How a State-Funded Program Saved My Life

How a State-Funded Program Saved My Life

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benefits of special education programs

This post was originally published on October 6, 2016.

I barely graduated high school. I don’t mean that I scraped by with a D average, I mean that upon entering my junior year, I didn’t even have enough course credits to call myself a sophomore. Having come from an uber-liberal Jewish private school then thrown into the stream of public education, I had absolutely no idea how the system of earning grades and completing credits worked. However, I soon found out that not showing up to class for months at a time was not the path to graduation.

By the time it was brought to my attention (by my mother) that I needed to figure out a way to fit school into my busy schedule of smoking cigarettes and pot with men in their 20s, it was already late October of what was technically my third year of high school. While I am certain this wasn’t the first time my academic and behavioral issues had been called into question, my untreated ADD allowed me to be in a room with people screaming, “You need to get your sh*t together now!” and not retain a single word of the message.

So there I was, 16 years-old and as dense as a Christmas fruitcake. I have no idea what I thought was going to happen if I didn’t graduate high school, but I can tell you that I was 100% sure it was going to be fine. Whatever illusions the conformist society I had been born into had about the importance of education, they didn’t apply to me. I had never been a good student and would never be one, so why were people trying to force me to waste my time? My talents clearly laid in areas that these undynamic, unattractive educators could not understand—I was a sex pistol!!! (Upon reflection, I was actually relatively unimpressive physically and had no sense of style but apparently in Newton, Massachusetts in the early 90s, I was a 10.)

In a last ditch effort to parent me, my mother had me removed from the mainstream curriculum and placed in a special education program (that’s right, special ed) for truant teenagers called “New Start.” In this program, which was located on the otherwise deserted fourth floor of my school, classes were very small—with no more than 12 other degenerates who, like myself, were being offered one of the best public school educations in the country and could do nothing more than give it the proverbial middle finger. There were many more of us out there, but we dozen New Starters were the only ones who could muster up enough give-a-fuckness about our futures (or getting our parents off our backs) to actually show up.

Much to my chagrin, New Start was exactly where I needed to be. Huddled among other like-minded ingrates, the program employed a daily schedule that seemed to cater to my extra curricular drinking and drug habits. Mondays and Tuesdays, school commenced at 9 am and let out at 1 pm because, the New Starters figured, that was about all the learning we could take after a weekend of getting wasted. Wednesdays were full days, 7:30 am to 2:30 pm, and utterly brutal in our opinion but we surmised that it was probably necessary to meet the minimum requirements for education. Thursdays began promptly at noon because Lord knows we had to let out some steam (binge drink) after seven straight hours of rudimentary academics. Friday’s schedule was 9 am to 2:30 pm but the second half of the day was consumed by PE and art, so we felt justified in getting drunk during lunch, making it all good.

New Start’s credit-earning system was also quite questionable in that it allowed students to accumulate credits for things that were just basic tasks of mainstream students, like homeroom and lunch. When we weren’t being congratulated for simply showing up, we were busy earning credit for classes called Living Skills, Occupational Skills, Family Dynamics, Group Therapy, Independent Study, Work Study and something called “New Start Exploratory,” which if I recall correctly is where I learned how to give a proper blowjob.

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I completed a total of two English courses, two history courses and two math courses, attended no more than 24 hours of school a week and somehow, by the grace of this state-funded program, graduated at the very bottom of my class. Needless to say, I was excited! I had my whole life ahead of me and couldn’t wait to not go to college, get a minimum-wage job and start dating my 24-year-old mechanic! And not to brag, but that is exactly what I did. If there was one thing that New Start taught me, it was that I was capable of accomplishing anything I set my mind to.

Nine years later, when I finally realized that I wasn’t just going to naturally outgrow my love for binge drinking and destructive behavior, I was called upon to take a journey back inside myself—a place I had long ago strayed from—and muster up enough self-esteem and self-love to get into recovery. This was when I finally came to understand what New Start had really done for me. On the surface, the program allowed me to earn my high school diploma, but internally, the teachers, counselors and structure of New Start gave me a point of reference for personal transformation. No matter how shitty I behaved during my two years there, New Start always left the door open for me to walk back through when I was ready to stop being an asshole. It showed me what it meant to have people believe and care about you, which is very powerful, especially when those people didn’t give birth to you.

In 2003 when I was getting sober, I found myself putting a lot of trust and faith in ideas that New Start tried to impress upon me nine years before. They told me I was bright and capable and funny (they laughed at my jokes). They seem to find me charming and lovable and worthy of warmth and respect. Prior to that, at the Jewish private school, I had been the academically challenged kid whose dad was weird and not Jewish among countless being-groomed-for-Harvard kids from normal and stable upper-middle class families. I was always the half-Jewish black sheep with ADD, a story I would not have known could be re-written if it hadn’t been for New Start.

Two years into my sobriety, Facebook allowed me to reconnect with my old counselor from New Start whom I always loved. When I told her about quitting drinking and doing drugs, she asked if I might want to come back and talk to the current New Start kids about addiction and recovery. It was single-handedly the most ironic and rewarding thing I have ever done. While I am sure the kids couldn’t have cared less about anything I said, it was such a important healing experience for me to be able to give back to the program that had given me so much. But then again, how do you ever repay a program that taught you such vital life lessons like how to suck really good dick?

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Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.