District 75: ‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’

Almost 30 years ago, I walked into my class of 12 teenagers with acute disabilities in a District 75 school in the South Bronx feeling young and nervous. I had no formal training as a special education teacher, just a master’s degree in political theory and an emergency teaching certificate from New York City.

My students included Jason and Jorge, both of whom had learning disabilities and degenerative neurological disorders. They have likely passed away by now. Vanessa was a sassy 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Nearly blind and in a wheelchair, Robert loved to show off his autistic splinter skill of calculating which day of the week your birthday would fall on in five or 10 years. Sharonne, who wore a helmet, was so rattled by daily grand mal seizures that she was never able to remember my name.

My class was the highest functioning in the school.

On top of severe neurological, cognitive, and physical disabilities, my students also had all the challenges that go along with living in a high-poverty urban community. Every Monday morning, we fed children bowls of cereal we brought from home because many didn’t get enough food over the weekend. Classroom books and supplies were decades-old hand-me-downs from the previous teacher. Sometimes Jorge, who was in a wheelchair, couldn’t come to school because drug dealers had knocked out the elevators in his high-rise public housing building.

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3 thoughts on “District 75: ‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’

  1. And, very interesting to hear about this phase in your life. Something I realize as I age is that people have so many depths. I have liked about your writing, especially on disability and special needs, that you have always talked about it without “othering”. You have sounded like someone who seems like they would have always cared about the issues, even if they are not personally affected. I try (though falling short is hard to avoid) to be that person (“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”). Your article supported that view I’ve had of you writing.


  2. Thank you!

    I can’t “other” disabled people, because they are my life. I just came from a brunch for parents of disabled kids in town. I just played with a one-armed toddler and talked with a mom of a seven year old with autism with eloping problems. She was also a devout Muslim with hijab and a thick accent. Our kids are our commonality. Intersectionality at work.


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