I recently found out I’m on the spectrum. Autism Spectrum is a neurological condition that has been largely misunderstood through lenses of ignorance, prejudice, fear, and bigotry. Presently, there is a huge push from the Autistic community, increasing general awareness of how neurodiverse humanity truly is, while demanding more humane and compassionate means of support. There is a great amount of trauma and injustice endured by neuroatypical individuals, yet due to the utter lack of awareness from all sides, so many of us are just now figuring stuff out and speaking up enough to push for that change. In researching Autism and listening to countless personal accounts of neurodivergent individuals, I am inevitably finding myself reminiscing on my own childhood with newfound understanding and fresh perspective.
Thinking back to my years of public schooling, I was reminded how I was always trying to get out of class. Taking frequent trips to the nurse’s office was common, claiming to feel physically ill just to get away from the loud classroom, my peers, and (often) my teacher. Starting somewhere around my 4th grade year (and already my 5th school due to moving around so much), the nurse caught on pretty quickly after a couple times and would let me hang out a bit before sending me back, always checking my temperature to confirm. She would not send me home without a temperature, but was also one of the kindest of the staff. I enjoyed getting a time out in her company, even though I rested silently with my eyes closed on one of the cots.
Demanding a time out for myself away from all the noise and commotion in this way was not sustainable. I had to come up with some other means of getting out of class and, preferably, for longer periods of time.
We had a digital thermometer at home I loved playing with, so I started experimenting with TicTacs and Altoids under my tongue, thus discovering a cinnamon Altoid would completely dissolve within the time it took me to walk to the nurse’s office, and the heat in my mouth was strong enough to trip the thermometer’s sensor to read 102-104° F. I got sent home every time, much to my glorious satisfaction.
My childhood was full of these scenarios… little scientist circumventing the rules and outsmarting the Grumps (Star Trek TOS episode ‘Miri’ speak for ‘Grown-Ups’) in order to find peace and just be me.
(I will say this is something I am, to this day, delightfully tickled by. In many ways, that clever little sneak is still here.)
The trick ran its course when I hit middle school. Those nurses didn’t care, would actually find things to make fun of me about (yes, adult women poking fun at a distressed and possibly sick child), refused to take my temperature, and refused to allow me to call my mother.
I didn’t get along well with many teachers and even less so my peers. Often, when I would do really good work, my teachers would give me a failing grade anyway, saying there was no way I could’ve done it on my own. “Kids your age just aren’t that smart. You must’ve cheated,” they would conclude. When I stopped doing my homework altogether (because what was the point if they didn’t believe I did it anyway?), they threatened to put me in remedial ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, saying, “That must be where you belong, because you insist on making this difficult for us.” Yeah, you read that right. I insisted on making things difficult for them. That’s what these teachers thought ESL classes were for—kids they didn’t have the kindness, maturity, or patience to work with. Difficult kids. Bad kids. Kids they didn’t understand.
Once I hit high school, I just started skipping class altogether, be it hiding in a bathroom stall and reading, purposely wandering the hallways without a pass so I could go to Sweep, or finding some way off campus.
Sweep, by the way, is what some schools had to “punish” students for being “tardy.” Instead of attending class, you were required to sit in a room where no one was allowed to talk or interact with one another. You were not even allowed to do classwork. Three visits to strike out. After the third time of being “swept,” you were assigned detention. This usually meant the same thing as Sweep, for the same duration (just 30-50 minutes) after school on a Friday.
Punishment? Ha! Not for a kid who couldn’t get enough time in the peace and quiet of solitude. One of my favourite things to do was sit in silence and simply think. (Later, I would come to understand that much of my sitting in quiet was actually meditation.)
As proven by the Altoid experiment many years prior, I was also an accomplished sneak. I became very skilled at breaking rules I thought were illogical power plays against kids. I became equally skilled at getting away with it all. Although I would indeed just often sit there in Sweep and detention, I found ways to listen to my walkman or discman and read or do homework when it suited me.
Light from Darkness
The broken system had outs and loopholes for dejected weirdos like me, provided we couldn’t be muscled into fearing the inept yet forceful hand of fragile authority, wielded by equally inept yet forceful Grumps (i.e. overgrown toddlers having aged enough in years to be referred to as adults, but with little to no awareness of what it means to behave in a matured manner, particularly when in charge of youth).
My exploitation of the rules was not to undermine authority for the sake of rebellion or because I was a “bad kid.” Every day was an assault on my senses. Like grating nails on a chalkboard, tessellating across every fibre of my being, that still doesn’t accurately describe how overbearing and exhausting my K-12 years were.
What did I do with the venom of the public school system? I did my best to turn it into nectar. I learned how to defend myself against my peers and those who thought they had power over me. I got better at choosing my battles (sort of… lol). I became courageous enough to stand against injustices. I would speak up for those that had no voice or hadn’t found it yet. I became determined to lessen the suffering of those around me, if I could help it.
All of this and more because I was bullied by teachers and peers. I knew what it was like to be the little guy everyone was trying to squash. I knew the treatment I experienced for myself and witnessed happening to others was wrong and I wouldn’t stand for it.
My Own Worst Enemy
As good as I got at appearing unshakeably tenacious and resolute against cruelty, I would fall apart when alone at home. I was at war with myself, as most teenagers are, but I masked it all so well, it came off as self-confidence and strength.
Yet, all that built-up “strength” could not keep me from myself. Sometime after puberty, I started self-mutilating as means of coping with my ever-increasing depression. I became suicidal and nearly succeeded in taking my own life. Through that experience, I began to understand I was not here for myself.
My suffering was not about me. I was learning valuable lessons that I reluctantly began to trust as having some purpose. I, very slowly, started to appreciate my own magick of being.
The Cherished Few
I know I have not spoken too glowingly of teachers up to this point. As disheartening as it is, most of the adults in charge of children should not have been. I really like to think things are far better today than they were for me, but I have no idea.
There were, however, a handful of teachers through all my years of schooling, that were genuinely amazing people and teachers. They were the ones that noticed the shy, little odd girl, always in the back, reading or observing. They were the ones that saw when my face lit up and knew when they could get me to talk. They would listen to what I had to say and were super flexible when it came to my wanting to do my own thing in projects. They were the few adults besides my parents that encouraged me to be myself and explore my creativity in sharing my gifts and interests.
My 6th grade World History teacher, Mr Smith, for example, let me talk one day for a good 10 minutes straight about pirates, the term “sea dogs,” Sir Francis Drake’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, and how the English Navy had help from (i.e. for all intents and purposes, WERE) pirates to combat the Spanish and make England richer and more powerful than ever before. In a class that was only 30 minutes long, he gave me the floor for a third of that time. This is just one example of how empowered that guy made me feel every day.
My first band instructor, Mr Hoes, gloated about me any chance he got. He was floored by how naturally skilled I was at music. There were only two weeks in the whole school year that I wasn’t 1st Chair. Even then, it was a single rimshot or stick hit missed to one of two other girls in my class, making me 2nd Chair. I would earn back 1st Chair the following week.
These happy days of percussion were threatened by a new school, new instructor for 7th and 8th grade. Despite my constant battling with this second band instructor (I was starting to get really good at sticking up for myself and not taking anyone’s shit), I continued to excel as 1st Chair. At Texas’ year-end academic competitions known as UIL (short for University Interscholastic League), I was awarded 1st Divisions across the board for my solo performances.
Fast forward a few years to my Junior year in high school, again a different school, this time in a different state. While the teacher of my first period got into the habit of taking away whatever book I had at the start of each class, locking it in her desk drawer, and threatening me with failing grades despite finishing her mindless busy work early, my English teacher loved me.
Ms Culbertson was an incredible person, full of wisdom and kindness. She would commend me on how well-written and vibrantly entertaining my example sentences were on vocabulary quizzes. She would even work them into teaching materials for the class later. We would have lengthy conversations about Shakespeare and any book I was reading. She would also point out that I seemed to have a different book everyday. “You read books like a fish breathes water, girl!” She included me on prepping for classes every now and then, valuing my ability to communicate difficult concepts to my peers through engaging, entertaining activities. Some days she still comes to mind and I find myself wishing we never lost contact.
Eye of the Beholder
Mr Smith, Mr Hoes, Ms Culbertson, and very few others over many years, didn’t see a difficult or irritating enigma. They didn’t see a mute, yet horrible little demon there to test their patience. They didn’t see a stupid, uncontrollable child that refused to do what she’s told.
They saw a brilliant mind, exploding with curiosity and wonder. They saw a joyously free spirit, too authentic to be clad in iron rules. They saw a bookworm, an artist, musician, scientist, and historian.
They saw a tiny little human who knew who she was and LIKED who she was… A tiny human who played by her own rules but didn’t want anyone to feel hurt… A bright little soul that wanted nothing more than peace and joy for herself and everyone. They saw Me. They saw Ada.
The Crux of the Biscuit
Why share all this? Why do any of our neuroatypical stories about schooldays past matter?
If you are a teacher or perhaps considering to become one, please, please, please, make every effort to see the truth in each child. Please be the kind, mature, and understanding adult our youth so desperately needs. Every child is full of smart magick, wholly unique to them, but not every child is seen as such. Not every child is treated as such. If you cannot love children for who they are and meet them where they’re at, you do not belong in teaching.
I was fortunate that my parents and sisters saw my beauty and celebrated it. I was fortunate to have a safe, loving home to return to each day. Despite the abuse from my teachers, the fights (often physical) with my peers, and the bullying from both, I would go home to solace and acceptance. Many children are not so fortunate. After a long day of abuse at school, they return home to endure even more abuse, often violent. Had I been born to different parents, born into a different home environment, I may not have made it to my 18th birthday.
As teachers of children, it becomes a responsibility to love each child and celebrate their beauty. We must see children for who they are, not what we think they should be. (Read that once more.)
It is also important to note (this time, with compassion) that every adult is nothing more than an aged child. So many adults have been invisible to the world around them, swept through the cracks or into the sidelines. Some of these lost and forgotten people become what they hated most, as they, themselves, are forced to survive cruel and uncaring conditions. When children are raised in cruel and uncaring environments, they learn such as the only way to exist, thus becoming cruel and uncaring adults that continue the pattern of abuse. We are all capable of breaking that pattern. We are all capable of being better.
Every person, regardless of age, deserves to be seen for the wondrous truth they are. We must strive to see that truth, that beauty, that goodness, in everyone we meet.
Thank you for showing up as the brilliant, most beautifully authentic you every day, whatever that looks like.
Remember, each day is different. So too can you be different each day.
Thank you for all the love you are and share with the world.
Live Long and Prospurr.
With Love, Always.