Alex was three years younger than Kevin. He could read a little and was unable to learn the multiplication tables. Most dramatically, he could not write, often drawing a picture of himself without any hands. He was a big, handsome, blonde kid, laid back, who would fish at every opportunity. Give him a chance and he would have a fishing pole over his shoulder, heading for the river. He rarely spoke and stayed to himself. He never spoke about his brother except once. “I’m not going to wind up like Kevin.” He and his parents grieved within the walls of their home, Ronnie never recovering. But one day I got a call from Suzanne. She wanted Alex to go to a residential school that specialized in dysgraphia, the written language piece of dyslexia. She wanted to save the one boy she had left. Because of the heartbreaking circumstances the Coales experienced, the private school agreed to take Alex at a much lower tuition rate provided a hearing was done to reimburse them for the full tuition costs.
Throughout this period, Ronnie and Suzanne met a young attorney named Neil. He wanted to learn special education law and to help parents like them. His father was a school administrator in Brandywine and had been abused by the system. I met him on several evenings, sitting on the living room floor of the Coale’s home and answering questions about special education. He was getting his law degree and promised that once he passed the Delaware bar exam, he would prosecute all of those responsible for abandoning Kevin. He would specialize in representing parents in due process hearings. He made many promises to the Coales over the four years I knew him. He never kept a single one. He learned on the backs of their grief and vulnerability, took other parent’s cases, and finally turned away from them completely. Much later I saw an affidavit he wrote about the corruption of the Delaware system. He said that no Delaware attorney would take a special education case because of the reprisals it would cost them. He never told that to Suzanne and Ronnie. He was the only lawyer they ever believed in, Suzanne functioning as his paralegal and special education adviser while he got his practice started. After he was invited to join a major firm his entire personality changed. With that change came an unwillingness to work to change the system. He said that he filed lawsuits on Coale’s behalf, but neither parent knew if what he said was true. Nothing came of Neil’s years of talk about change except that he got rich and the Coale’s lost their house.
I did Alex’s trial for reimbursement. By now the air was so polluted in Delaware that my very presence in the room made people fidget in their chairs and frequently leave the room. But there was nobody else. The hearing panel refused to let in key exhibits, limited the scope of questioning, and minimized the enormity of Alex’s disability. They pointed to the Coale’s history of litigation with the district. Coales pointed to Suzanne’s daughter from her first marriage, who had graduated from Delaware schools. Alex wanted to come to the first day of hearing. I’d explained that he would probably loose the hearing and would not understand much of what was said. He said he understood but since it was about him he wanted to come anyway. He would leave if he got “bored”. By noon of the opening day he asked to go home. He didn’t understand the fancy words used but knew that somebody was “real mad”. He asked me why the panel yelled at me but not at the Brandywine lawyer. He wanted to go back to his residential school where he had learned to read, to write, use the computer, and where he had friends who were interested in learning and going to college. “Why don’t they just send me there already?”
By now the Coales were deeply in debt. They had paid Neil and borrowed money to put Alex in school. They argued constantly with each other. And as happens under such pressure and sorrow, they grew apart. If only they could win this hearing for Alex or make a record so compelling as to attract a big firm. They wanted it for Alex and they wanted it for Kevin. Normally a vivacious and pretty woman, Suzanne had grown very pale and barely moved. Ronnie fought his demons, too. He’d lost his job and could not find work. Brandywine and Delaware could smell blood in the water and circled their prey. The panel was so clearly under the control of the State, a party in the case, it should have been embarrassing to all present. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The Coales had become a blood-sport for the State, who now openly went for their throat. They lost the hearing and could not find an attorney. Neil did not return their calls.
By now it was the year 2000. I was barred from doing any more hearings in Delaware. One day to my surprise, Suzanne called. She asked if I would help them just one more time. She wanted Alex to have another try at a residential school and he wanted to go. He had become almost nonverbal upon his return to Brandywine. How would this work, I thought? Didn’t she know that if I came back to Delaware it would be a catastrophe? She would never win it. She would never win anything in Delaware because her name was Coale and my name was Arons. I spoke with the three of them to make sure they understood the hopelessness of this hearing, and to see if it was something all of us should invest time on, given the past. We were entering uncharted waters. In the end, we all agreed to try.
I moved into the Coale’s house for a week before the hearing. Together we prepared questions and learned where statements were in essential exhibits. We practiced direct and cross- examination, each parent taking a line of questioning. Alex watched briefly a few times, then walked out of the room. He had painted his bedroom before I came so that I “had a nice place to sleep.” He slept on the living room sofa.
From the first day of the hearing to the last was torture. Suzanne had significant auditory processing problems and neither she nor Ronnie could read surprise exhibits fast enough to know what they said. Objections were made by Brandywine using legal language and citations of law. Then the panel looked at the Coales for a response and they looked at me. I would write down the answer or whisper to them. The DAG would yell, “Mrs. Arons, you are whispering too loudly. We are not supposed to be able to hear you or you will have to leave.” Neither parent had any idea what was happening, and did not know what to say. After a long silence, one of the panelists said, “Would you like to go outside and take a break?” We did. I wrote out what their reply should be and we went back in. Ronnie wanted to read it out loud, thinking that Kevin was watching him from heaven and would be proud. He practiced a few times before we went back inside. The hearing started again and Ronnie’s hands shook. He looked at me. “I can’t read your writing.” Suzanne took it and tried to respond. Then they both started to cry.
Ronnie and Suzanne divorced. The last I knew, Alex lived with Ronnie and Suzanne has remarried. As parents their energy was spent on fighting for their children so that there was not enough left for each other. This happens often. Alex went to a vocational school where he received a diploma. At minimum over the six years, they provided employment for lawyers, expert witnesses, a private school, a court stenographer, and gas stations. I didn’t drive at the time so that Ronnie drove me back and forth between New Jersey and Delaware. They lost their marriage and their oldest son. Their youngest purposefully disengaged so that what happened to his brother would never happen to him. All were burned to death in the coal-burning furnace of a state that honors only the rich, leaving just tiny pieces of soot in the memory and the wanting of what should have been.