Dear elementary school teachers of my early years,
The first thing you should know is that I remember you. I remember all of you. I remember your names and faces. I remember the essence of your voices, even.
And I remember how you felt toward me and how I felt toward you.
When I was 19, I came back to the same area for university, and I made the trip to the school, to see as many of you as I could find.
I don’t remember why I was so nervous, but I do remember that the nervousness was mixed in with a sort of triumph. Because I’m not sure you ever thought I’d amount to much. And I did. I showed you. I proved you wrong. I turned myself around, academically.
When I was in your class, you saw part of me. You saw my potential. But you didn’t see my reality. My limitations were invisible. But that doesn’t make them any less real.
I could always tell that you saw my potential, and it perplexed you that I didn’t live up to it.
“Does well on tests but doesn’t do her daily work,” you said.
“Does not follow directions.”
I probably still have the report cards with your notes on them, writing the pages of who I was and who I would become. You may have meant well, expressing concern and being obligated to write something, but all those comments really accomplished was to set my invisible hurdle that much higher.
Parent-teacher conferences were even worse.
“She would’ve gotten an ‘A’ but because she hasn’t turned in any assignments yet for the whole term, she’s going to have to get a ‘B’.”
And then there would be trouble when my parents got home. Big trouble.
I had to work hard to get out from under what you taught me to think about myself.
It took a mere five years to set the inertia in motion (and yes, I recognize the irony in that statement).
It took the next eight years to recover from it and find my place, to seize back my own destiny, to white-out the writing of yours and replace it with the real story of mine.
I give you credit for noticing my potential. I give you a pass for not knowing I “had/have” Asperger’s/autism. It’s not that I knew yet how to mask or act; it’s that the criteria in the diagnostic manuals were crap and hardly recognizable in the shy, quiet, lucid kid like me–the one who simply wouldn’t pay attention, do her daily work, follow directions.
It never dawned on anybody that maybe I didn’t do these things because I couldn’t. Because after all, I aced my exams.
My test scores–and my mother, an educator herself–told you that I wasn’t slow. They told you that I was in there. My yin-yang-like dichotomies perplexed you. I did This so well, but I didn’t do That at all.
My success revealed my failure.
What you were actually dealing with was a real live full-blown Asperger’s/autistic, but the cruel joke is that nobody could have known, and nobody would have been able to find out until I was 16-17, when Asperger’s was finally added to the DSM-IV.
But by then, I had learned to cope–not with Asperger’s/autism, you see, but with the world around me and The Systems it created, the moulds I couldn’t fit into, the measuring tools on which I couldn’t register.
I learned to Just Say Yes to homework and class assignments. I had gone against my nature and given in to the system, a system I had no say in setting up. Because I was so adept and clinicians were (and mostly continue to be) so inept, I skated under the limbo pole, under everybody’s radar.
I remember always being in trouble. I wasn’t doing This right or That fast enough.
Now I can say: lay off; I was processing. I didn’t understand what you wanted. God(dess) knows I tried to please you, or at least, to skate by under the rest of your radar so that the spotlight could be diverted away from me once again.
You thought I was being obstinate; I was only interpreting your words differently. Every day was a daily struggle to Do It Right This Time, to not screw up, to not get in trouble.
But it happened anyway.
They say that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and expect different results.
The real definition of insanity is to do something different each time, and end up with the same result.
I’m shocked that I wasn’t driven insane by the time I left that place.
I finished out Grade 4 there and started Grade 5 in a new place, far away from where I had been.
It was a struggle, because the underwhelming curriculum at your school bred laziness, a habit of coasting. Being bored to death became my routine, and I had gotten very good at zoning out.
Luckily, I caught the rope attached to the proverbial helicopter just before it drifted out of reach.
It wasn’t entirely your fault. You were stuck with me, per the legislation of the time concerning compulsory education and equal opportunity and the draconian restrictions on homeschooling. You didn’t want me there.
I didn’t want me there, either, and neither did my mom. But we were all stuck.
You can thank your teachers union for that, racking up as much funding for public schools by preventing my mother–a secondary level teacher herself–from homeschooling me.
I’m glad you didn’t have much by way of Special Education programs. You would have sat me alongside the kids who drool on themselves. That’s not to put them down, that’s just to say that that’s not the accurate placement for someone who was ready for multiplication tables by the time they entered kindergarten, or who was already reading at 4-5 years beyond the expected reading level for someone their age.
And this, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between of the jury, is why I don’t subscribe to age-related function levels.
Those expectations screwed me. They thought that because I was 5-6, I should only have developed to a certain level, and also that it would be best if I was placed with other 5-and-6-year-olds who didn’t even know how to read yet. Kids who couldn’t keep their fluids in their noses, nor lunch in their stomachs. Kids who still needed a nap.
I didn’t know that I should actually be mad at you. Thankfully, my mom explained, at the time even, where you were wrong and failing, too.
The good news is, I made it. I moved 900 miles away and eventually went to med school, although that decision wouldn’t be made and that path would not be begun until I was 26. I finally graduated at 32. A late-bloomer is still a bloomer.
And then we moved 300 miles even further away.
If I were to walk up to you today, you might fight with yourself to remember me. Physically, I haven’t changed as much as one might expect. Mentally and emotionally, though, I’m a world away. I know what and who I am. I could finally explain everything, defend myself.
I’m pretty sure you’re still there, if you’re still alive. You may or may not have wondered what became of me.
My feelings toward you oscillate between hostility and pity. Or is it sympathy? I’m not sure what the better word would be. Maybe both. Part of me holds you responsible; the other part of me chocks the situation up to a product of backward times, in a backward place. So it would make sense to me that you were backwards, too.
That was then, and this is now. What’s done is done, and everything that happened did so for a reason. Maybe I was meant to struggle. Maybe so were you, being faced with a student like me.
I’m OK, and at the end of the day, I hope you’re well, too.
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(Image Credit: Anthony Samaniego)