year, graduate, and hopefully move on to greener pastures in college.
Again, reality has a way of sneaking up on you. Five weeks into my senior year of high school, I flipped my wheelchair and ended up essentially bed-bound for six months. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise, because I was over high school. I was ready to be done with it. I took the classes I needed to graduate from home and said “fuck you very much” to all the rest.
I did reconnect with one of my friends from my old school. I’ll call him Josh. Josh was actually my very best friend and the one it hurt most to lose in my transferring schools. Years later, in college, I learned that when I made the decision to transfer, Josh made the decision to no longer be my friend.
A sacrifice I didn’t even know I was making.
That revelation cast a pall over our relationship. Every interaction we had had since high school seemed different. So I made the incredibly hard decision to step back from that friendship. I’m still friendly with Josh, but we’re not close like we once were. And I miss that closeness. I miss him.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was the perfect friend. I made mistakes and fucked up as much as anyone. But throughout high school, I often felt like I was getting the short end of the stick.
Do not misunderstand me. I was never bullied, as I know so many disabled kids are. But I will be forever thankful that social media was not a thing when I was teenager, because I firmly believe I would have been a victim of cyberbullying, probably at the hands of one or two specific people.
Bottom line: High school sucks. It sucks more for some people. And if anyone tells you it doesn’t suck, they’re lying and they peaked in high school.
The important lesson I hope you take away is this: Always do what is right and best for YOU even if other people don’t like it. I basically lost all my friends because I chose to transfer to a high school that was more accessible and better equipped to give me a positive high school experience. And even though I regretted that loss, I will NEVER regret making that choice. Getting away from some of those people might even have been an unintended benefit because even as they were nourishing for others, they were toxic for me. Moving to a school where my needs were met and I was able to be independent allowed me to grow up. It allowed me to succeed.
That’s the point of school. School is supposed to make it possible for students to succeed, disabled or otherwise. That should be the ultimate goal of any educational institution. That first school did not care about my success. To be fair, if you weren’t a jock or a genius, it probably didn’t care much about you, either.
I don’t want anyone to think I’m bitter about this experience. If anything, it makes me sad. Sad that I had to go through it, but also sad to know that other disabled students are currently experiencing similar or worse treatment at the hands of their educators. But, I’m also happy because I came out the other side. I went on to have an amazing college experience. An experience I can’t guarantee I would have gotten to have had I stayed at my first high school. I might have only considered colleges my friends were considering rather than seeking out the right school for me. The entire trajectory of my life might have been different had I not made the ultimate decision to transfer high schools.
Let me reiterate: Always do what is best for you, even if it upsets other people. As long as you aren’t actively harming someone else and it’s safe for you to do so, the choice that feels right for you is the right choice.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.
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