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.

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