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Each school day morning I sat on the front steps of my father’s house to smoke a cigarette and read as I waited for the short bus.
Just for me, it made a special trip.[i]
Halfway through the second quarter of god-knows-what grade (we’d all dropped out, skipped, been expelled, incarcerated, institutionalized, or held back enough that even we didn’t know; traditional “grades” as such exists in regular education high schools did not hold even a small amount of water in Sped)[ii]– halfway through the second quarter of my first year at Hawthorne Psychoeducational Center, Precious, a tall, slender, and fiercely postured girl of 14 or 15, joined my homeroom, clearly appalled to find herself consigned to our company. Lips a thin line, lids resolutely lowered, she decided to play, if not dead, at least stiff, excepting the long sharp nails that she rapped rapidly on the desktop. Mimi- soon to be expelled for the razor blade that she habitually kept under her tongue- turned to take in Precious’ carefully coiffed hair, pressed clothing, and aristocratically lifted nose. Mimi clicked her teeth and said, loudly, “She think she special. Yeah, she special. Special Ed.”
Even Ms. Barnes, generally resolutely centered and kind, choked a chuckle before swooping in with her usual saccharine buffer to the short bus blues: “Now Mimi,” she said, adjusting her glasses, “you know that everybody is special. We’re all special here.”
“Yeah. We’re all special ed.”
“Big-it-a-bitch!” Stephen crowed as he rocked at his desk with a broad Chiclet grin.
“Oh, the places you’ll go!” my fifth grade teacher read to us on the last day of school, as we—pre- or awkwardly pubescent all, in ill fitting shorts and tightening t-shirts—gathered in a ragged circle about her shined navy heels:
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.[iii]
Precious slumped with an especially prolonged sigh.
In a culture committed to defining, enforcing, and privileging “normal,” “special” is an evasive catch-all term signaling “other,” “abnormal,” or “freak.” “Special” Education. “Special” Needs. Framed in terms of access and support, “special” denotes the mark of difference[iv], reinforced by separate buses, teachers, classrooms, schools, living quarters, and life expectations[v].
Special means separation, or the pity, disgust, ridicule, and expectations of gratitude attending attempts at assimilation.
Asperger’s is a diagnostic term for someone whose social skills, sensory integrative skills, and brain functioning are considered pathologically different. Asperger’s collects with other diagnoses on a spectrum of autism that, broadly defined, could potentially hold just about anyone who semi-regularly makes social gaffes or practices an under appreciated degree of honesty.
In the Aspie world, a special topic is one that you will not shut up about.[vi] All the lushness and complexity of the world is held by that single subject.[vii] Mac computers. Dinosaurs. Avante-Garde Theater. Salmon.[viii] The history of erotica. Wolves. You relentlessly research your topic, meanwhile extolling its virtues at great length to anyone unwitting enough to stand there and play polite.[ix]
The staying quality of a special topic is not in its limitations. It’s in the quality and sharpness of focus, the zoom of deeply present insight. The entire world in a treatise on the cultural history of the marine aquarium, or the space between seed pods on a tall slender weed. Truly, a deep and still and patient enough gaze into anything will reveal the whole universe within.
Special Topics is a literary column that rolls with short bus-insight through all things text based and bookish. True to the stuck joy of any Aspie’s favored theme, Special Topics holds my greatest joy, the literary arts, as its manifest obsession—particularly where those literary arts transpire with the freakish, weird, queer, othered, excised, and inimitably special.[x] I hope that you enjoy the ride.
[i]There are seven species of Pacific Northwest salmon, the largest of which is the Chinook, otherwise called the king. When salmon come of age, they make a special trip from the ocean to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn and die.
[ii] Incidentally, pre-fertilized salmon eggs, called roe, cannot hold even a small amount of water. After the salmon female digs a nest, called a redd, in the gravel with her caudal fin, she and the male salmon release the roe and milt simultaneously so that water does not contaminate the eggs. If water gets in, the surface of the roe will harden and prevent fertilization.
[v] Chinook salmon have a life expectancy of 3-7 years. Hatchery spawned fish in the south Puget Sound of Washington State typically return after 3 years, although some males, called jacks, reach maturity far earlier and return to spawn sooner. Jack salmon, smaller and faster than older Chinooks, dart in to spray milt while larger males are distracted chomping on each other with their recently-sprung canine teeth. These dart-and-go jack-fertilized eggs, successfully hatched, are more likely to produce other jacks. Hatcheries produce more jacks than occur in wild populations, thereby reducing the size and lifespan of salmon. There are female jills, but these occur in significantly less numbers. Within hatchery operations, a metal baseball bat, not a hill and a bucket, break jacks’ crowns.
[vii] Like salmon.
[viii] Salmon salmon salmon.
[ix] Salmon survived the ice age, and have spawned in the rivers of the world long before people evolved to fuck it up. Salmon also survived centuries of co-existence with humans, constituting the cultural, spiritual, and nutritional cornerstone of many cultures the world over. Atlantic salmon survived the rise of Western civilization and the suppression of goddess and nature-based tribal cultures. They did not stay as well through the Victorian-era industrial revolution. Colonization took these practices of greed, entitlement, and demolition around the world. In most areas that still support salmon runs, only 1-8% of the historical population size exists. In Department of Fish and Wildlife terms, this fractured population is known as the “exploitation.” The salmon that survive fishing in the ocean to artificially spawn in hatcheries are called “the escapement.” The escapement fish are clubbed and cut open so as to artificially fertilize the roe. Indigenous tribes signed treaties that gave up their land in exchange for the right to fish. Severely dwindled populations make this an even rawer deal than it was initially.
[x] Like, salmon!