Monday, April 8, 2019

Speak Up, Shut Up

Art by Emily Winfield Martin

Am I on the autism spectrum myself? People have joked that I am, behind my back but supposedly with love. Did I really never talk when I was in preschool and early elementary school? I know I did. At home I did, anyway. I was the Master of Ceremonies, Kermit the Frog of the Muppet Show, ordering my little sisters around. At school? I don’t know. I remember lots of people, teachers and students alike, being concerned that I “didn’t talk.” This perplexed me. How could I talk when no one was starting a conversation with me? What was I supposed to do? Just, like…talk? To nobody? To anybody? It made no sense.

But all through school I was weird, weird, weird. Too bossy at home with my sisters, too introverted everywhere else. There was a little success in being funny; in making fun of myself before it occurred to anybody else. Now that was a crowd pleaser. Making myself the joke. Meanwhile I was studying the normal people and trying to learn how be like them. Had it pretty well mastered just in time to go to college and be sneered at by all the people who were cultivating weird. Again…it made no sense.

Eventually I figured out who and how I actually wanted to be, and life got good. I put the weird years behind me, never fully believing I’d been particularly weird in the first place. Even then, I blamed it on context. Normal old Berks County, PA not knowing what to make of a girl who was sometimes funny and sometimes didn’t even talk. Didn’t let the door hit me on the ass on the way out. Found my people, found my friends, found my lovers, found this job and that, found my way.

There was a part of me that was always afraid it would show in up the gene pool, though. And sure enough, it did…but not at all in the way I was expecting. For there was The Boy in all his fierce and furious glory. Oh, he talked all right. He was athletic and smart. And he was fearless, or so it seemed. I was so relieved and proud.

Until….well. We know this part of the story. The Boy’s on the autism spectrum, and having a name for it ignited my own dormant superpowers, and I blasted my way back into a teaching career, running back into some figurative burning building to save everyone else now that I’ve saved my own child and myself.

You know who hates that origin story? Administrators. Even the good ones. Save everyone? From a figurative burning building? I don’t know where they all learned how to do this, but they all know how…they can somehow just switch off their mirror neurons at will and become a vacuum devoid of any and all social cues. I’ve seen it so much now, from my own son’s IEP meetings to casual conversations with colleagues. You have to stay “positive,” where “positive” is defined as “never critical of the school district in any capacity, ever.”  Speak up. But also…shut up. Even my non verbal social cues are too much. Too much nodding in sympathy, too much eyebrow raising, validating some family’s narrative that could land us all in hot water if we don’t watch out.

When I was brand new, and working in a building where it never occurred to anybody to see me as much of a threat, an angry mom showed up in the office during 3rd period. The office called to tell me. They asked discretely if I wanted them to call security. I said no. Instead, I asked them to send up someone to cover my class and told them I was coming down. They let me. I think they were just too surprised to know any better.

The mom was there in the lobby, fierce and frothing. “Let’s get out of here,” I said matter of factly, and told the receptionist I was going off campus. Again…they let me. To this day I am amazed I got away with it.

We walked. It was a splendid autumn day in a fancy West Seattle neighborhood. Bright blue sky, juicy yellow leaves splashed all over the lawns and sidewalks. I offered to take her out for coffee. Stunned, she agreed. As we walked the few blocks to the cute little neighborhood coffeehouse, I apologized for what had been happening. I explained all the backstory. Explained which steps would be in her and her son’s best interest. I told her all the things I liked about her son. And I told her about my own son, and all the struggles we’d had in our early days of having an IEP. She ordered a hot cider and I ordered a nice hot coffee for myself, and we sipped and chatted. I was back in time to teach my 4th period class. And although we had our ups and downs for the rest of her son’s time at that school, she never, ever showed up at school ready to kick someone’s ass again.

I’m proud of that story, but I’m terrified to ever tell it to anyone I work with. I was just following my instincts. Doing what I thought was right. My instincts are good, is the thing. At least…I think they are? Hard to tell anymore. More often than not, my instincts tend to get me in more trouble than an anxious little introvert can bear.

You’re too quiet. Unless you’re too loud. You’re too much. And you’re definitely not enough.

Last year, a gen ed language arts teacher pulled me aside and said, with a mean-girl smile on her lips “I think you’re confused.” She didn’t like how I’d been helping the students with IEPs navigate their way through her assignment. I had a simple explanation. I wanted to speak up. I started to explain.

But the tears came. And nausea.

I excused myself to the nurse’s office. (It’s mighty nice working somewhere with a nurse’s office.) By then I was pouring sweat and shaking. And the tears and the tears the tears the tears.

They called the paramedics. My blood pressure was so high, they worried I might be having a heart attack. Too much. Shut up.

I cried until my teeth chattered. I shook.

But I wasn’t having a heart attack. Later, my doctor reassured me that I was at extremely low risk of that particular problem. Panic attacks, though. That’s another story.

Aren’t I so weird? Who has a panic attack just because some sorority girl teacher is an asshole to you? Me, I guess. Go tell the people who think I’m on the autism spectrum. They’ll find it hilarious.


It was a year ago. Teachers in my district get three free visits to a therapist per school year, so I used all three learning how to successfully breathe my way out of an approaching panic attack. I haven’t had another one since then, knock wood.

But I’m hurting, my friends. I’m hurting and carrying all the internalized otherness of my youth with me in the bottom of my gut after all these years. I don’t know how to navigate the world like a “normal” person, and it scares me so much. Speak up? Shut up? I never can get it right.

A high-up higher-up person sat me down recently, after a meeting that had the potential to be awful but somehow hadn’t been…possibly because I’d kind of hit it out of the park? She told me as much. A rare honor. Such a finely articulated compliment, and from a revered administrator who rarely ever gives them. All the things I’d done well. All the things I’d done right. All the good things about me in general. There were some “but’s.” There were some pointers. There was some heavily-veiled subtext, but I’ll never know what it was.

Still and all…they see my worth. I mean…they see it to a point.

I can’t shut up. Even when I know I’m supposed to. And lots of the time, I can’t speak up, either. Not in a way that anyone will hear.

The thing is, I know I’m good. I never ever would have attempted a career in teaching middle school special ed if I believed otherwise. I know deep in my heart that my very weirdness leaves a deep and powerful well of awesome within me, to the point where I kind of can’t not be awesome. I’m just…awfully sloppy about it most of the time, and it’s hard for the other grown-ups to see.

The kids, though? They see. And I guess that’s the only possible closure this story can have. So I’ll just keep trying; navigating this path because I’m viciously compelled to, sometimes awesome, sometimes awkward, sometimes just plain tired. It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


I understand Spanish but I can barely speak it. They crack up when I catch them teasing a classmate about her “novio,” and want to see what else I’ll understand, trying to out-do each other with nastier and nastier words, gleefully watching my face to see if I know what they’re saying. There's an adorable joyfulness about it, like when a 4-year-old chases you. These dudes were 4 not that long ago. It's heartwarming to see it in their faces.

The trick with Student P is to not go looking for him. “I’m good at hiding,” he’ll say proudly.  Once he realizes that I’m not looking for him, though, he’ll always come and find me. Wide-eyed and joyful, hates work but loves his teachers, refuses to write until he finally sits down and cranks out something that could be the opening act for Being John Malkovich. He is open and raw and soft and scarred; no posturing whatsoever; almost terrifyingly childlike and amiable. There’s a raging darkness in there that I wouldn’t dare attempt to peer into. But I sense it.

I didn’t plan this conversation. I didn’t even know I was going to see Student Q today. He’s not my student anymore. I barely recognize him anymore. But we’re happy to see each other and I want to say something, so it falls right out of my heart. “I’m worried about you.” And his face…just opens. It’s as if there’d been a hard shell around it, and I can see it just crack right open. We just talk. It’s a really good talk.

Every single person I tell this to is quick to remind me “It’s not going to do anything” and “You can’t change him” and “You can’t fix this” and I flipping know that. I know that. But I don’t care. We had the conversation. We saw each other. We heard each other. That can be enough.

IEP Meeting
Right in the middle of this wacky week, I’m taking a half-day and signing on the “Parent/Guardian” line of an IEP signature page instead of my usual“Special Education Teacher” line.   

I never take The Boy to school, so I miss the turn and don’t know where to park. I don’t know which door to go in, either, and he is bemused by my incompetence. He’s taller than me now, and we’re walking down this high school hallway past all these teenagers and posters for the winter dance. Ten years ago I was having an existential crisis over whether he would be ready for kindergarten in the fall.

It’s a good meeting. He’s having a good year. But I still feel winded and broken at the end of it. If I’m really honest with myself, at the core I guess I still don’t see his deficits as deficits. And I’m deeply sad and sorry that the rest of the world does and always will.

I wish things could be different. But he’s happy and settling into adolescence without too much friction. He’s growing so fast and far beyond my reach. 

Student R brings his colors to school but can’t quite bring himself to wear them. Folds and unfolds the crisp new bandanna on the table in front of him with a heartbreaking childlike reverence, like it’s his new dinosaur or train or science kit. People higher up than me have known for longer, they have more power, more knowledge, and they are trying to do what they can. So I just keep teaching. Teach the whole class, then sit with him and teach it all over again, and he’ll get out the work and try. He’ll usually try.

Department Meeting
It’s my turn to share a “positive” about my week. And even though this week has been beyond ridiculous, I know exactly what to say. Through all this storm and stress, I feel love for my students and trust in myself. And it strikes us all, the moment I say it, how simultaneously huge and insignificant that is. Love and trust.  Half full. Half gone. But half full.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Monday After

Art by Emily Winfield Martin
Thank God it’s Monday. Bless this gloriously rainy, drippy Monday piled to the ceiling with work to do from the moment I set foot in the building. GO.

How was my weekend? I watched too much news and felt too many feelings. SAME, responds Everyone, but there’s no time to commiserate and that in itself is a blessing. I roll right into my easy morning class and then the sweet luxury of striding through the misty rain to one of the portable classrooms to check on my students with their newly hired teacher, then back up to my classroom because some of her students still need new composition notebooks, back through the mist to the portables and then “I’m sorry Ms. Floor Pie, I need one too, I forgot” and back again, rain and stairs and stairs and rain and thank God for the healing task of going and getting. Moving. Helping.

Then it’s a meltdown upstairs, an easy one, a plain old chocolate-and-vanilla case of some hapless student teacher earnestly breaking the kid’s brain by casually remarking “The answer in the book must be wrong, then.” I miss the entirety of my prep period and go straight into my next class and the next one and the next one. Cold oatmeal from breakfast for lunch, forgot to photocopy the vocab baseline assessment so I’ve got to improvise something else, unexpected new student with rumblings of soon-to-be-discovered triggers, the yellow Theraputty got misplaced somewhere in the classroom, (but where?), holy moly the sixth graders actually remember a LOT of what they learned in elementary school, and the momentum of this day is a blessing, is all.

I’m not even thinking about the news.

Except I’m kind of constantly thinking about it, too.

The students have all gone home and I’m face down across several desks. PTSD, I shrug, because I’m blessed enough to have the kind of co-workers who get that.

I don’t work with kids who hit and bite anymore. Haven’t in years. When I couldn’t sleep last night, though, when anxiety was water-sliding the course of my nervous system and crashing into sadness, the thought popped into my head involuntarily. I hope some kid punches me right in the face tomorrow. I don’t know why I thought it. Or hoped it. Maybe just yearning for proof and validation, at last, that all this hurting is real.

“It’s like….it’s not that I ever liked getting hit or bitten,” I find myself explaining to a colleague. “It’s just that there was always something so satisfying about that bruise. It’s like, you can see it, so you know then that someone really did hurt you. You can trust yourself that it happened.”

She gasps and nods. “YES. Because you finally have proof!”


They make you feel like it’s your fault. The thing is, when you’re the adult and they’re the child, it actually kind of is your fault.  

So we share tips for how we’re teaching about consent whenever we can, in the cracks, in the hallways, any unstructured time, really. She’s braver than me, and straight-up calls it consent. Drills her kiddos on it like it’s going to be part of state testing in the spring. “Do you have her consent? Did you give consent for that?”

She’s also been telling her grrls “You don’t have to be okay with that to be cool,” They roll their eyes, because of course they do. But more often than not, she sees relief on their faces when they hear it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Emily Winfield Martin
On the 5th day of school, he told us he didn’t have a math class. I thought he was joking when I saw the sly but sheepish gleam in his eye and a full grin on his usually-so-serious face.

“Lucky!” yelled the other kids.

“You must be really smart!” someone theorized.

“Wait, REALLY?” I asked, scrambling to enter the right password on my laptop to access a copy of his schedule. Sure enough, no math class.

“I just thought…that maybe not everybody gets to have math in middle school,” he reasoned earnestly.

I hastily composed an email to the registrar, who hand-delivered his corrected schedule within minutes.

On the 7th day of school, he looked up from his math homework to watch me trouble-shooting a classmate’s malfunctioning school-district-issued iPad.

“I wish I still had my iPad. I had one just like that one at my old school,” he said.

“Wait, REALLY?” I asked, scrambling to enter the right password on my laptop to access his elementary school teacher’s contact information. Sure enough, his own school-district-issued iPad had been lost in the shuffle. She’d found it just that morning and would arrange for a younger sibling to bring it home to him that afternoon.

The next day at school, he showed me a game on his iPad. I keep the classroom open during lunch for my students who prefer a quieter alternative to the cafeteria. We were peacefully munching and chatting sporadically, mostly focused on our books and phones (and teacher email).

“Can I show you my game?” he asked, and there it was, something mathematical, all multiples of 4 sliding hither and thither, speedy but pleasantly rote. He told me proudly that his mom had some incredibly high score at this game. Maybe somebody somewhere had a higher score, but she was the only person he knew with a score that high.  

“I would ask her what her strategy was,” he pondered matter-of-factly, “but I can’t. Because she had cancer. And she died.”



His eyes were on his game. “Uh-huh.” The fours and eights and sixteens and thirty-twos slid and multiplied on his screen. Without looking up or speaking, his classmates tuned in almost instinctively, in stoic solidarity. Kids are braver than adults like that. They just know.

I didn't have to scramble for the right words. I know them well enough. So I said all the kind and correct things one says and asked the questions one asks, and he answered succinctly, but sincere. “Can you make sure that nobody comes and takes me out of class to talk about it?” was his one request. “They kept doing that at my old school. I didn’t even know who the people were.”

“Oh, I hate when they do that,” a classmate sympathized, and all the others chorused their agreement.

I reassured him that no one would do that to him here. I started to explain what resources are available at our school if he ever did want to talk to someone.

“Can I go back to showing you my game?” he said.

So we did.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Area of Growth

All the seats were filled. Okay, so there were ten students instead of thirty-six. Ten students with a teacher-provided snack on their desks. Ten students having a conversation with each other and with me instead of just listening to me talk or filling in worksheets. I get it. My classroom doesn’t look like your classroom. So maybe you just didn’t realize that I was in the middle of teaching a class.

I was every bit as hungry and tired and squirrely and eager-to-get-to-lunch as those ten students, so maybe that’s why I made that stressed-out face when you asked me when my lunch is. I didn’t mean to. It’s just that I could infer from the key details of your non-verbal social cues (and from my background knowledge of years-long precedent) that when someone asks “When is your lunch period?” like that, it’s never a prelude to an invitation to have a nice lunch with them. No, I inferred, this was an invitation to address a problem during my lunch.

I started talking before I remembered to take the edge out of my voice. I get it. I don’t like when people are unhappy to see me either. I felt sorry the minute I saw the disappointment in your face and I could barely get the words out. I apologized and made a subtle gesture toward the students, who were growing squirrelier with every second my attention was on you instead of them, and I said what I felt should have been obvious. “I’m teaching a class right now.” If it makes you feel any better, I felt weirdly ashamed for setting that boundary.

Which is why, when we passed each other in the hallway during our lunch, I apologized and made time to listen right then. How I wish I’d at least grabbed my yogurt from the fridge and had a few spoonfuls first. Maybe then, when you’d told me you have all these students with IEPs and no information I wouldn’t have countered “Yes you do!” and somewhat defensively itemized the volumes of information I’d spent the last few days preparing for teachers, pushing off my own lesson planning to the very last minute. I know I shouldn’t have sounded so annoyed. But I do appreciate you acknowledging that you’d received that info and just hadn’t had time to read it yet. So I softened my tone and asked which student, which period, what sort of behaviors are you seeing?

I shouldn’t have phrased the question that way. Ask someone for a short-list of behaviors, they’re going to give you a short-list of behaviors. Some teachers know how to present a concise and neutral 3-point bulleted list in special ed jargon, liberally peppering in the student’s strengths and all the things they adore about them. But sometimes, like today, there’s still hurt in the teacher’s voice when they recount the students’ behaviors with loaded descriptors.

The Boy’s first grade teacher used to do that. Every day, that same beleaguered look on her face; that nasty “you just dinged my car in the parking lot!” tone in her voice as she ticked off the day’s list of grievances. We were a few months away from a diagnosis (they still called it Aspergers back then). This landscape of Seattle Public Schools was strange and new to me, only two years in. I knew what I knew from all the co-op preschool parent ed classes I’d taken, but the teachers and administrators and even the counselor at this school knew none of it, and they’d look at me blankly when I felt like I was making so much sense.

Meanwhile, I stood helplessly apart while their current of ignorance swept my little boy further and further away from his wild strengths and raw talent, tighter and tighter into the grip of its narrow definitions. He broke out in hives and snapped his teeth and ticked all kinds of nervous ticks we’d never seen before. And still, they blamed him. And me.

Many years of working in this school district and an M.Ed. in special education later, I know now what I deeply suspected then – I was right. They were wrong. They were wrong in the most hurtful way that an educator can be wrong. They were wrong in a way that could have damaged that child if I hadn’t intervened and changed his course. I got him out of that toxic situation, and then I got myself back into teaching so that I could do the same for as many kids like him as I could reach.

And here we are. Turns out that path isn’t quite so simple.

I know what I’m supposed to do. Don’t scare the teachers. Don’t make them feel like they can’t come to you for help. They want to learn, they want to do it right and be good at this. They need you to teach them how. You must treat them the way you treat your own students – meeting them where they’re at with strength-based interventions and lots of positive praise; five positives for every time you accidentally let it show on your face that they’ve just said something blood-curdlingly ignorant and hurtful. Because you’re the teacher. You roll with it.                                                                                                                              
I want to be good at navigating all that, because I know it’s the only paved road to success. Maybe right now it feels like I’m just swallowing indignity after indignity when all I want to do is bellow at people like Chris Farley’s “IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!” guy. I have to hope that it won’t always be this hard and won’t always feel this way. I have to trust that there is room in my scarred and shell-shocked heart to grow; to deflect the pain of ignorance’s impact but still absorb its good intentions; to find and nurture whatever elements of strength are in there, desperate to grow.

So. I can forgive myself for not being quite there yet. If I can manage to also forgive colleagues for not being there quite yet…maybe then I might finally become the unstoppable force of sheer awesome that I’ve always yearned to be.

But first I’m going to have a cup of coffee. Small steps.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Floor Pie FLASHBACK! - Elitist, My Ass (September 2008)

“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!" – Sarah Palin

As the applause thundered throughout Palin’s speech, I felt like I was back in 7th or 8th grade again, trying to will myself invisible or at least tune out the taunts of my classmates. Ah, the Dawn Wiener years. And even though I’ve done my best to repress it, the knee-jerk physical memory of that time catches in my throat whenever I hear a crowd jeering in its victorious rejection of people like myself.

That pit bull line reminds me of a former co-worker who once described, with great self-righteous indignation, how she’d grabbed a woman by the shirt and slammed her into a wall because the woman had accidentally bumped into my co-worker’s small daughter at a crowded Wall E. Weasels. It also reminds me of my friends whose toddler bit an older child at a crowded children’s museum (through his jeans, no broken skin). The victim’s parents not only refused to accept their many sincere apologies and concern, they screamed at my friends and followed the family all through the museum, followed the mom into the ladies room, verbally harassing the parents, demanding their phone number and medical records, threatening the museum with legal action.

That, to me, is what a pit bull in lipstick looks like. Timid types like myself tend to reject these folks in the first place, and it’s not about elitism. We’re just not big on being a target for someone’s displaced aggression.

Earlier this year, my state was dismissed by a political surrogate as a bunch of “latte-sipping elitists.” And while I was tempted to just scoff it off, I had to think about it. I do drink lattes, after all. Maybe they were onto something. I’ve recently questioned my long-held rejection of my small Pennsylvania home town, realizing at last that adolescence is a train wreck no matter where you grow up, no matter how privileged you may be. As a shy, quirky, anxious girl in glasses, I would have been harassed no matter what.

But it’s a hard thing to unlearn. A small town upbringing may not have harmed me, but it really didn’t do me many favors, either. Teachers espoused anti-Semitism, homophobia, and creationism with impunity. A classmate’s tragic suicide was co-opted into an insensitive war-on-drugs circus. One American history teacher had us convinced that brutality to slaves was a myth. His reasoning? “Slaves were property, like a car. You wouldn’t beat up your car, so slave owners didn’t beat up their slaves.” Oh. Okay. But we believed it.

My parents were Vietnam-war-protesting Jimmy Carter supporters, bleeding hearts through and through. But the racism, the homophobia, even the sexism of the community still managed to seep into my sensibilities. It wasn’t that I consciously believed it. There wasn’t a speck of hate in my heart. But I’d learned to be complicit to fit in. In a town where supporting Walter Mondale made you some kind of a radical, I accepted without question that an all-white, straight community was Us, and assumed I’d never actually intersect with Them.

And thus, young Floor Pie packed up her paisley sweaters and went off to a small east coast liberal arts college.

I’d been an outcast nerd for so long. The Dawn Wiener years ended with junior high, largely because our high school tracking program finally separated me from my detractors. The meanest ones would still taunt if our paths crossed in the hallways, but we were in different classes and different lunch periods now.

But even as I was making friends and getting involved in theater and music, I was still quite the asexual oddball. I’d yearned for college, and when I finally got there it seemed better than I ever could have imagined. I met people who were creative and proud to be smart. They liked their high school English teachers too! They didn’t like Ronald Reagan either! They introduced me to Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, and Robert Smith. I’d found my people!

Until I blew it. My farm-fresh ignorance cringingly revealed itself over the first few days, and the cool kids dropped me like the nerd I’d always been. There was a trip to Manhattan I wasn’t invited to, but found out about afterwards. There were times when I’d see them see me coming and they’d hastily duck out. Some were catty, some ignored me, some tried to be patient and still let me hang out, some were downright mean. After a few weeks, I retreated without making too big an ass of myself.

So there I was: rejected by both sides of the culture war, settling among the mainstream 80’s girls on my freshman floor to be their loveable token weirdo. It was more frustrating than painful, really. I could see exactly how my ignorance and over-anxious enthusiasm had caused me to forfeit a place at their table. Crappy as they’d treated me, I still identified with their intelligence, their pop culture, their whip-smart senses of humor and irony, their politics. These things spoke to who I truly felt I was at heart.

Thankfully, my social life, social skills, and political savvy improved over time. I found a happier niche with a merry band of alternageeks, and those years still have a special place in my nostalgia file. But I never reconnected with that first group of would-be friends. Sometimes I imagine they’re out there stumbling upon my Facebook profile or my listing in the alumni magazine. I can just hear them scoffing smugly to see that I’ve ended up a stay-at-home mom. “Sounds about right. That’s about all she was cut out for.”

Yeah, maybe I’m still bitter. But I haven’t let the bitterness trip up my (oh, forgive me) journey of self-discovery. I could have taken this college experience and parlayed it into the disgust for “liberals” or “elitists” that so many seem to share. But that wasn’t it for me. I had to suck it up, hang back a little and just listen and learn. Hate the arrogance, not the ideals. It would have been nice if those guys had given me more of a chance. But at least I still gave myself a chance.

Okay, we’re venturing into Afterschool Special territory, here. Turn the ship around.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Smart and Kind

I’m not so scared for my boy anymore. Not like I used to be. Not compared to, say, his final year of preschool, when I anxiously devoured Dave Cullen’s excellent book Columbine in a mad and desperate search for clues and validation, all because he’d been knocking over the same kid’s blocks at preschool every day. Knocking over another 4-year-old’s blocks…mass shooting…turns out I was missing a few key pieces in there, but honestly the way our (entirely white) preschool community was responding to The Boy’s raging glimmers of as-yet-undiagnosed ASD, I can’t really fault myself for the fears.

Years later, as a middle school special ed teacher, I realize now exactly how predictably common that response is to students with disabilities like ASD, ADHD, and PTSD. It’s chilling how often I’ve heard the term “sociopath” tossed around lightly and wildly inaccurately by teachers and even a speech therapist once (not at my current school, thankfully). And every year there’s at least one anxious mom or grandma or dad of a kid who’s basically fine who comes to meet with me before the school year begins, shell-shocked and sometimes tearful and a little bit broken from having been made to believe that their child was fundamentally Bad. Sometimes the students show up believing it about themselves, too.  

And, to be sure, my students can get up to some shenanigans. I don’t excuse these behaviors and neither do their families. We hold these students to high expectations, and we teach and re-teach and coach and practice. We chart their progress and celebrate their successes. We hold them accountable with love. Years ago, one of my boys made me so angry, and I said, with such fierceness in my voice “You are SMART and KIND!” Instantly he stopped fronting and slumped into tears…maybe because he’d needed so badly to hear it. Maybe because he knew at the root of it all, it was true.

In the wake of yet another devastating school shooting, I’m seeing a lot of conversations unfold out of our fears. It’s necessary and productive, of course, and I hope some good will come of it. But there’s a new little thread in the collective narrative that has me a feeling a bit uneasy – friendly admonitions here and there in my social media feeds encouraging us to raise boys who, you know, won’t grow up to be mass shooters. Raise your sons to be sweet. Raise your sons to be gentle.



And, you know, on behalf of my fellow mothers of boys with ASD, ADHD, and PTSD, I’ll just say thanks for that. It might never have occurred to us to worry and fear and shame ourselves over our sons’ behaviors if it weren’t for the steady voice of concerned townspeople waving their pitchforks of good intentions. Remember when they used to blame autism on “refrigerator mothers”? Honestly, why even bother trying to scientifically disprove such bullshit at this point; our culture is so determined to oversimplify and seek a cartoon villain to pin all the scary things in the world onto.

Look. If you’ve never had to sit in a school administrator’s office wearing the Cone of Shame with your sobbing child while they tell you all about some unbelievably ridiculous thing he did or said that you absolutely DID NOT raise him to do or say…well, have a gold star and a cookie and take a moment to be grateful for your good fortune. I promise you, gentle readers, I never set out to raise a boy who would knock over somebody else’s blocks any more than you did. No one does. I don’t excuse it, and I have absolutely held us both accountable for his transgressions over the years. But it’s a rocky road, two steps forward and seven steps back always, constantly. The judgment and speculation about our boys and the likelihood that they’ll go fabulously wrong? It’s not helping.

There have been supportive teachers in my son’s life who have seen and embraced his strengths and used that as a starting point for their work with him. And there have been teachers so preoccupied with vigilance for some imaginary evil that they’ve mistakenly seen it in him. Guess which teachers helped him make the most progress?

This whole business of “Holy moly, be careful you don’t accidentally raise a school shooter” is a slippery slope, my friends. We are setting ourselves up to hurt and to fail. Worst of all, we’re setting ourselves up to look at our young men with suspicion and fear and maybe even self-fulfilling prophecies.

Yes, by all means, report incidents of concern to your school principals or even the police. But once you’ve reported it, let the administrators and police officers do their jobs and don’t pile on with fear and judgment. The young man you reported hasn’t done anything yet. Maybe it’s not too late for him. 

And when it comes to the young man’s mother, please trust – you’re just going to have to trust, because she might not give you the satisfaction of showing it publicly – that this hypothetical young man’s hypothetical mother’s heart is already broken into pieces upon pieces, because she was quite sure that she DID raise him to be gentle and sweet. Consider the possibility that being gentle and sweet and seeking a way out of one’s misery through horrific violence might not be mutually exclusive.  

Life is complicated. Human beings are complicated. There’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. We’re all of us just a pile of wounded humanity swinging from branch to branch, trying like hell to survive and save face.

Like I said to my student all those years ago: He – whoever “he” is – is smart and kind. If we’re going to be vigilant about anything, let’s be vigilant for the goodness in our boys instead of the evil. SEE the sweetness in them in the first place. Nurture it. Model it in your response to them, even when their behaviors upset you. Isolating troubled children and pushing them further and further away is probably the most dangerous thing we can do. Let’s pull them in while we still can.  

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