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This is a personal narrative. I have a few points I want to make about what we, as a culture, as a country, as a people, have come to value. But mainly I want to tell you about a boy, a man, a life. I hope you will forgive this personal indulgence.

I am a special educator; I train special education teachers. In the 1980s, I was a special education teacher living in a small mill town in the Deep South. The kids I taught had mild intellectual disabilities; in those days we called it educable mental retardation (EMR), because these kids could learn to read, write and do basic math. They had difficulty with problem solving, impulse control, complex language and social skills.

I loved my job and I loved those kids. They were quirky and funny. They had no filters; what they thought, they said. They laughed; they cried; they fought; they struggled. It was junior high. As one of my present colleagues says, kids that age vibrate.

Lucan was one of the most unforgettable of the group. His name was not really Lucan, it was Derrick. But the other EMRs labeled him Lucan, because they claimed he was raised by wolves. Now if the other special education kids say you were raised by wolves, you certainly are off the beaten path. Luke was small and dark and strong. He was eternally cheerful and friendly. He didn’t talk much but was everyone’s buddy. I do not remember him ever getting in a fight or having an argument. He loved to stir up the room by randomly walking up to someone and saying, “Yo mama”.

He was, however, very fearful. He came from a family that believed in harsh physical punishment. His uncle was the shop teacher at our school. He told me if I ever had problems with Luke to send him to the shop. I tried this once. Luke fell into a fetal position and began screaming. He ran away. The next day his uncle told me he found him that night in bed “pretending” to be asleep. He dragged him out of bed and beat him.

Luke was labeled as having an emotional disability, as well as being EMR. The teacher who was supposed to work with him for a couple hours a week was a tall black woman with a gold front tooth with a star etched on it. This really bothered Luke. When she would come for him he would yell, “I am not going anywhere with that woman with that gold tooth in her mouth!!” One time he led her and the janitor on a merry chase up and down the halls trying to avoid his session. He ended up in the kneehole of the counselor’s desk. The counselor suggested it might not be a good day for a session. One day he disappeared before his session. We found him three hours later curled up in a closet asleep.

When he got to high school they “lowered” his label; he was now TMR (trainable mentally retarded); perhaps he might be trained for a job. He began getting in trouble. He was caught breaking in to a local discount store; it was directly across from the police station. They could hear the alarm inside the station, came out onto the city hall steps and saw him bounding out the door. He was not convicted of anything; some older boys put him up to it.

I moved the next year and lost track of Luke. The last time I saw him, he was walking through town with a red wagon, collecting bottles.

So why this story now?  Because last week I ran across his obituary online. He died two years ago at age 45. On the funeral home website there were half a dozen notes from friends and family. They were still calling him Lucan. There was tender affection. How he always had a big smile for everybody, and a friendly word.

My point? My point is: what is the measure of a man? Who has value? This man was not productive. Never held a job. Lived his life on SSI. Strong, healthy, but not skilled. Low in comprehension. Low in problem solving. Inadequately trained. From a family just like him. Erratic, unpredictable. These are not lazy people or immoral people. They are people on the margins. We don't have a place for them

Our  conservative neighbors have come to lionize the job creators. Elevated them to a revered status. Our country has descended into a caste system that would make the Indians proud. The Wall Street Brahmins; General Petraeus and his Kshatriya; the Chamber of Conference and the Vaishya; the Shudras begging for a job; and the Untouchables who include my sunshiny Lucan. What happened to the American dream?

Originally posted to vickijean on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 08:56 PM PST.

Also republished by Tell the Story and Community Spotlight.

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