I’ve fairly frequently touched on various elements of my childhood school experience in other posts, but today, I’ve been inspired by a couple of kind and genuine friends to write another. Mamautistic (whose gorgeous and well-written blog can be found here) posed a question about whether any of us knew about any posts/blogs about school that we could share, which (naturally) kicked off my creative juices. Encouragement by Rhi (whose amazing and insightful blog can be found here) sealed the deal.
This post was born of a desire to take thoughts about all of those aspects of school experience and compile them all together in one post (at least, as best I can).
I wish I could say that so far at this point in my life, I have no regrets, nothing that I would do over again if given the chance.
But I do.
We’ll just sum it up as my entire school career. All 27 years of it, from the first day of my first year of kindergarten (yep, that’s right–there were two), to the last day of med school.
But of course…the word “regret” might imply that I did something wrong. And I’m not sure I did. At least, not in the early years, anyway.
To understand what really happened, one has to know about the three years prior to starting kindergarten, during which the real learning began.
The word “joy” doesn’t come close. When I was two years old, my mother and I began working in perfect educational synergy; she loved teaching, and I loved learning. She was a work-at-home mom who was gifted with kids, and I was her only child then. She taught me to count in two languages. She taught me all of my basics: shapes, sizes, colors, opposites, numbers, letters, names and sounds of animals, days of the week, and months of the year. We played hide-and-seek and “chase-’em”. She enrolled me in a good Montessori school for two of those years, which held classes three times per week, and worked with me the rest of the time. She’s a lovely lady with the patience of a saint and the stamina of the Energizer Bunny. We had a blast.
And then a dark cloud settled over my bright world: the requirement to attend school. It’s not the idea of attending school that I have a problem with; it’s the fact that we lived in a northern-US farming county with sparse population and even less imagination, and when you live in a place like that, there isn’t much hope of getting a top-notch education. I don’t mean that to sound elitist; it was simply a clash of cultures and a variance in values, the rest of the county versus my little city-to-country transplanted family.
It was nobody’s fault, really. Well, maybe it was. No one was asking for the moon and stars but for the love of all that is holy, you’d think the school principal would at least agree to advance me ahead by a grade or two. My mother had certainly had me assessed, and I scored more than high enough. But alas, it wasn’t to be; the principal had his mind made up, and he wasn’t going to budge.
Right away, the other kids detected that “she’s different” scent on me. And they pounced. Teasing and minor pranks at first would later bloom into rumors, arguments, prank phone calls, and a handful of physical fights (all against boys, and all of which I won). The strange part was, I wasn’t an angry or aggressive person; in fact, I had a long fuse and I was one of those people-pleasers who didn’t want to make any waves.
The earlier teachers weren’t much better, either. In the middle and later years, I would gradually acquire the skill of converting the teacher into an ally, but during the early years, I tried to be good, but it didn’t matter. Some of them were impatient, temperamental, intolerant, and shrill (so much so that I felt the urge to pee and other adrenaline-related symptoms before getting off the bus in the morning). They provided zero protection and even less support.
That shocked me, and the confusion was overwhelming. I wonder if they surmised that I “had it coming”? Or maybe they were too busy scolding me themselves. So I did something one way when I was supposed to be doing it a different way. Or maybe I was daydreaming and didn’t hear them call my name. (What business was it of theirs anyway; couldn’t they just leave me alone?) The funny part is, most of the time, I never could figure out what I was doing wrong. It was like everyone else had this Code of Operations that they were all privy to, some common language of sorts that they all understood, and I had completely missed the boat.
Not that I was particularly interested in their Code. They seemed so far behind! I already knew my shapes! Why the hell did I have to trace them ad nauseum on worksheet after worksheet? What’s even more absurd is that instead of realizing that I already knew the material and advancing me to the next grade level (Grade 1), they required me to repeat the current year (kindergarten) over again! (Hence the reference to “my ‘first’ year of kindergarten”.)
In the early years, the goop running out of other kids’ noses or their infantile (to me) rambling didn’t exactly excite me. I was nice about it; I didn’t pick on anyone, recoil in horror (visibly), or run around bossily wiping their noses. For me, it had an effect similar to a bad car accident; I stared as discreetly as possible, not quite believing what I was seeing, until it got too mentally traumatic (goop does that to me), and then I turned away, unable to bear to keep looking.
I stared at other things, too…like my desktop. Or out the window. I daydreamed and doodled, mind-numbingly bored, wishing I could be anywhere but there. I had a rich fantasy world, an entire “town” of “people” who lived in houses in the trees throughout our property, and thoughts of this “town” followed me between home and school. Between intense boredom, an equally-intense storyline involving my fantasy town, and nonstop bilateral ear infections, it was sometimes hard to get my attention. One day, that resulted in the following conversation.
Mom: “Remember, you have a doctor’s appointment today.”
Me: “What for?”
Mom: “You need to have an EEG.”
Me: “What’s an EEG?”
Mom: “It measures your brain waves. Your ‘genius’ teacher thinks you might have epilepsy.”
I knew what epilepsy was. I knew equally as much that I didn’t have it. So did my (frustrated) mom.
I knew that I was staring because I was thinking deeply, and that I was thinking so deeply because I was that bored. (So did my (frustrated) mom.)
The tragedy here is that mindsets like those (in the example above) that we endured from the public school faculty and staff, coupled with the public school objective of cranking out uniform masses of mediocre minds that are all set to work for someone else and become “good little sheeple” essentially killed my would’ve-been love for going to school.
As a result, I lost interest. I saw no point in doing my “daily work” (or later, homework), so I didn’t. I had already solidly grasped that information; why waste time rehashing it instead of moving onto something new? Like the stomach craves sustenance, my brain craved fresh educational stimulus.
But rather than realize that they were trying to jam a star-shaped (Aspie) peg into a round-shaped hole, they stuck to their guns.
Meanwhile, I lost interest. My grades resembled a yin-yang polarity, depending on my level of interest in the subject. But even in subjects that I cared about and would have earned good marks, I aced my exams, but my lack of (or late) daily work brought my grades down.
Parent-teacher conferences became a dreaded exercise. Stock phrases like, “She’s extremely bright and she knows the material; I’d like to give her an ‘A’ but her daily work component brings her grade down to a ‘B'” and “she’s a joy to have in class, never causes any trouble, but she just doesn’t apply herself” were repetitive mantras. And they usually resulted in admonishment from my parents.
Then, the nagging started at home. That only made things worse; I lost interest further. I retreated into my (unrealized) Aspie world.
We moved out of the rural farming county with the go-nowhere bare-minimum school system and into the city, with a much better-rated school system. It was more challenging, and it would also have been more fun, had I not already been so profoundly soured by my earlier experience. It was as if, by then, I was damaged goods.
I became quite the escape artist. I began to seek solace, in (harmless) activities other than school. Because to finally buckle down and do my daily work would be to give in to a system I saw no sense in and did not agree with. By secondary/junior high school, I was writing musical scores during Home Ec. I contemplated astrology during Biology. I wrote stories during Math. I wrote notes to my few friends during English or shop class.
As I got older, the pressure mounted. Pressure from teachers and the rest of the public school system to conform to rules I’d had no say in making and found useless to me. Pressure from parents to get my homework done and earn good grades; I was–and still am–a master procrastinator, and this was quite the point of contention. Pressure from the other kids to fit in. Pressure on myself to be something and someone other than I was. (Of course, I was trying to change neuro-types, trying to trade my then-unknown Aspie-ness in for neurotypicality. Not gonna happen.)
It wasn’t pretty.
When I was 16, my mother had found some articles about the various attention deficit disorders, and had brought them home to me. She wondered if that’s what might be “wrong” with me. Don’t get me wrong; she was ultimately supportive and didn’t blame me entirely; we both knew I was different, and she was looking for answers, just like I was. She also knew that much of the blame rested with the former school. What we didn’t know (and couldn’t have known yet) was that I “had” Asperger’s.
My college/university experience involved a lot of indecision and doubt. I ended up changing my college major eight times over the course of seven years. For a while, I felt like I was spinning my wheels in a pile of gravel, redlining the engine but failing to gain any traction and cover any distance. Shit happens. I finally decided on pre-med and then, naturally, med school, which will probably get its own post.
This story does have a happy ending.
By the time I started high school, I my appreciation for the better school system had fully taken root, and I began to want to perform better in my classes. I actually got excited about semester projects and felt motivated to not only do them (and on time), but to also do them well; I found–and utilized–my creative mojo and produced results I could be proud of. By Grade 12/senior year of high school, I had finally made the “B” Honor Roll fairly regularly, and during my last semester of high school, I made the “A” Honor Roll for the first time in my life.
Yes, you could say I recovered from those six early years (two in kindergarten and Grades 1 through 4) in the poorly-administered school system and began to find my wings and spread them. Yes, you could say I finally found my calibrated compass in college/university and gained some direction.
But it was a hard fight.
There was a lot of pain.
There was a lot of alienation.
There was a lot of damage.
There was a lot of frustration.
There are invisible scars that remain, for what will probably be forever.
In short, I believe that public school (and the more mundane of private schools, too) usually sucks for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
But there’s a lot of brightness, too. Some of my teachers from high school and college/university remain friends of mine to this day. I have a handful of other close friends, too. The information and skills I learned in the better school system have stuck with me, such that I remember various historical facts or how to perform various math functions that most people–even those younger than I–have forgotten how to do. (Yes, I set up algebraic equations almost once a week and solve for an unknown “X”, and no, these aren’t just math exercises to stay sharp.) 🙂
One of the key turning points that began to steer me out of academic oblivion and toward some sort of success was that I began to take a more active role in my own education. I began to take the initiative to consider how each subject–whether I was innately interested in it or not–could benefit me later, no matter how tangentially. I started to think about how I could take what I was learning and apply it to various situations or aspects of my life. That initiative was huge; it made all the difference.
That’s also where the regret enters the picture; questions abound, such as…
…..What would have happened had we moved to the better-school city sooner?
…..What and who would I have become?
…..What greatness might have been lost because I didn’t take that active initiative until very late in the game?
I might’ve been able to get into a better med school. I might have gone to–and graduated from–med school earlier, which would’ve given me a better and earlier jump on my career. I might be in a better position now. I might have learned–and retained–even more.
As it stands, the losses accumulated throughout those early and middle years are probably pretty substantial. But it’s both depressing and non-constructive to play that “what if” game. All I have is the “here and now”, and that “here and now” isn’t all that bad.
I got lucky. I also worked hard. I was given some, but I had to earn the rest.
As for the damage, I’ll heal eventually. 🙂