A special education

The famous little yellow bus stopped at the bottom of my driveway at 8.30am on the first day of fourth grade. I was the only passenger at first, but we zigzagged here and there, picking up children I had never seen before. We finally stopped at an office building, in a city 13km from our rural upstate New York town, where a room had been rented for the class. We were "special ed".

From September to the following June, seven boys and two girls ran around this room in circles, dropped objects from windows, peed in closets, threw a football at the back of a visitor's head, tossed slices of bologna onto the ceiling, pushed and punched and yelled at one another and did occasional schoolwork.

On my second day, a big kid named Darryl split my lip with his fist after a brief dispute. During the fourth week, a teenager lurking in the bathroom down the hall cornered me and ordered me to strip.

I hit him in the belly with my head, dashed around him and ran all the way back to the classroom, where a quartet of boys, including Darryl, was quickly assembled. Together we returned to the bathroom, grabbed the teen's arms and legs, carried him down the hall and threw him out the second-floor window onto the grass. We never saw him again.

I had been placed in special ed for "hyperactivity", brawling with other boys, throwing and breaking furniture when I was overly angry or frustrated, and not being able to sit still. In the second grade, after one disturbance too many, I was driven to a hospital to have my "brain waves tested", as my mother put it (this was the 1970s), and was sent to a local psychiatrist who kept repeating: "Tell me the story of your life."

In that moment I felt for the first time what it was like to be supported and accepted, taken care of rather than yelled at, punished or shunted off, which is how most people react to children who are violent or feral. Special ed got me directly in touch with a deeper place in the same way music would later on.

Being seven, I did not know what he meant by that, so I clammed up and we spent 55 minutes staring at each other.

In special ed, I immediately toned down my outbursts, for purely practical reasons. The children fought like grown-ups. If you hit someone in the arm, he might hit you back in the face or the genitals.

On this level, special ed worked. I was scared straight, but it also felt like jail, and to get out meant being on my best behaviour.

So no more jumping on anybody and no more damaging property. But also little schoolwork, no tests, no grades, no homework and nobody asking: "What's going on at home?"

They kept me through three years and three schools for reasons unknown to me; I no longer fought or broke things. The second and third years were less chaotic. Classes were held in regular schools on forested roads near where I lived. There were cafeterias and gyms, and no would-be-molesters lurking in the bathrooms.

My teachers were kinder and we were not allowed to hit one another, so it felt safer. Still, the constant upheaval made it tough to adapt, and in sixth grade, out of protest, I stopped speaking in school except when I absolutely had to, and not at all on the playground, on the bus or at lunch. My parents did not know I had stopped talking, no one told them, and no one at school confronted me about it, so I kept silent for the entire year.

When I went down to the highway in front of my house the next autumn, a big bus - the "regular" school bus - did not pass me by as usual; it stopped in front of me. That was when I knew my time had been served.

I rode to yet another new school just 5km away, undecided as to whether or not I would resume talking. I still had not made up my mind when two girls approached me at my locker and asked me when first period started. I wanted to say "I love you", but instead I just said "8.15", they thanked me, and I spoke from then on.

But I did not know what schoolwork was or what was expected of me. I placed the many books I was given in my locker, uncracked, initially wandered the halls during classes and carried cigarettes, three knives, a pellet pistol and a pocket full of rocks to school every day, just in case.

In eighth grade, I discovered the guitar and that was the end of weapons.

By high school, I was, to all outward appearances, just another kid, though I was still pathologically quiet. A friend during senior year said: "I thought you were retarded when I first saw you."

That did not bother me. The most important thing was that no one knew I had been in special ed. It was a chance to start fresh.

Was riding the short bus for three years a good or a bad thing for me? I am not sure. When I graduated from high school, I could not find New Jersey or Connecticut on a map. But one incident that happened in that first tumultuous year in fourth grade makes special ed invaluable in my adult eyes.

I realised after I got on the bus one morning that I had forgotten my lunch and that there was not any place near the office building to get food. When lunch period came, I was fearful, not because I would go hungry, but because any public mistake was routinely seized upon by the other kids. "Idiot forgot his lunch" would make great fodder.

While the others unwrapped their sandwiches and unscrewed thermoses, I waited silently, looking down.

"Hey, man, why aren't you eating?" a kid asked.

"Frgt mlunch," I muttered.

A whisper was passed down the table; here it comes, I thought.

A rectangular object wrapped in shiny foil whizzed through the air and hit me in the chest. I opened it and found half a bologna sandwich. An apple rolled my way, followed by half a turkey on rye, which I caught in mid-air. A bag of chips was slid down to me.

I looked up and all at the table were smiling at me.

"What do you say, Josh?" the teacher asked.

"Thank you," I whispered to the class.

"Don't mention it."

"No problem."

"You're welcome, doofus."

I held my breath in response to the sudden volcano in my belly and quickly shifted my gaze to my shoes, but it was no use. I knew how to squelch emotion in response to violence, but had not known mercy, kindness and warmth, and was not prepared for the waterfall erupting from my face.

I sprang up from the table to run away and hide my feelings from the class, but was blocked by one of the teachers' aides. I ran full speed into her arms, burying my face. She wrapped both arms tightly around me and manoeuvred me quickly out into the hall, quietly closing the door behind her. She held me while I gasped and sobbed, my tears and snot staining her dress. She did not ask me what was wrong; she just held me. I looked up after a minute and saw she was crying, too.

In that moment, I felt for the first time what it was like to be supported and accepted, taken care of rather than yelled at, punished or shunted off, which is how most people react to children who are violent or feral. Special ed got me directly in touch with a deeper place in the same way music would later on.

The question of whether or not special ed helped or hurt me has haunted me my whole life, though, and it comes and goes in cycles.

When I am at peace with mankind, when the money is rolling in, when my actions are met with satisfactory results, I think of those years as a gift separating me from the cookie-cutter mob.

When I am struggling, when a thousand things build up and the pressure is overwhelming, I can go right back to that fist smashing my face and no one doing anything about it, and it is "their fault".

Fortunately, though, I have a naturally sunny disposition. All my baby pictures show me smiling.

NEW YORK TIMES


•Josh Max is a writer and musician.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'A special education'. Print Edition | Subscribe