Archive for November, 2010
C at his first baseball game. Go Diamondbacks!
C was sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen island the other night as I chopped vegetables for a recipe. We were talking about our upcoming move to North Carolina, and he once again expressed excitement about being somewhere new. Then he dropped this bombshell:
“I’ll bet everyone will miss me. Everyone except S. He hates me.”
C said this without affect or inflection in his voice. No clues to the emotions behind the words except the content of the words themselves.
I stood there for a moment, waiting to see if he’d add anything else before I resorted to my usual “fixit” mode of being. You see, a long time ago I actually read the book Men are From Mars; Women are From Venus. Honestly? It perplexed me. Far more a “fixer” (Mars) than a “sympathizer” (Venus), I don’t really know how to do the sit and listen to a friend in need thing; I want to help her. I’m more about solutions and finding a way to make things work.
Carefully, I spoke. “You know, C, a lot of times when people say they hate someone else, the person they really hate is themselves. S is probably very unhappy with who he is, and he’s taking that out on you. He probably doesn’t really hate you,” I said, matching C’s flat tone so as to calm any emotions that might be hiding beneath his words.
Before I finished my thought, I saw the glazed look in his eye C gets when he’s done with a conversation. I vaguely knew, in that moment, that I had failed him with my response. Instead of just listening and asking C how he felt about S’s words, I tried to explain the situation to him. I tried to fix it; not S’s words, but C’s reaction to them.
And that’s what I missed: C’s reaction. I blew it and missed my chance to have a real conversation about what it’s like to spend the day with someone who hates you, what it’s like to feel someone’s contempt simply because you have the nerve to exist, and what it’s actually like to be C. I won’t make that mistake again.
The moment is over - it’s too late to go back and fix it now (yes, I get the irony here). But next time it comes up – and it will, I’m sure - I’m prepared to be all kinds of Venus.
I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but please read through to the end. Just trust me.
November 1 is supposed to be a “communication shutdown” day in order to raise autism awareness. People are purposely not using facebook and email in order to mimic what it must be like to be autistic. Quite frankly, I find the whole exercise strange – for me, at least. My autistic child is at his communicative best on the telephone when there are no faces to distract him. I suspect someday he will be the same online, so I refuse to be electronically silent in order to raise awareness of autism. This is a time to speak up, not shut down!
The last time I was silent was a moment I will regret for the rest of my life. After being bullied, teased, and picked on for half of his second grade year, C’s teacher asked if I would be willing to allow someone to come in and speak to the class about him. She hoped to help the other kids understand why C talks too loud, why he laughs at odd times, and why he just seems different – she hoped that the kids might gain some empathy.
When I look back on the entire “event,” I am amazed at my own naiveté and silence. About the only thing done right was arranging for C to be out of the classroom during the discussion. Hindsight is 20/20, and now it almost appears as a great comedy of errors, each tragic mistake piled on top of another to create the most incredible disaster I’ve known thus far in C’s life.
Once I found out who was going to do “the talk,” I should have stopped it right there. I knew the person, did not have a good feeling about him, and had never really connected with him during his tenure on C’s special education team. He told me I should not be there during the talk. C’s teacher told me I should be. I went. Yet I was silent.
I listened in the back of the room while the talk turned into a twenty-minute free for all discussion about why the kids didn’t like C. “Oh, I know, I know!” one little girl squealed, eagerly raising her hand to share as if it was some kind of contest she wanted to win. She spoke up 11 times.
Still, I was silent.
I looked at C’s teacher across the room. Her head was down. I waited for her to speak up, to say anything. I was paralyzed while I waited for the presenter to turn it around, to get to the good part, to mitigate this disaster. I kept thinking he had to know what he was doing and he would fix it by the end. It would be okay. This couldn’t really be happening. I was silent.
As he wrapped it up, I sat there, silently planning ways I could get C out of the building before he came back to class. I thought about how I could never bring him back to school after this. How could he ever walk back in this building again? I fought back tears. I was silent.
I went into the hall to intercept C before he came back to class. The presenter caught up with me and said, with an air of fake sympathy and a touch on the arm, “That’s why I didn’t want you to be there. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the truth, isn’t it?” I was silent. “Sometimes kids just need to vent,” he concluded as he turned and walked away.
I was still silent then, because I could not speak. I simply could not open my mouth because I knew that only tears would come out. I went back into the classroom to grab C, who had slipped by me. As I walked up to him, two boys bounced around C’s desk. “We can’t tell you what we’ve been doing, but we were talking about you,” they taunted.
I grabbed C, deposited him with his special ed teacher, and went back into the classroom. I don’t remember why I did go back, but when I walked in, I heard C’s most loving teacher doing her best to erase both her silence and mine by turning the conversation around to what the kids liked about C.
“He’s really smart!” one girl said. “He’s always friendly,” said another.
I sat down, fighting back the tears yet again. In ten minutes, his teacher managed to undo much of the damage that had been done. That girl who spoke up 11 times? “I’m going to write C a note,” she said, “apologizing for being mean to him last week.”
I followed the kids out to recess, realizing by then we might somehow be able to make it okay. I still couldn’t say anything when C’s teacher asked me how I thought it went. It took me until the next day to process enough to ask her if she thought I was overreacting. This seems so silly to me now – as if I needed permission to be upset. But my asking opened the floodgates, and she cried with me as she told me how awful she felt about the whole experience.
I broke my silence. I wrote a letter to the presenter, knowing I could never face him without dissolving into a puddle of tears. I sat down with the principal of C’s school and the district special education director. Every teacher on staff heard about the incident (albeit not through me), and many approached me offering kind words. I heard through the grapevine that the presenter was distressed by my letter; he didn’t understand what the problem was. He never said another word to me again, and by the end of the year he was gone. I’m not sure if he quit or was forced to go, but I’ve heard rumors of both.
I discussed the incident with very few people. The next morning, I sobbed at my best friend’s dining room table. I cried on the phone that night to my boss. Husband, my parents, and my brother and sister-in-law all listened to me weep. A a few far flung bloggy and real-life friends received an explanatory email after a cryptic facebook and blog post of mine.
It was the single most painful experience I’ve ever had involving C. I am so thankful C wasn’t there, and I would gladly hear all of it again if it meant he never had to. It’s nearly two years later, and I know I will never forget one moment of that most disturbing day.
But never again will I be silent.