When a Man Said I Could Do 'So Much Better' Than a Special Education Career

The school I work at is in an office building which also houses the headquarters of a trendsetting software company that employs erudite, serious, cool-looking men and women under 30. They drive Teslas and Maseratis; they wear designer clothes and shoes with brand names no one can pronounce. During their smoke or vape breaks they can be overheard discussing all brands of politics and coding. 

My students’ breaks are at the same time.

My colleagues and I are all special education teachers with Master’s degrees, multiple credentials and years of training. Unlike our office building mates, we wear jeans, close-toed shoes, sweatshirts with strings pulled out of the hoods and t-shirts. Our hair is pulled up, jewelry is not recommended and perfume overwhelms some of my students. We drive used cars that break down so frequently, jumper cables are kept in the front office.

The mutual break times provide many opportunities for my students to interact with the people they see every day. However, the software engineers often choose to walk by, trying not to make eye contact, sometimes mocking my students by moving their bodies in a contorted way or making exaggerated motions on their phones pretending to use communication devices. 

One day, one of the worst offenders asked me how much I got paid. Before I could answer, he followed up with, “You couldn’t pay me enough to work with those kids.”

Stunned but not silenced, I proudly responded, “I get paid $17.00 per hour.”

The young engineer said, “You should go to college and maybe you could earn a little more money, take better care of yourself.”

I replied, “I have a double-masters in special education and two teaching credentials.”

He walked away without acknowledging my response.

A few days later the same engineer came out and said, “You qualify for food stamps with that kind of money. Aren’t you embarrassed?” He added, “I only have a Bachelors, and I earn $300,000 a year. You could do so much better.”

My response was something I hope he will never forget.

“How can one do better than seeing a child reach a milestone after working on it for a full year?”

“How can one do better than seeing a child experience joy – true, from the soul, joy?”

“How can one do better than providing comfort to a parent trying to get through the holidays without avoiding every store that has a person ringing a high-pitched bell outside?”

“How can one do better than helping a child who would not speak or make eye contact learn to engage in conversation and develop friendships?”

“How can one do better than watching a student grow from a 4th grader with no self-esteem because of his gait to a confident young man with a job he loves and a girlfriend?”

“How can one do better than helping a 16-year-old boy, whose parents were told he would never read, not just learn to read but love to read?”

“How can one do better than helping a group of pre-teens overcome being ridiculed by adults in designer clothes with fancy cars?”

“You can’t. No matter how much money you make, you will never do better than me. I make a difference. You, my friend, only make a living.”

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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