Scenes from a Special Ed. Summer Camp
A Short Story by Lukas Sherman
Written using the suggestion "Orbit"
Originally featured on 09-25-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

Dedicated to Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)


“Maintain therapeutic distance.”-Rule no. 12 in the At Risk Populations Handbook


The first day at my new job was fine. I felt a bit useless. I sat and watched basically. They had some academics in the morning. I had lunch with them, went outside to play soccer, and helped tie-dye shirts in the afternoon. The staff are nice and many are around my age or younger. Most of the kids were pretty friendly. No one seemed too psychotic. I put my hair in little pigtails and wore my flared cords and my old Smiths t-shirt, and those bright shoes I just bought. I forgot how observant kids are. I got comments on almost everything.

“Those are cool shoes.”

“They look like tomatoes.”

“Where’d you get your pants?”

“What’s your shirt mean?”
“Is that your last name?”

“I like your hair.”

Do you know in movies when someone from the past arrives in the present (or vice versa) and is amazed by all the mundane, everyday devices and things we take for granted? Like light switches and televisions and phones. It’s kinda like that.


So I started working at this small, private school about 20 minutes outside of Boston; a special ed school. As one kid told me, “We’re gifted,” and then began to spin around in circles, slapping his forehead, and chanting “monkey monkey!” I think he meant it as a joke. The kids aren’t handicapped or retarded (even if they were, we don’t use that word anymore); they have emotional, behavioral, psychological “issues” (the preferred word). Throw in ADD, ADHD, bipolar, anxiety, OCD, depression, Asberger’s, bad home life, trouble getting along with other kids, and you’ve got some difficult cases. I think you could make a case that a good 80% of middle school kids qualify as emotionally disturbed. My title is assistant teacher. Since I’m starting during their summer program (“camp” is bit of a stretch), it’ll be more casual, with a number of trips/activities/games planned. It’s a big change from the office. I’m taking a pay cut, but for the first time since college, I feel like I’m doing a job that is actually meaningful and non-soul sucking and not just making money for other people. Other than working at summer camps in college, I have no real training in the area. Well, I do like kids and can be a junior high-ish at times. We’ll see.


I had my first kind of crisis today. Don, the regular teacher, left the room for a minute and these two kids started right in on this girl Ally, who never talks and has a training wheels goth look happening.

“Hey, is Dracula your boyfriend?”

“No, stupid, Satan’s her boyfriend. Dracula’s her dad.”

They hardly knew me from Adam (or Eve), but I tried anyway.

“Hey guys, that’s enough, OK? Please get back to your worksheets.”

One of them looked at me harshly. “Who are you and why are you telling what to do?”

I’ve heard of these type of situations. Don’t let them sense fear, just like with wild animals. Give them space. Don’t escalate. Use a measured tone.

“My name’s Zoey and I started three days ago and you don’t have to listen to me, of course, but it’d be really great if you did because I’d like for us to be friends.” I threw in a wink, hoping a little feminine charm might work. “By the way, I don’t think I know your name.”

“Dan,” he said defiantly.

“Dan the man?” His friend giggled.

“No, just Dan.”

“OK Dan, now that we know each other and have a mutual respect, will you do your work?”

He shrugged. Good enough. Then a minute later, Dan asked Ally, “Hey Dracula’s daughter, can I borrow your cape? Mine’s in the wash.” He and his buddy cracked up.

She looked up slowly and put her glasses on.

“If you don’t shut up, I’ll cut your throat and drink your blood.”

Dan and his buddy looked a little freaked out.

“OK Ally, could you please go down to the counseling area. I’ll be there in a minute.” I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. Ally barred her teeth, hissed at the boys, and left the room.

“Why couldn’t you be quiet? Huh?” I have lost my measured tone.

“Hey, it was a joke. I didn’t know she’d go psycho. She really is a vampire.”

Don returned and I went to the so-called counseling room. Ally sat in the corner, head on her knees. No one is in the little office next to the room. I thought they were supposed to take care of things like this. What do I do about death threats, however unrealistic?

“Um, hey Ally, I’m sorry about what happened down there. Do you want to talk for a minute?”

She shook her head. I sat down on the floor.

“I know those guys were bugging you, but you really can’t say things that. It doesn’t help.” I kinda felt like a fake saying that. I fought back at that age too.

“Why not?” Her voice was muffled by her arm.

“Well, they probably just pick on you more because you reacted like that. I know kids used to pick on me for how I dressed.” Technically, we’re not supposed to be personal with the kids, but fuck it, I didn’t know what else to do. “You’re at a hard age.”

She looked up. She was crying a little.

“They’re so stupid. I’m not even really goth. I just like black. When I wore it at my old school, I was left alone. I don’t listen to any of that music or anything.” She wiped her face. “I either get ignored or picked on. I don’t which sucks more.”

I smiled. “Yeah, they both suck.”

She took a mirror out her baggy sweatshirt. “Shit. My eyeshadow’s all runny.” She looked at me. “I didn’t mean what I said. I wouldn’t hurt him or drink his blood. You don’t think I would, do you?”

“No, of course not.” I said. “But you have to be careful what you say.”

“I know. I get told that a lot.” She unzipped her sweatshirt. Her shirt had a picture of Hello Kitty in a cauldron of boiling water. It said “Goodbye Kitty.”

“Did you really get picked on?” She asked. “You’re so pretty and you dress nice. You look like you’re popular.” I almost welled up when she said that.

“That’s sweet. I was pretty awkward when I was your age. I cut my hair really short once and kids said I looked like a boy. And then I dyed it a few times and they said I drank radiation.”

Ally zipped her sweatshirt back up. “I’m glad you’re here. Nobody else talks to me. I mean, the counselors do, but they always want me to talk about my feelings. The girls here are boring or snobby bitches, just like at my old school. I thought there’d be more girls like me here. I guess I’m special.”

“Well, we’re all special here at the Bergman school.” We both laughed.


I’m terrible with names and have been doing a lot of “hey there”(s) to the staff. Today in the hall, an older, somewhat abrasive woman, who I think is some kind of counselor approached me.

“Could you spit out your gum please?”

“Oh sure, sorry.”

“We don’t let the kids chew it. It ends up everywhere: desks, hands, walls, hair.”

She handed me a wastebasket and I spit it out.

“Probably can’t smoke here either.”

She looked alarmed.

“Joke.” I smiled. “I don’t really smoke.”

“Oh, well smoking’s not something we joke about. No.”

I felt like I was being reprimanded.

“I had a cousin from Kentucky who died of long cancer. It’s no joke.”


I really do have to rein in my smartass comments here.



On Friday, we took a field trip to the New England Aquarium. I’d never been. It was pretty cool, but they didn’t have any jellyfish. One of the kids I was with, Joe, was disappointed too.

“They’re not really fish,” he told me. “They don’t even have brains. They’re really neat and some have lights inside them and they have no backbones. Oh, the box jelly is like the most venomous animal, I think. I’d like a pet jelly.”

He’s a sweet kid, though a little socially clueless. But I love the kids who come up and share things with you. Heck, I didn’t know most of those things. Trevor was also in my group and he’s pretty much the opposite of Joe; really funny and socially sharp, but kind of a punk. At the touching pool, he dared Joe to pick up a spiny crab. Nobody else would do it, including me.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to Joe,” I said.

“I know,” he said, then rolled up his sleeve and picked it up. “It’s spiky.”

Trevor looked surprised and then said, “Now you’ve got crabs.”

Joe looked puzzled. “No, just one crab. I’ll name him Pinchy.”

“Great name.”

“Be nice,” I chide him.

Then we went to the sea lion show.

“I don’t think they should be called sea lions,” Joe confided in me. “Lions are fierce and the kings of the jungle…well, the savanna actually. Sharks or whales are more like real lions. But I guess shark is a better name. Sea lions are pinnipeds, which means ‘fin-foot.’ So are seals.”

The first one, named Ursula, didn’t want to cooperate, so they sent her back. Trevor found this highly amusing.

“She’s like, ‘Screw this, bitch, I’m not doing your tricks anymore!’”

“Watch your language,” I said, trying not to laugh. I hate it when they’re inappropriate and funny.

“When she gets backstage, the trainers are gonna zap her. ‘Don’t wanna do tricks? ZAP! How ‘bout now?’ ZAP! ‘I’ll never join you human!!’ ZAP! ZAP! ‘AHHH!’”

“If you can’t be appropriate, we’ll leave.”

“Hey, I just feel bad for her. They should free her, instead of that dumbass Willy. She’s like me: won’t do things for nobody.”

“Maybe we should try feeding you fish.”

“Ha. I love it when teachers think they’re all funny.”

“Don’t be a smartass.”

He was momentarily taken aback, but then grinned. “You said ass! You’re alright.” He held up his hand for a high-five.

“Don’t leave me hanging girl.”

“I’m not gonna give you five, I’m not a girl, and there’s nothing that cool about swearing.” I paused. “I’m sorry I called you a smartass. Even if you are one.”

“That’s OK, my dad calls me much worse things. ‘You call that a clean car you little bastard!’ Whack! Whack! ‘Daddy, no Daddy, I love you!’ Just kidding. My dad lives in Arizona.”

“It’s really not something to joke about.” Man this kid has an overactive imagination.

Another sea lion, named Lazenby, has come out and is much more pliant. The trainer asked for a volunteer and all the kids put up their hands and said, “Oh, oh, pick me! Pick me!” She picked six, including Joe. They go around the pool to the platform. The lady asked all their names. Joe said his quietly and she introduced him as Moe.

“Now Lazenby’s gonna give you all a great big sea lion kiss! So lean over and look that way.”

The sea lion came by and gave them all peeks on the cheek. Cute. Joe blushed and waved at us.

As we walked back to the vans, Trevor started in again.

“Hey nice job up there Moe. Was that your first kiss? From a gay fish?”

“Knock it off Trevor,” I told him. “And sea lions aren’t fish, smart guy.”

“What? It’s a big deal. Maybe Moe will help him break out and they can swim off together. Swim Lazenby, swim!”

“Do you ever think anything you don’t say?” I asked.

“Not really. I can’t control myself. That’s what I’m at this stupid school. I mean, ‘special’ school.”

We got into the vans, which were boiling hot. This chubby kid, Max, farted and laughed. Great.

This could be a long summer.

Read More By Lukas Sherman

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