A Noble Quest

The idea of a quest is appealing: overcoming obstacles, fighting foes (real or imagined), emerging victorious. It’s a noble prospect, this idea of seeking that which is difficult or fraught with danger. I am, however, more Don Quixote-like than King Arthur-esque, so any form of actual questing is somewhat foreign to me. Until recently.

To fulfill a promise to my daughter, I went on a quest to obtain a prerelease order for a small action-figure doohickey. I understand that these figurines fetch an attractive sum on eBay, and I had heard that the method of releasing them was creating a buyers’ frenzy of sorts. Not to worry, I assured her, mom is on the job.

I learned from previous stories of prereleases gone sour that one should arrive well before the store opening. I thought it would be sufficient – more than sufficient, actually – if I got to the store three hours before it opened. Based on the information we had from other prereleases, this was probably optimistic, but like all good Don Quixotes, I was ever hopeful.

On questing day, I packed the car with a folding chair, charged my e-reader and phone, filled a thermos with coffee, and rode (okay, drove) out in search of windmills to fight – I mean, action figures to preorder. I expected to be alone by my big girl self when I arrived. I was wrong. A trio of early-bird enthusiasts was comfortably ensconced in their chairs, typing away on their tablets. I greeted them with a perky, “Hello!” That might not have been correct questing etiquette, but they all offered, grumbled, or otherwise muttered their return greetings. By 7:00, there were 10 of us in line. By 8:00, the line had doubled. By 9:00, the line had doubled again, and our souls had been saved by a cheerful Jehovah’s Witness who was as interested in our quest as in the potential of our eternal spirits.

At 9:30, the penultimate moment, a disgruntled member of the toy emporium came out with the preorder slips – a noticeably thin stack. She passed out her entire stack of 10, only 10, slips. I was shocked. Less than a third of the line received this most precious paper slip. I began to fret; visions of Black Friday stampedes ran through my head as I held my preorder slip tighter in my grip. Memories of fistfights in parking lots during the holiday season flashed in my mind, the time of year and the behavior of otherwise well-mannered adults standing in stark contrast to each other. Still, I held on to that preorder slip.

I watched many of my line companions trudge away. A confused grandma’s shoulders sagged as she hoisted her bag, muttering that she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about anyway. The gentlemen ahead of me in line boasted to each other about how they had the whole collection and were planning on making a mint on eBay. I decided I didn’t like them much. The girl behind me had been waiting all this time for her brother. I decided she was my questing partner.

When the doors to the store opened, I got in line to pay for my preorder. When it was my turn, the computer crashed. Quests, in case you haven’t heard, are not for the weak of heart. I wasn’t out on some fantastic imaginary battlefield swiping at windmills; I was in line getting ready to swipe my charge card. Access denied? Oh. My. After at least an eternity (or five minutes, take your pick), the red-faced clerk resuscitated the machine. I paid for the preorder, and walked quickly out of the store before some cranky computer entity could change its mind and undo my order.

I was ebullient, truly joyful. Not only had I managed to do a kindness for my daughter, I had achieved a specific goal. Passing time with a group of strangers who had a likeminded goal was, I admit, kind of fun. I was not part of the “in-group” who actually understood the value of the object, but I was part of the spirit of the moment. I could have failed in my quest, I could have become like the bucketheads in front of me and been all arrogant, but mostly I was just grateful. I texted my daughter with an update, and she responded WITH JOY AND EFFUSIVE CAPITALIZATION. I then went to work and returned Don Quixote to the land of imagination and fable.

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The Love Bug

I’m not going to write about that besmircher of bumpers Floridians call love bugs. My love bug is a hand-made craft using cork and foam hearts hot glued together to resemble a butterfly. As background information, every February my school organizes a fundraiser in which people buy lollipops and hand-made “love bugs” for their friends, teachers, families, etc. The funds go toward school events. This year the lollipops and love bugs abounded, with a veritable colony of students buzzing about delivering the edible and/or decorate-able tokens. I received mine gladly, each lollipop adding to my treat jar in the classroom while I saved the heart-shaped notes and put them in my rainy day file.

The rainy day file is a file of notes, letters, illustrations and student or parent-created missives that many teachers keep on hand to remind us why we teach. When life gets dreary, when too many meetings have overlapped, when deadlines loom too large, it is common (and common sense) for us to look through our file and recharge. Last week, the testing schedule had me internally reciting my own version of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then you and I
to test and retest until we feel like
patients etherized upon a table.

I grew old last week, measured out my life in coffee spoons, and didn’t really talk much of Michelangelo (all T. S. Eliot). I felt depleted. Smooshed. Crushed under the weight of the testing mill. I could only imagine – or project—how the students felt. This, for anyone who wonders, is not why people teach. This is why people quit teaching.

When I’m fatigued, or in this particular case, burnt out, I tend to feel a little disconnected from my daily life, which is why it’s no surprise I began playing with the phrases of good ole J Alfred. Then it happened: I was returning to my classroom when I noticed a hand-crafted love bug on my ramp. It had been rained on, but was still intact. I picked it up to throw it out and noticed that it was addressed to me and contained a note from a friend. It must have fallen out of the goody box when my lollipops were delivered in February. I chuckled, thankful that my portable protects dropped objects from the elements.

The love bug reminded me of the need to stay connected with others, particularly during stressful times. I wonder how much I have hunkered my head down these last few weeks rather than express my gratitude and appreciation for those around me. A heartfelt note or text might make the difference in someone else’s day, or at least in how they perceive it.

I thanked my friend belatedly for the love bug, and I have now committed myself to deliver a love-bug note to my colleagues and friends over the next few weeks. It’s not going to change how any of us feel about testing, or about this time of the school year, but I am absolutely certain that it doesn’t hurt someone to let them know they’re important, loved, appreciated.

A long week

It’s been a long week today. I mean this experientially if not exactly. Today has been extralong, as if, in the act of going through this day, I created a warp in the space-time continuum and began floating willy-nilly among time. While I am a carpe diem kind of gal, I am not a carpe this diem and the next few diems for good measure kind of gal.

Today was a standardized testing day. The students approached their testing like the troopers they are, with equal parts determination and courage. We squared our collective and metaphorical shoulders and hunkered down. The clock ticked to remind us that, contrary to our sensation, time was indeed passing. When the final pencil was placed on the table and the last head thumped in a combination of exhaustion and relief, we collected the booklets, turned them in, and went outside to play.

I had to squint my eyes against the sunshine; it felt like it ought to be dusk already. I heard the students’ screeching and laughter, the whining and petty arguments that naturally follow a sudden release of stress. After about 20 minutes, we went back inside to resume our regularly scheduled day. The problem with this, though, was that it wasn’t a regularly scheduled day. When half the day has been eaten up attempting to find answers to arbitrarily worded questions, the day is not normal.

The part of today that makes this week so long is that the students have more testing tomorrow, and more after that. I am pretty sure Sisyphus himself would say, “Nope, I’ll take the rock up that hill; you keep taking those standardized tests.” Meanwhile, we’ll be spending small eternities deciding whether a) or b) is more correct, or whether c) all of the above or d) none of the above are true.

I am looking forward to time resuming its normal measure.

(Note: I wrote this on Monday; I just didn’t post until today because time is still a little messed up!)

 

The Awesome Power of Caregivers

Don’t worry my friends who enjoy the more frivolous commentary of my blog – I’ll return to my regularly scheduled whimsy soon. At the moment, I have picked up my puzzle-shaped coat-of-arms and joined my brothers and sisters on our quest to spread autism awareness throughout the land. We’re the Knights of the Spectrum Roundtable, and I can assure you, that table is a perfect 360 degrees; no lopsided ovoids for us.

I’ll be hopping analogies, metaphors, and all types of figurative language today, so I hope you’ve eaten your breakfast. To continue: Parenting, I have been told, is tricky. Parenting a kiddo with autism is tricky, with a capital T, fire shooting out of its mouth, spoken in a foreign language, looking at the world below from the precipice of a cliff with angry mobs prodding our backs, while other people tell us to have faith and climb on down, but we’re afraid of heights.

Fear or not, we have to make our way down that cliff. There are probably those of you who want me to provide a lovely image of making my way up a hill and standing on top of the mountain all victorious, a Rocky of Autism Mommahood. That image doesn’t work for me. I don’t mind an uphill battle; I don’t mind hard work, sweat and tears. I mind failing, I mind falling, I mind crashing, so my mental model is all about the fall.

I am not at war with autism. I refuse to capitalize it unless it’s part of a title, but that’s just my way of showing a word who’s boss. I am not tired of fighting my way through the educational system I’m proud to be a part of. A huge part of my experience as a warrior on behalf of people with special needs has been in reframing other people’s ideas and assumptions anyway.

We, the warriors, learn how to rappel down the developmental cliffs with the people we care for, providing a safe landing on firmer ground. We learn how to tell a buckethead practitioner from 20 paces away, and we can stop a patronizing discussion before it begins. We also know how to ignore the helpful commentary of strangers while our loved ones are melting down. We develop thick skins; most importantly, at some point we learn how to recognize that we didn’t tame the dragon, we harnessed our own.

Our best weapon is a combination of knowledge, endurance, and practice. Humor helps, of course, hence the faulty allusions to either Camelot or the Game of Thrones, depending on how old you are. The battles are emotionally bloody; we fight to secure a future in which our children and loved ones can be productive, happy. We have every reason to think that they should be, and I know it’s worth a cliff dive or two (metaphorically, please) to ensure that all people have access to their futures. Did I tell you anything new about autism? Nope. I hope, however, that we all understand that warrior-parents and caregivers, their teachers, therapists and service providers, are a formidable army of awesome and we need to continue wielding our power so that all people have access to early intervention, quality care, and the necessary supports to be successful.

 

Autism Awareness – a month of ruminations

April is Autism Awareness Month, a month of information and fellowship I have often viewed with a combination of dread and a fist-bump. Yep, the fist-bump of dread, that sounds about right. I am a gentle warrior advocating on behalf of those who have autism spectrum disorders, but it is important to note that the ‘gentle’ part of my warrior-ness in no way implies I’m not capable of breaking out a can of rhetorical whoop-ass if I need to.

I am told that “everyone” already understands what autism is and that I should concentrate my energy elsewhere. “Everyone” apparently lives in other communities because my own is still riddled with people who don’t speak the language of autism awareness. I am going to break down autism as I have come to understand it, with love and a sense of humor during this month. I have one goal: that “everyone”, whether you’re tired of people talking about autism, your life has been touched with autism, or you are on the spectrum yourself, will walk away thinking.

We begin: my own adventures in autism awareness are humble. I did not study autism and receive a Ph.D. in diagnosis and intervention. I am the proud mom of a person with autism, so I have 21 years of field experience. I am also a teacher with 11 years of experience working in exceptional student education. I have been hanging around with autism for a longish time. I do not, however, have autism myself, so anything I can communicate to you is not based on the essential, experiential component of living in the head of someone on the spectrum. We are social scientists, all of us, prone to classify and subdivide people based on certain characteristics, but no matter how much we read or how successful our interventions are (and many are pretty great), we don’t have a base-level understanding of living on the spectrum. That only comes from the individuals who live with autism themselves.

Thank goodness for Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet, Nedi Safa and Matt, John Eder Robison and others who have shared their perspectives on growing up with autism. They are my heroes. Please read anything written by them for a factual, experiential understanding about autism spectrum disorders. Please also inform yourself . Go to www.cdc.gov, or www.nimh.gov, for a sense of autism’s pervasiveness, its cost (both economic and emotional), its pathology and etiology: these are the numbers and non sequitors to share when you’re discussing autism in a more philosophical, less living-it-and-doing-the-day kind of approach.

I am more of a do-the-day kind of person. In my research, case studies, and intervention work, I read a lot. A whole heckofalot. I love fiction as much as non, and one of my favorite books with a main character who has autism is Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark. She explores a world in which an experimental treatment for autism exists. The main character, Lou, has autism and has been offered this experimental treatment. He has to then decide what that means for him. The book delves into a question so many of us can ignore in our daily lives: if you could take away your disability, would you?

That’s a tricky question, one that can crash into a horrifying discussion of eugenics. I keep my blogs short on purpose, so I can only recommend you read the book. To offer my answer to that question, many of us who love and/or teach people with autism work ceaselessly for greater understanding, better interventions, effective supports for people on the spectrum. That does not imply that we’re looking to get rid of a set of characteristics. As Temple Grandin and others point out, autism also has its strengths. We spend a huge amount of energy addressing the deficits and more compelling differences of autism while also devoting the needed time building skills, challenging and motivating individuals achieve their potential. That is no less important than challenging, building skills and motivating, our typically developing brothers and sisters – we just sometimes forget to put on both interventional pant legs and end up falling on our keisters.

Autism Awareness Month, then, is a great month to spend some time thinking about that which makes us human. Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference, and neurodiversity is the stuff of life. I can’t imagine a world in which we’re all the same, and I wouldn’t presume to be the one to judge the quality of someone else’s life based on a set of criteria. We all have the right to live our lives with dignity and a giggle or two, and the obligation to respect others’ right to the same. This is me, “lighting it up blue” during the month of April, with fist bumps to all.

 

Why I Love Teaching

Teachers have such a questionable reputation we seem to need smexy actors to say how grateful they are to have had us in their lives. We’re talking some pretty serious (or, in the case of Matt Damon, plain ole pretty) celebrity endorsements of a system that, love it or lump it, is necessary. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach – right? Ummm, no.

Those who can, do their greatnesses and make their contributions because someone cared enough about them to push them, to guide them, to motivate them into becoming the great Whatever that they are. I know that we want to think we did everything all by ourselves, but we didn’t. We like to use Einstein as our great example of someone who didn’t follow a traditional educational path. After all, he failed his school entrance exams and was dropped from a math class. The fact that people use one of the most self-directed learners in human history as an example of how education fails the population overall is laughable. Einstein was beyond motivated by the world; he was obsessed with it, beginning with his fascination with a compass when he was five. However we feel about the legends, Einstein’s inspiration to pursue physics was, drum roll please, a physics teacher.

We can rattle off laundry lists of the teachers who wronged us in some way, but what about the ones who made a positive difference? I have three. My first was my seventh grade math teacher, Mr. Shorb. I was a year behind my brother in school and had become accustomed to the standard comparisons of who was better in academic subject X or sport Y or attribute Z. It was annoying. Comparing people between each other is a detriment to both, which is a post for another time. Mr. Shorb was a Very Popular Teacher. As I reflect on his contributions to education as an adult, he had amazing classroom management, a great sense of humor – and, get this – loved his subject.

I had been doing my usual academic job of doing well but not too well as to stand out, when he pulled me aside one day. I was convinced I was in trouble because I hadn’t memorized the poem we were all given to recite for extra credit. He reminded me that I was still one of the highest performing students in the class even without the extra credit and that, even if I wasn’t as good as my brother in math (which he said was only possible, not probable) I had every reason to be proud of myself without comparison. What?! I had not heard those words before. Not only did he separate me from the comparison mill, he gave me reason to think I could shine all by myself. Thanks, Mr. Shorb.

Mr. Raftery was my high school educational guru; he was my independent study teacher my senior year. I read the books and told him what I was going to write about; he graded my work. He offered advice on revision and literary analysis. He donated his time once/twice per week to hang out and talk books and thought. I kept the books we read together as a reminder of how amazing teachers can be. Mr. Raftery, you are one of my favorite people. Ever.

One teacher, however, stands out above the rest. Ms. Amy wasn’t even my teacher; she was my son’s. When I walked into her room and saw the other children and the classroom, I had an “Aha!” moment that resonates today. Teaching and learning, when authentic, is extraordinary. This was a room where the students were respected, challenged, encouraged, motivated, and celebrated. Through the countless waves of educational reform, one fact remains: good teaching is good teaching. It looks different to different people, because we all have different needs. Ms. Amy is the reason I dropped the career path I was on and enrolled in graduate school to become a teacher myself.

I have three powerful role models guiding me through every day I have in the classroom. Like Mr. Shorbes, I want to see each child as unique unto themselves. Like Mr. Raftery, I want to spend a couple times a week talking books and imagery, or sports and math with a student who wants to spend more time on an area of interest. Like Ms. Amy, I want each of my students to know I celebrate them and assume a level of competence they don’t know they have. Yet.

I love education because I haven’t removed myself from the learning and teaching cycle. I hope I never do. Our jobs are difficult and too many people misunderstand or devalue what we try to do as teachers. My goal isn’t a score on a student’s standardized test or an excellent performance review – my motivator is that I hope one person remembers me as a person who taught them they were unique, worth the attention, and capable.