Sunday, December 22, 2013

When the World Was Flat

Our story is not our story anymore. It’s been fifteen years, fifteen, since I landed in this green and silver city mired in misty rain and started a new life as part of a couple. Loved. Found.  

At the time, it felt like being rescued. I’d found my tribe…my tribe of two. Mr. Black was, and is, the smartest person I have ever met. He never told me I was too deep, or too sensitive, or too feminist, or too ridiculous for being a vegetarian. He never said “you think too much” or told me to “relax.” He never made me feel like I had to reign in my own intelligence to spare his ego or his interest. Best of all, he wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with him. And we were beautiful to each other. It was easy. Like falling.   

Fifteen years ago, I thought I was leaving everything behind on my way to a new and better life. In retrospect, it was more like a long, slow, luxurious dive deep down into my own little undersea fantasy world. In a good way. In a very good way. I will always treasure that time below the surface when Mr. Black was my world in the best of all possible ways. You can’t sustain that mythology over a long-term relationship, but it can always be true in its own way, in its own time and place.

And I hadn’t left anything behind, it turns out. You resurface and there it all still is, floating in the soup one way or another. Long lost friends from high school and college live in Seattle. New friends I met through Offsprung live in the next county over from my parents back in Pennsylvania. Facebook has unearthed just about every old familiar face I care to remember. The software company I’d worked for in Philly hired me back as a telecommuting freelancer after I had my first baby. And somehow, most miraculous of all…I finally found my way back to teaching.

It has been one year since I was hired full-time at my kids’ school as a special education instructional assistant. It hasn’t always been easy, but even on the roughest days I am positively soaring. I love how my body feels in a school, striding down the hallways, hustling up and down the stairs, helping gently, inspiring and amusing boldly, walking backwards making the “quiet coyote” with my fingers as I lead our class in from recess. I love what I can do with my voice. I love the visceral, protective, nurturing relationship I have with all the little bear cubs in my charge. I love that my strongest assets are no longer just cute little quirks but completely necessary in this career. I am absolutely, without question, happier than I have ever been.   

And I no longer need or want to be rescued. Yes, I still need a friend and partner to give me hugs at the end of the day and pick up the kids and go grocery shopping. Yes, we still love each other a lot. But that love doesn’t drive us like it used to. It just doesn’t. It can’t. And, unlike the last few milestones that have happened over the past fifteen years – buying a house, getting married, having children – this next phase of building a new career only belongs to me.

He is still very much with me. But he’s not bringing me there. If anything, I kind of have to leave him behind a little bit to get myself there. And what a strange feeling that is. To covet and yearn for independence the way I once coveted and yearned for his constant, undivided companionship.

I feel guilty. And then I fight the guilt by noticing all the little hurts and sadnesses and disconnections between us. Even in our glory days, it was never as perfect as I wanted to believe. There were lots of times when I felt lonely and unheard and extraneous and not the least bit adored. There were lots of times when I felt like I was the biggest pain in his ass. I still feel that way. I simply don’t mind it as much as I used to.

This whole business of falling in love and sweeping each other off our feet and spiriting ourselves away to the Emerald City at the edge of the ocean? It was a phase. A long, beautiful, happiest-years-of-our-lives-together phase. It wasn’t linear. And it wasn’t the end. Gradually, over the years, we resurfaced and found all the old bits and pieces of our previous lives and selves. Everything circled back, but fell into place a little differently. And we are, once more, fundamentally ourselves. Two independent individuals who still love and support each other as husband and wife, but who are no longer tangled up in our own perceived mythology.

And what happens now? I guess we’ll figure that out as we go. Just like we always have.   

Saturday, October 19, 2013


He’s new. But not so new that I felt I couldn’t joke with him about it. We who toil in the fields of special education share a certain carefree gallows humor, don’t we? After a while all those cute little bites and kicks and verbal assaults become so absurd that it’s a little bit funny. And I know he’s seen worse.

So I said “Thanks for putting up with my son’s verbal abuse yesterday,” with a friendly smirk. The Boy’s case manager and her other aide would have laughed and then we’d have had a serious pro-to-pro discussion about it. But this guy? Not so much. I could see the hurt in his eyes and feel the cold edge in his voice as he told me exactly how awful it had been. “He was belligerent,” he said.

The Boy had been having an excellent 4th grade year up until that point. So excellent, in fact, that he’s decided his IEP is bullshit and has taken it upon himself to exit the autism/behavior program.

I do not give permission for this. His teachers, his team, and the principal have been extraordinarily flexible about it, though. The Boy adamantly refuses to be pulled out for his social skills minutes, so his 4th grade teacher is simply teaching the social skills curriculum to the whole class. When there’s a problem (which are much fewer and farther between than in previous years), our kick-ass principal skillfully intervenes instead of the aides. And when there is a need for academic support? Well, that’s all me, baby. They just send the work home and it’s Ma Floor Pie’s House of Free Tutoring.

It’s been working beautifully…sort of. We all know it’s not sustainable. So this past week, when The Boy’s class had a chance to break a volleyball record in PE class and The Boy got so excited that he went all Steinbrenner on some of his terrified classmates and then hid in an equipment closet…the principal had the New Guy take over for her so that she could get back to the business of running the school.


I like New Guy. I feel terrible that my son’s angry words and attitude shook him up like that. I had New Guy’s job last year, and I remember how bad it feels when a kid you thought you were “in” with suddenly turns on you with all the force of his baggage. Even now, in my new job supporting a literacy classroom, it still happens sometimes. It’s a terrible feeling. I absolutely understand.

So when I respond to him, I do it earnestly, with kindness in my voice and what I hope is empathy in my facial expression. Let me explain to you, New Guy, why it is that my son feels “belligerent” about being tethered to an autism/behavior program.

Kids who end up at this program at our school? They are most likely kids who’ve had a spectacular failure at their first school. At age 5 or 6 or even younger, they were labeled the “bad” kid, the “problem” kid. And everybody believed it. Even the kid himself. Especially the kid himself.

Most teachers don’t know what the heck to do with a student like that, and some teachers believe they shouldn’t have to know. Some parents believe their child shouldn’t have to share a classroom with a child like that, and they’re not afraid to fight for that perceived right. Some principals believe that if the students aren’t able to stuff every last autistic tendency in a desk drawer and act like their typical classmates, they don’t belong in their school at all.

That’s pretty much where we were the first time The Boy and I had our first “You have Aspergers” conversation. He was 6 and it was the night before his first IEP meeting. He’d been having such a relentlessly horrible year, and the signs were palpable in both of us. He’d broken out in hives and developed all kinds of tics. I was losing my hair and developing weird phobias. The whole world seemed to be imposing a brutal “truth” on us, that we were unfit and unwelcome, that we were simply wrong and bad and had to shape up fast or suffer the consequences.

In the end, I chose to move him to a different school. And even though it worked out very well for us, nobody’s going to say “Oh, hooray, I get to move to a different school because I’m so very, very different from the other children!” It feels a bit more like a failure. And every time you see that autism/behavior team, it’s a reminder of your own inability to outrun your own “badness.”

“You need to understand that he’s not belligerent against you,” I explained patiently. “He’s belligerent against the program, and his diagnosis, and all that it represents.”

New Guy gets it. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it. It’s a hard job, and I know he’s doing his best.

And I realize that I have a job to do, too.

The Boy and his sister are waiting for me in my classroom. I set up Little Grrl with the American Girl web site and take The Boy to the rug for Phase II of the “You have Aspergers” conversation.

“I’ve given it a lot of serious thought,” I tell him. And it’s true. I have. “But I have decided that you are not going to exit the program. I have decided that you still need it.”

“So you’re saying the IA’s are going to keep bugging me?” He tears up. “Is this because of what happened in PE?” he asks. “Because that was a HUGE MISUNDERSTANDING! And that’s all that it was!”

“No, honey,” I say. And I gather him into my lap like an adolescent baby kangaroo. “It’s because…you still need this program. It’s not there to punish you, it’s there to help you. It’s not your fault. You’ve made so much progress. You’ve come so far. But you will always have Aspergers. It looks different at 9 than it did at 6. But it’s still there. It grows with you.”

“I know,” he says. And he tears up again. “I just wish I could be normal.”

“There’s no such thing as normal,” I say. And we talk about his cousins and friends who have food allergies, dyslexia, ADHD.

“That’s not the same thing as a DISIBILITY!” he cries.  

“Actually, it is,” I explain. “Your cousin who’s allergic to peanuts has a disability with her immune system. Aspergers is a disability with the…I don’t know…the limbic system, I guess.” (I have no idea how accurate either of these statements is, but he buys it.)

“But ADHD is no big deal,” he goes on. “That just means they have more energy, and they’re happy about that!”

“No, honey, they’re not always happy about it,” I say. “I know plenty of kids who wish they didn’t have ADHD.”

“Really?” He’s genuinely surprised.

“YES, really. It’s physically painful for them to just sit in a chair. They want to listen to the teacher but their disability just doesn’t let them. They hate it.” He thinks about that for a minute. “And your cousin definitely wishes she wasn’t allergic to peanuts.”

“That’s true.” And then he says it again. “I just wish I was normal.”

“You wish you didn’t have Aspergers,” I correct him. “And that’s not the same thing as ‘normal.’ The word you’re thinking of is ‘neurotypical’.”

He likes that. The Boy may hate doing vocabulary worksheets, but he loves to learn new vocabulary words.

I grab a few books from our classroom office and flip to the pages with medical illustrations of our brains. The Boy is fascinated. And a little annoyed with me for focusing only on the amygdala and prefrontal cortex when there are so many other parts of the brain.

Then I read to him:

In an autistic brain, messages don’t get sent from one section of the brain to another with the same frequency and efficiency as they do in a neurotypical brain. The ‘parts’ often work well, but they don’t ‘talk’ with each other…

The brain of a person with ASD appears to send far fewer of these coordinating neural messages. The result may be compared to a group of people crowded into a room, all working intently on the same project but never letting anyone know what they are doing. – I Hate to Write, by Cheryl Boucher and Katy Oehler  

He gets it. He doesn’t like it, but he gets it.

I can tell he’s about done with this intense conversation, too. So I wrap it up with my usual talk about being respectful to the other adults at school. And I tell him that New Guy said he was belligerent. The Boy laughs.

“Do you know what ‘belligerent’ means?” I ask.

“It sounds like a kind of ligger-elephant!”

“It does, doesn’t it?” And I teach him his second new vocab word of the day. “Belligerent actually means ‘war-like’.”

“Hmm,” he says, liking the sound of that.

“Seriously, honey, no being a war-like elephant with the teachers! I have to work with these people, you know.”

He knows. He tries. He’ll try again. And fail again. And try again. And so it goes.

I turn him loose and start getting the classroom ready for another day.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Jason died in June. I’d been waiting for school to end so I could give him my full attention, as I knew things were getting more serious. When school is over, I told myself, I’ll send him the best care package ever. With a beautiful letter and photocopies of all the old Planet X cartoons and old photos and lots of good stuff. But then it became clear that he wouldn’t hang on even until then. I poured my heart out in writing and asked our friends back in New York to read it to him.

On the first day of summer vacation, it started raining again. Mr. Black left for a business trip. The kids were watching Adventure Time. I checked my e-mail. And I learned that our Jason had died that morning, peacefully and in accordance with his wishes, surrounded by loved ones.

And so it goes.

The summer rain was relentless and cold. I laid around in bed and went digging through my old notebooks looking for him – notes he’d written to me in class, hilarious quotes of his I may have jotted down. I kind of OD’d on it…all those memories, tangled up like necklaces in a drawer. It wasn’t long before I was missing and yearning for everything. Those people, that time, that place…and the “me” that loved them all so much and then, in bitterness and sheer embarrassment, pushed them all away.

I’d been living in Seattle for about a year when Jason had called me out of the blue. He was HERE! In SEATTLE! RIGHT NOW! When did I want to get together?

All I felt was annoyed. They always did stuff like this, those long lost friends of mine. Long periods of silence, unreturned calls, then just drop in with no plans or consideration for the fact that maybe I might be doing something other than hoping they’d call. So I said no, sorry. As it was, I was heading out on a date with Mr. Black. And I wanted so much to finally, finally be too cool to care that they were too cool to care.

As if it was somehow self-respecting to push away a friend like that. As if I could teach any of them anything or repair any old wounds with that move. As if it were actually possible to “move on,” snap your fingers and just not care anymore.

Losing Jason made me realize that I do care. About all of it. All of them. And apparently an awesome life 20 years later isn’t enough to cancel out these feelings entirely. I care because I care. They were some of my best friends. We thought we understood each other so well. We made each other laugh endlessly. We lit each other up. You can’t just forget that, no matter what happens.

But caring doesn’t necessarily restore anything. It’s not like the old rom-coms where all it takes is a well-spoken “I love you” and the band’s back together again and some dude’s running through an airport to win you back. When you care, that’s about you. Not them.

So you care. So, great. So, sit with it.

A week went by. The rain stopped. I got up.

I had tests to study for. I had kids to take to swimming lessons. I had new kittens to find. There would simply have to be new kittens. (My dear, sweet little Mia died back in March after a long battle with kidney disease.)

The grieving wasn’t over. But it wasn’t solid, either. There was nothing to say, no closure to impose; just feelings to feel. And those feelings changed from one moment to the next.

I absolutely love what my life has become. But I can no longer see it as this linear path with college in the distant past and my grown-up Seattle life as the only thing in front of me. All my old “lives” mingle and flow together, all for one and one for all. And everyone is still very much with me. They always have been. And nothing is truly over.

I went to our old college town for the memorial service and there it all was: The campus with its low stone wall where we’d sit and give the peace sign to passing motorists. The old A&P, which is now a Whole Foods. That cute boy who was my first college crush, now a middle-aged parent like myself, sitting with me on the patio sharing blueberries and talking about those first insane weeks of school with such simple, sober perspective.

And that fancy hotel where some of us worked and where visiting parents would take us out for lovely brunches…well, now we’re leaving our rooms and taking the elevator down to the main floor to honor and celebrate the life of our dear friend Jason. Here we all are. Older, wiser, and not all tangled up in each other’s drama anymore, but so very us, forever and always.

We told his stories. Made speeches and read poetry. Played his music. (There was that voice again. His voice.) And in honoring and celebrating Jason’s memory, we honored and celebrated our own memories, too. No more dismissing it as meaningless adolescent drama / stupidity / naivety / grandiosity / whatever. We were here. This mattered. Attention: paid.

And then…

Back to Seattle. Back to school, where there is a new job with the same wonderful teacher I worked for last year, and a classroom to get ready for our new students. Back home, to my children and husband and new kittens. Back home to finish out a beautiful summer. And to start again, with all the good and the bad and the old and the new inextricably, lovingly, hopelessly tangled.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For Jason. I hope you can hear this.

The last time I saw you, we all kind of agreed that we were just going to talk about “Now.” Or “Now-ish,” at least. Not that there’s anything wrong with nostalgia. It’s just that there was so much more to say, what with us all being in our forties and having not seen each other in a bajillion years and whatnot.

We already knew the old stories. The Saturday Night Live and Love and Death quotes. The time you nearly got away with stealing an entire tray of doughnuts from the U.C. (“Put it back, Son.”) The Planet X cartoons. The time you and Ned and I tried unsuccessfully to destroy a New Kids On the Block CD in the disgusto bathroom sink in your suite and then, when that failed, threw it out the window and accidentally hit the pizza guy. The time we all drove down to Princeton to go to Hoagie Haven, and there was no room for you in the car so you curled up in a ball on the floor, singing along with the new Depeche Mode album: “All I ever wanted/ All I ever needed / Was a new lyricist….”

We didn’t talk about all that, I guess, because it simply didn’t loom as large in our lives anymore. Or maybe we felt close enough to each other, secure enough in our friendship, that we didn’t need to invoke the old Deadbeat Club days.

You were so strong and peaceful that day. So calm. You said you prefer to call it “living with cancer.” Over the course of the afternoon, you told me the whole story. Ned came by. And then Nate. We were all so calm and still. We really listened to each other. We spoke to each other instead of performing for each other. Talked about our pets and kids and partners and jobs and aging parents. All the things that used to scare the hell out of our younger selves.

What I miss the most about those younger selves, though, is how we were all so damn fond of each other. We amazed each other, made each other laugh. We reassured each other, made each other feel special.

So I guess I wish we had talked about the olden days a little bit that day. And I wish I’d thanked you for them.

Because, really, how amazing was that? Not only did you let me play when most people thought I was way too nerdy…but you genuinely admired me in a way that I simply wasn’t able to see for myself. You took all the stuff that was weird and dorky and inaccessible about me and made it awesome in your eyes. I didn’t have to fake any of that. You brought it out in me. You gave your love and admiration so purely. You helped me find the confidence to really let that freak flag fly with joyful abandon. What an incredible gift that was.

I love you so much, my friend. I wish I was there so I could give you a real hug instead of this Internet “vibes” nonsense, really look at you and hold your hand and tell you all this in my own voice. I hope you can hear it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Reader, they hired me.

Mere days before winter break, the school where I was subbing offered me a full time job as a special education assistant. And while I’m old and jaded enough to understand that an entry-level full-time job in one’s chosen field is about as much of a Happily Ever After as a Disney princess’s Love’s First Kiss, I can’t deny that it is a definite turning point. A new path.

And so, at the terrible risk of sounding like a big fat self-deluding bloggy narcissist, I’m going to embrace this moment with a little benign grandiosity. I’m going to say I’m proud of myself. In fact, I’m going to say holy frijoles, maybe it took me until my forties but I have finally learned how to somewhat-successfully navigate the world of Career without getting my butt kicked.

I have a job that I like so much, it barely even feels like work. I have the job I wanted at the very school where I wanted to work. And I have a plan…a plan which unfortunately involves taking the GRE again, but a plan that will keep things interesting and challenging. A plan that just might someday let me be an innovator in the world of special education. A girl can dream.

But for now, I have a few years of apprenticeship ahead of me. Rather than rock any boats or leap on any soap boxes, I’m going to hunker down in the cracks and learn the trade. Like every other person in this field, I am here for the students. But I’m also here to learn. I’m here to listen more than talk. I’m here to accept whatever absurdities and frustrations come my way with grace, and to quietly lead by example.

I will not be blogging about any of this. In fact, I doubt I’ll be blogging much at all. At least not for a while.

When I first stumbled upon this whole blogging endeavor, The Boy was four and Little Grrl was just a baby. I’d just given up my work-from-home proofreading gig. Co-op preschool was out for the summer. For the first time in years, I had the time to pick up writing again. Not only that, but I had a built-in supportive Open Mic Night at the Campus Coffeehouse audience in my fellow members at Offsprung.

This is where I told my stories, pondered and reflected, and found my voice – first as a writer and then, amazingly, as an emerging special education parent. But most importantly, and against all my cynical preconceptions of the Internet…this is where I made some real friends and turned what would have been casual IRL acquaintanceships into something more meaningful. You guys are the best. Where would I be without you? You are the wind beneath my wings. Literally. Officially, even. All the hyperbolic adverbs.

Now go forth and be excellent to each other. And, you know, read the archives if you’re so inclined.


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