A Case Against the Mainstream by Denise Gosliner Orenstein

What school principal in her right mind brings a Shetland Pony to an assembly in the gymnasium?

And what is to be done when there’s an unfortunate, odorous explosion all over the blue and white striped linoleum floor?  When you’re trying to introduce an innovative curriculum to a suspicious faculty and restless student body?

You smile weakly and call for someone to bring a hose.

My new novel, DIRT, was inspired by my experiences integrating two spunky, rescued Shetlands into a curriculum for students with learning differences. Yonder, the books’s narrator, suffers from selective mutism as a result of her mother’s death, but finds deep connection with a neighbor’s rebellious pony. The bond that they share allows them to save one another from untenable circumstances.

Shetlands are notoriously cheeky, and I learned this first hand when welcoming the school’s new ponies, Duncan and McNeil, to the campus one snowy winter day. Thrilled that the two had finally arrived, I greeted the students gleefully from inside the paddock, my boots deep in drifts, hair frozen to my cheeks, as the two rambunctious newcomers frolicked, kicking up so much white fluff that I could barely see.  As the confused parents drove their children past me toward the carpool line, I waved, delighted with myself and the school’s new frisky friends. After all, what could be better than snow and ponies?

I realize now, I must have looked ridiculous standing there, face frozen crimson, knit panda hat slipping past my eyes, a yellow scarf flung around my neck, and my legs slowly sinking into mounds of snow. One of the ponies, probably McNeil, nipped the other on its bottom, then raced around manically, suddenly skidding to a snowy stop right in front of me.  Of course, I fell smack on my back.

So much for dignity.

Retrieved from a home where they were no longer wanted, Duncan and McNeil were both short, fat, and strikingly filthy, their long, shaggy winter coats knotted with hay and all kinds of mysterious debris. The snow only added to their unkempt appearance: two hairy mastodons frosted with snowy ice, snorting loudly, their manes whipping back and forth in glittering symmetry.

It wasn’t long until I realized that many of the hard working faculty felt that our new animal friends were a waste of energy and of money.  Why bother spending time on two unruly ponies when there was so much to cover in the mandated school curriculum, so much pressure on teachers to provide student achievement and to give the children the skills they needed to transition into a mainstream school.  After all, wasn’t it the school’s goal to help our students mainstream into traditional schools?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

Our students, labeled as learning disabled, were bright, funny, talented, quirky, energetic and often heartbreakingly naive.  They saw the world through wonderfully unique lenses, their approaches to learning original,  their individual  talents stunning. Of course, there were important skills to be taught and obstacles to overcome, but there were also extraordinary gifts to be recognized, plumbed, and celebrated.

Duncan and McNeil seemed to bring out the best in our students, and even highlight their hidden, unique abilities. The timid boy, hesitant to join a sports team or speak up in class, found confidence in masterfully leading Duncan through a simple obstacle course. The girl who had difficulty interpreting social cues, learned to read McNeil’s emotions by observing the position of his ears, the cock of his hind legs, the curl of his lips.  The english class, struggling with the written word, delighted in composing vivid descriptions of their new found companions, and the science students made a habit of stopping at the nurse’s office to have their blood pressure taken before and after visiting the stable. It was always lower after.

Those struggling with fine motor skills braided manes with silk ribbons.  Those with with coordination challenges practiced posture and gait, circling the paddock, tether in hand. On weekends, students lured their parents on campus to help with pony feeding and exercise. Sometimes, Duncan and McNeil were even invited to student birthday parties as honored guests. Of course, they were always the highlights.

But the students adored them and learned to become comfortable with what previously was unfamiliar: the bulk of a two hundred pound pony trotting at their sides, the musky odor of a barn and the unavoidable mounds found on the barn floor, the concentration required to examine a hoof and to remove any small stones or gravel.  They learned that when you give a command, it may take a few minutes to be acknowledged and obeyed, that a pony’s muzzle is softer than velvet, that if you give a quick kiss the snout, you may receive a damp smooch right back, and that despite a horse’s size and strength, the gentle touch of a small hand can lead straight ahead. The spirited students learned how to calm their own restless energy, so they could quiet that of the ponies; they learned patience and empathy, something often missing in the educational system designed for traditional students in traditional schools.

DIRT is meant to be a celebration of nonconformity, and a plea to take notice of children who are overlooked, to uncover the gifts in students who walk a different road.  While Yonder doesn’t talk, she is still able to make herself heard and initiate change in her lonely world.  Her story doesn’t shirk from bleak descriptions of unsettling, unfortunate circumstances, but also highlights the power of a young girl’s voice when she is unable to utter a single word.


Denise Gosliner Orenstein was previously the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University, as well as the Head of School at the Centreville School in Delaware. Denise has also taught in fourteen Alaskan bush villages, served as a mentor in the Pen-Faulkner Prison Writing Program, and worked in a canine therapy program with her beloved Saint Bernard, Annabelle. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.