Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from Rose B. Fischer. I am incredibly honored to have her posting here in such an open, honest essay about her experiences. Please be aware that this post contains frank discussion of physical abuse.
(Content Warning: Descriptions of physical abuse.)
The little yellow bus—commonly called “the retard bus” by my peers–was my only way to get to school. My mother took the car to work with her at 5:45, and the “regular” bus didn’t have a wheelchair lift.
The little yellow bus pulled up at precisely 7:30 every weekday morning. It would honk once, idle for five minutes, and if I wasn’t outside by then, the driver would leave.
This was the mid-80s, well before the ADA, so I was lucky to have the little yellow bus at all.
We lived in a second-floor apartment. My wheelchair was kept a narrow, dark hallway by the back door. The bus pulled up in front. My father was supposed to get up by 7:15, wait for me to walk down the stairs — which I could do by holding on to the railings — and take my chair down the back steps.
Then, he was supposed to wheel me supposed to wheel me through our dirt yard in time to meet the bus.
That rarely happened.
Most days, he just wouldn’t get up. Sometimes he wasn’t home at all, but I wasn’t allowed to say either of those things to my mother. All I could say was that I wasn’t ready on time and missed the bus.
I had an IEP and my mother met regularly with my gradeschool teachers. The attendance issue was a constant item on the agenda of every IEP. Every year, with every teacher, it was the same story:
The teachers would comment on my poor attendance, and my mother would say,”I wake Rose up every morning before I go to work. My husband is home with the children and he’s there to help her. She just procrastinates and doesn’t get ready on time.”
Somehow, nobody thought this was odd, even though I was the most driven, well-read, and ambitious student in any of my gradeschool classes.
I was absent from school roughly 2 days a week. I want to say Tuesdays and Thursdays, but my memory is coming up short. What I remember is that there were certain days my dad wouldn’t come home from work. He would go straight to the bar. Or, if he wasn’t working, he would leave home about 3:30 in the afternoon, and if I was lucky, I wouldn’t see or hear from him until the next morning. If I was unlucky, he’d come home screaming and throwing things, and I would get to spend several hours listening to him and my mother rage at one another. The mornings after, all was forgotten, but I didn’t make it to school because my dad was to “tired” too get up.
The days I missed most often were the regular math days, and math was my weakest subject. I guess that made it easy for my mother and my teachers to believe that I was purposely dragging my feet in the morning so that I could avoid math class or miss math tests. If you add to that the stereotype that “girls are bad at math,” no one wondered too much.
I’ve always wondered how different my life might have been if I didn’t have huge gaps in my math skills and basic education by the time I reached high school.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My third grade teacher was generally a kind woman. One day I brought a quarter to school to buy an ice cream, and I dropped the money down a grate in the sidewalk. She handed me a quarter without stopping to think about it. Every month or so, she would take me aside and give me a “talk” about my attendance. How much better I could do, how much “potential” I had, but I needed to stop missing so much school. How she wanted me to do well, believed in me, etc. I would smile for as long as I could, then duck my head to hide tears. Eventually, I’d mumble “I know, yes, I’m sorry.” I hated disappointing that woman.
One week, we had a big math test. I don’t know, end of a unit or something. A few days before the test, she started “reminding” me that I needed to be in class that day. (Don’t ask why I couldn’t have a make-up test; I have no idea.) Well, test day rolled around and my dad was actually up in the morning!
I was so excited — until about 6: 30 in the morning when his drinking buddy showed up. I was sitting in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal and there was a knock on the door. I heard Buddy’s voice, and a few minutes later my dad put his boots on and came into the kitchen.
“Lock the door behind me and don’t answer it if anybody comes,” he said.
“Dad. You can’t go out. I have to go to school today. I have a math test.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back,” he said, rolling his eyes.
I didn’t believe him.
“Dad. The bus comes at 7:30. I need you to get me on the bus. You have to be home.”
“Jesus, I said I would be right back. Why do you gotta make such a big deal of things?”
Buddy joined in, mocking me for “always worrying about things.”
“I have to go to school,” I insisted.
“If you don’t shut the fuck up, you’re going to be grounded. That’s where you’re going to be.”
I stared at my cereal and didn’t say anything else. When I finished eating, I packed my homework, pencils, and paper, put everything by the door, fed my siblings and waited. I craned my neck to peer at the clock on the kitchen wall, moved the curtains and strained to see up the street in the direction the two men had gone. I was hot, sweaty, fighting tears. The clock inched its way toward 7:30. I walked to the door, hovered there, trying to work up the nerve to leave, trying to figure out what I’d do. I couldn’t lock the door from the outside. I didn’t have a key. Well, he maybe he’d show up. Maybe I could just head down the stairs and wait in the hall. That would save time.
I made my way down the stairs and waited, trying not to sniffle as I convinced myself over and over that my father would show up. At 7:30 AM on the dot, I heard the yellow bus pull up, it’s engine idle, and the horn honk. There was no sign of my dad. I made a decision.
I let myself out the back door, descended the cement stoop on my backside, and set out to crawl across the dirt yard and around the building on my hands and knees. I didn’t account for the dirt being wet from the rain the night before. It caked and stuck to my hands. I wore plastic leg braces with foam padding in the knees, and they dragged through the wet earth like beach shovels, slowing my progress, picking up pebbles that ground into my kneecaps.
My palms hit bigger stones that bruised my and sliced open the centers of my hands. I fell forward, landed hard on my face and sucked in a nose full. Trying to push myself back up again, I accidentally opened my mouth and got a taste for my trouble. I was kneeling there, sputtering and spitting dirt out of my mouth when I finally saw my father’s boots. I looked up, cringed, sure I was about to be kicked, and fell flat on my face again.
“What the hell are you doing?” He demanded.
“You weren’t here. I had to make it to the bus.”
“The bus is already gone! What the fuck are you thinking, going out of the house like this? Your mother is going to kill me.”
Of course, she didn’t. All she did was scream at me for daring to try such a thing and getting dirt all in my braces.
I don’t remember whether or not I got a make-up test. I did (somehow) pass third grade, but attendance was still a problem.
My fourth grade teacher wasn’t so nice about it. I started the year at the front of her class with the other “smart” kids, but as time went on and my math scores dropped (because somehow, AGAIN, it was always math and science that I missed) my seat was changed to the section for the “bad” kids. The ones she made examples of and lectured about poor performance. I don’t think she quite knew what to do with me, though. My spelling, language arts, and reading scores were still among the best in the class.
When the school held an Arbor Day celebration, I was picked out of the entire fourth grade student body to recite Joyce Kilmer’s poem, Trees. I was pretty damn pleased with myself about that, until I realized that the festivities were scheduled for a day that I usually wasn’t in school.
Everyone–and I mean everyone–started hounding me about attendance. I’m sure it was well-meaning. I’m positive that it was supposed to be encouraging and supportive.
It was a nightmare of ceaseless pressure and attention that I could not escape.
I am an introvert. Under normal circumstances, I don’t want to be the center of attention.
While I’m battling my alcoholic father to get out the door in the morning? I would rather be dead than have an entire grade’s worth of teachers, staff, students, and the fucking principal reminding me that I need to show up to school and that not doing so will let everyone down.
I told my whole family that I had been chosen to read Trees on Arbor Day. I dropped strategic reminders to my father at meals and in the evenings when I was sure that my mother would be within earshot.
He yelled at me after the second or third time. She started yelling at me sometime later in the week. They already knew. I’d told them a hundred times. Dad had already promised to make sure I got to school that day, so why couldn’t I just shut up about it? I gritted my teeth and let it drop. It wasn’t worth the risk of getting smacked or confined to my room.
On celebration day, I dressed for school, packed my things, and found him passed out cold on the couch. I started trying to wake him up at 6:45. I’d give his leg a shake, yell at him to get up, duck out of the way before he could swat me, and watch a little TV. Ten minutes later, I tried again. And again. And again.
“Dad. I have to go to school. Dad. The teacher said I have to go to school today. Dad. Dad! GET UP!”
At some point, he grunted and mumbled, “You’re not going,” but I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept on making racket and shaking him until I heard the bus roll up our street. Then, in a panic, I leaned on the couch, stood up, grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back and forth, screaming at the top of my lungs.
“THE BUS IS COMING I HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL!”
He shoved me down, lunged off the couch, and raced to kick me. I scrambled backwards as fast as I could, head spinning from the impact, heart pounding, still screaming up at him
“I have to go to school!”
He closed in, grabbed for me, and I crammed my body into the crevace between our gas heater and the living room wall. I can only thank God that it was spring and the heater wasn’t on. I knew I would be safe there. He was too big to reach in and grab me. So he stood like some towering, blue-jean wearing, beer-stinking Incredible Hulk and did his best to remind me who the hell was boss.
“You’re not — going — to school!”
“I have to go to school! I TOLD YOU THE TEACHER SAID I HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL TODAY!”
“I said you’re not going!”
” I —HAVE — to go — to school!”
God knows how, but I made it out to the bus that day. I made it to school. I beat him.
My teacher actually ran up onto the bus when I got to school and gave me a hug.
“I was sure you wouldn’t show up today!” she said.
I shrugged. “No big deal. I said I would come.”
I never uttered a word about what it took to get there that day, but I rode the high of that victory for years. I held it against my chest, a talisman and a reminder of my own power. I knew that monsters could be beaten. I would survive.
There are so many problems I could speak to that I let this essay sit on my hard drive for a year before deciding to publish it. The enormity of it boggled my mind. Is it about child abuse? A broken education system? Poverty? Disability? Girls and STEM? I could frame it as any of those, but I decided to leave it as is—to show you the complexity of the problems and give you a brief taste of what it feels like to be clawing your way up to the place that most people assume is “baseline” for American schoolchildren.
I caught my math up in college, with the help of tutors and the learning center, but it doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. It’s like trying to learn a foreign language as an adult. Almost everyone I know says, “Oh, you’re creative. Creative people aren’t good at math.” Or, worse, “Lots of girls are bad at math.”
I’d like to respond, “If I’d ever had half a chance at math, I might have been Ada Lovelace.”
If I did, they would most likely chastise me for “playing the victim.”