Tuesday, November 25, 2014

If Michael Brown had been Michael White . . .

Last night, it was really hard for me to go to bed.  I was tired.  I’d had a long day at work and afterward.  I needed sleep.  But the news was full of the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision to not even indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  So no trial.  No hashing out of the testimonies and evidence in court.  No attempt at justice for his survivors.

And all I could think about was this: if Michael Brown had been a white kid, the police officer would not have shot and killed him.

I’m not looking for debates and arguments.  No one is going to change my belief in this.  

In seven or eight years, if my blond-haired, blue-eyed son and his African-American classmate walk into a store together, they will follow the other kid around.  It doesn’t matter that his Dad is a wealthy and famous professional athlete.  If they walk down the street together as teens-becoming-adults, people may wonder if my kid is okay, and if this young Black man is bothering him.

And I will never have to teach my white son how to act when he gets stopped by the police, just so he doesn’t have to fear being killed.

That is just how it is in this country.  And in some places, like Ferguson, Missouri, it is a lot worse than in others.  

This didn’t start in Ferguson.  It didn’t start with Trayvon Martin or even Dred Scott.  It began when Europeans stole people from their homelands and brought them to this continent and Europe and South America and the Caribbean against their wills.  It began when white people broke up Black families and turned people into property.

It continued as white people denied Black people education.  As they split up enslaved people from the same African cultures so they couldn’t communicate with one another or even offer each other comfort in their imprisonment.  This continues, in a different, insidious form, even today.  We see it in school systems that offer less and lesser to people of color.  Nowadays it comes down to socioeconomics.  But . . . surprise, surprise . . . socioeconomic stratification in this country has always been on racial lines. Why? Because of centuries of denied opportunities.

These days, you will hear white people talk about the way Black people speak, act, dress, express themselves through music and other media, and it is almost always with derision.  Everything about being Black in America descends from what white people have put in place.  Oh, but NOW you don’t like it?  Maybe early white Americans should have thought of that when teaching Blacks to read was punishable by death.

If your ancestors had been kidnapped, beaten, raped, abused, considered property, and KILLED simply because of their skin color, you’d be seriously pissed off too.  When we look at the historical conflicts in Europe . . . let’s take the Irish and the English . . . these are viewed and discussed in academic terms.  Former “terrorists” (depending on who you ask) are now leading politicians.  The subjugation of one people by another is looked back upon with regret, pity, compassion, and understanding.  (NOTE: as a person of English and Irish heritage, I take no sides in this one.)

Rebellion and protest are in our nation’s DNA.  In school, we study the American Revolution.  Rebels are heroes.  Wanton acts of violence and unrest, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, are put in the spotlight as proud moments in our history.  The murders of Loyalist neighbors, and their banishment to Canada or elsewhere tends to go unmentioned.  But it was all good, because these were white people fighting for white freedoms.

But in the year 2014, Black people aren’t allowed to be angry when police officers kill their sons and brothers.  When their people are routinely arrested and incarcerated at a hugely disproportionate rate to whites.

And I’ve seen wealthy white kids using the N-word with their friends and posting pictures of their drug paraphernalia on Facebook and Instagram.  No one even bats an eye.  A Black kid walks down the street, and he MUST be up to no good.

If you’ve got a problem with me and what I am saying, don’t try to change my mind or convince me it’s not about race.  Unfollow me and unfriend me on social media if you want.  I don’t hate cops, and I don’t condone rioting or looting.  But I am also clever enough to realize that white, straight, female me has NO CLUE what it’s like to be Black in America.  And I am still angry about all these dead Black kids.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"No Brainers" and My Son, the Scarecrow

Yesterday, my son told me something that I can’t stop thinking about.  We had already been discussing school and how he feels there, especially in math class.  Math is his hardest subject.  It just always has been.  He has some special issues where math is concerned.  No one denies that.

What he told me, though, was how he felt when a teacher poses a “no brainer” and he doesn’t know what to do.  That was the term he used: “no brainer.”  I don’t know if he heard that from a teacher or what.  His dilemma is as follows:

“If I raise my hand and get called on, and I get it wrong, everyone will know I don’t know it.  But if I don’t raise my hand and I am the only one not raising my hand, everyone will know I don’t know.  They will talk about me outside of class, about how I don’t know anything.”

He is ten years old.  In case you have not read about me and my son before, it may help you to know that he has mild autism.

My son seems to believe that he is the only one who doesn’t know everything when it comes, especially, to math.  Also, he can’t understand why anyone would like math when it is so hard.  He thinks he is the only one like this.  He’s like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

The Scarecrow wanted, more than anything, to have a brain.  By the way, can I just say that neither a scarecrow nor a tin man have a heart OR a brain?  So that’s a whole thing right there.  But I digress.  Let us continue to suspend disbelief so I can keep using this metaphor.

At the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), the Scarecrow learns that he is, in fact, smart after all.  When it came time to need to solve a problem and have “smarts,” he came through.  He wanted the Wizard to give him a brain, but he had it all along.  Like the Scarecrow, my son wants someone to make him be good at math.  He wants external validation that he is good enough academically, and that he can do things other kids can do.  It just takes him longer.  And he might need some additional tools.

So is my son internalizing the idea that if he can’t correctly answer a “no brainer” in class, then he doesn’t have a brain?  Or that the brain he has isn’t good enough?

We have tried to help him understand that his autism is a difference in neurology.  He has a brain (and all the stuff connected to it), but his is wired differently than most other people’s.  He reacts differently to things.  His senses perceive more of some things, and maybe less of others, compared to his peers.  What he has begun to sense a lot of, very recently, is that being different isn’t just hard for him, but it’s hard for the people who work with him.  And he doesn’t understand why they might feel impatient with him (as he perceives it) or maybe not like him (again, his take on things).

When we use glib terms like “no brainer,” and when we react to kids in ways that might increase their anxiety, we certainly don’t mean to upset them.  But for a kid like mine, who is mostly trying to figure out how the world works and his place is in that world, I’d like to ask everyone to consider their word choices and their voice tones, and all those other additional meanings that can be attached to what we say.  There’s a little ten year-old Scarecrow over here who wishes his brain was like everyone else’s, and doesn’t realize yet that it will never be.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Bullied Kids Become Forgiving Adults

There’s been this article going around on the Internet recently: 17 Things Former Bullied Kids Do A Little Bit Differently As Adults.  It resonated with me on a number of levels.  I did experience some bullying as a kid.  I also experienced it in my first marriage.  And yes, it has shaped who I am as an adult.  In a way, it has made me a better educator and parent, because I know what to look for, what to ask, and how to empathize.

There are also some items on that list in the article that used to be a lot more true of me as a younger adult than they are now.  Time heals wounds, sure.  And as we age and mature and gain wiser insights from our experiences, we learn that our coping strategies and defense mechanisms are sometimes just that: masks and maneuvers we don’t always truly need.  But there is another silver bullet to overcoming bullying: forgiveness.

Some time this past year -- I don’t really recall exactly when -- Facebook suggested I befriend someone I kind of knew in high school.  Funny thing (not really) was that this person had bullied me during my first year of high school.  I guess it was kind of short-lived, but it was scary as hell and while it went on, it was relentless.  I’m not going to reveal too much about the person, and you’ll see why in a moment.  But I do need to tell you a bit about what happened so you can appreciate the progress I needed to make in myself to reach a place of forgiveness.

This older student was in two of my classes.  So was at least one of her friends, and I guess some other kids they knew.  In gym class, she threatened me one day out of the blue.  It continued here and there, and carried over into my art class.  The teacher was out for an extended illness, and as we worked on our projects with a substitute there for supervision purposes, this aggressor broke apart projects of students in other class periods and threw pieces of them at me from her table partway across the room.  Again, no provocation by me.  I was a freshman just minding my own business.

After gym class one day, as I returned to the locker room to change, the bullying girl and a couple of friends were waiting, menacingly, just inside the locker room door.  I had to detour into the teachers’ office to say, “I’m not going in there.  There are these girls that are going to beat the crap out of me if I go in that locker room.”  I ended up at the vice principal’s office, my Mom got called in, and it got dealt with, I guess.  And knowing our vice principal, I am sure he said that if they retaliated against me for telling on them, he’d call the police.  As it was, my mother threatened to have the police down there that very day if it wasn’t stopped immediately.

In the intervening years, I never knew what became of this young lady, except that I heard she had worked in a place I had once worked, with my sister I think.  If you’re reading this, and you’re from where I’m from, stop trying to figure out who it was.  It doesn’t matter now, as you will see in a moment.

So like I said, Facebook thought we might like to become friends.  I found that . . . well, kind of amusing.  Thirty years later.  So I didn’t request a friend add, but I did decide to write to this woman.  I sent her a private message via Facebook:

“Hi _______.  Do you remember me from high school? You and some other girls were in my art and gym classes when I was in 9th grade. For some reason, you decided to harass and threaten me. As far as I can tell, I had never done anything to cause these attacks. I know that you later worked with my sister. Looking at your Facebook, it seems like you are at a happy place in your life. Having been an educator myself for over 20 years and working with many kids over the years, I guess I have to chalk up the way you treated me in high school to some stuff you were maybe going through back then. I just thought that since Facebook suggested you as a friend for me, I would get in touch and tell you that I am happy that you are happy.”

She wrote back the very next morning and apologized.  I was on the right track that she had gone through some difficult times back then and took some of it out on me.   I’d be willing to bet that she never even remembered bullying me until I reminded her of it.  Her apology was sincere, and I was really moved by her offer to try to make things up to me.  I simply responded “all is forgiven” and I later did add her as a friend on Facebook.

And I am really glad I did.  I can see that she has encountered difficulties in her life and has triumphed over them.  Things I have never had to face.  I am encouraged and impressed by her bravery and strength.  Would I have known these things had I just snorted and clicked “ignore” at Facebook’s friend suggestion?  Even more importantly, would it have just been so much easier to consider myself superior in some way, after she expressed sincere contrition, by just “moving on” and considering it in the past and behind me?

What kind of Christian would that make me?  What kind of human being?  Bullying is bad.  It’s not okay.  But it doesn’t just arise out of nowhere.  People who bully others, whether they are children, adults, pet owners, commenters on social media, teachers, clergy, ANYONE . . . are hurting, damaged people.  And since we all are potentially in that same boat, aren’t we all just one or two thoughtless comments and snide remarks away from being the perpetrators ourselves?

So these difficult experiences did indeed mold me into a certain kind of person.  I have those reactions and feel those emotions outlined in the article.  But by confronting the experiences I had, and opening them up to look inside what they truly were, I was able to give myself and another person some healing and peace.  So let’s be careful when we throw around the term “bullying.”  And let’s also stop blaming the Internet.  It was, after all, a social network that enabled me to initiate this reconciliation with someone I would never have encountered otherwise.  And let’s just be kind to each other.  And forgive those who hurt us.  And tell them so.  For everyone’s sake.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This movie sucks. Why can't I leave the theatre?

It seems to be that there are two kinds of people who know about my mother’s death: those who want to know how I’m doing, and those who are just getting on with things like nothing happened.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I often find myself falling into the latter category.

To help set the scene a little, let me recap the timeline of the past year where my mother and I are concerned:

April 7-11, 2014 - my son and I go to Boston and New Jersey on Spring Break. I am well aware that my mother is getting older and her memory is a lot worse.  Other than that though, she seems mostly fine.

June 4-11, 2014 - after learning from my sister that my mother has cancer, I fly home for a week to help with hospital and house stuff, and to get the full info on our course of action, and (while I am in New Jersey) go with my sister to plan the prepaid funeral arrangements for whenever the inevitable comes.

September 24 - October 1, 2014 - I go home, at my sister’s request, to just be there, help out, and say goodbye. My Mom doesn’t really understand who I am, can’t really talk, and is close to the end.  I actually believe she may pass while I am in New Jersey.  She doesn’t.

October 5, 2014 - Mom dies.

October 7-11, 2014 - I fly home again, we have the wake at the funeral home and the memorial service at Mom’s church. I get back home and return to work.

And here I am, just a few weeks later, VERY well aware that I have not grieved.  I have not mourned.  I have not faced in complete reality the truth of my mother’s passing.  When it finally came, after just four short months of agonizing waiting (and sometimes wondering from afar how bad it was getting), I was not sad.  I had just seen my mother, held her hand and leaned in close to her ear to tell her it was okay to let go and join Dad in Heaven, and I knew I didn’t want THAT to continue any longer.  I knew I was powerless to change the effects of this illness or the fact that it had hit my family so suddenly and ruthlessly.  I never raged against my lack of control.  I just took it in stride.

But I know that I AM sad.  And that it does hurt.  But who has time to just put everything aside and cry?  Work is still there.  My son still needs tons of oversight in all things academic.  Commitments still must be met.  People are still counting on me for lots of things. I feel as though I am watching a movie I don't want to watch anymore, but I cannot get up and leave the theatre.

Is it that I have crafted a persona of having everything in hand and not sweating the bumps in the road, and I have to maintain that?  I don’t care about image in that way.  I don’t care much what people think.  But I make it a policy to never let people down.  I’m not even concerned about people seeing me show emotion.

I just don’t have the time.  I’m too busy to lose it and go through half a box of tissues and look a mess and be late for whatever’s next.  Especially not over something I can’t change.

I couldn’t change it when we got the diagnosis.  So I compartmentalized it into a thing my family and I were going through.  I couldn’t change it when Mom was never going to set foot in her own house again.  When she took a turn for the worse.  When it spread to her brain.  When she lost the use of her right side.  When she needed oxygen.  When we decided to start the morphine.  When I held her hand and thought “good bye” so I wouldn’t have to say it out loud.  I couldn’t change it when I got on a plane to come home, knowing I’d be making a return trip very soon.

Every step of the way, I couldn’t change it.  I couldn’t fix it.  I couldn’t make it better.  So what would be the point of losing my composure?  It would scare my son and make people want to comfort me.  It would let cancer get the better of me when I don’t even have the disease.  It could indicate a lack of faith in what happens after we die.

I appreciate when people ask me how I’m doing, or when they express their sorrow for my loss.  But I don’t want them to.  Is that normal?  Is that a thing?  It was so thoughtful of people to send flowers or a card or leave a message for me in email or on Facebook.  But I don’t want to be that person who had that thing happen.

Should we call this denial? Or postponing the inevitable?  Or am I heartless?

When I can’t remember entire conversations, or even people that I have met, and I don’t know what day it is or what I was supposed to be working on, does that go with the territory?  Do I claim the “my Mom died” excuse, and if so, for how long is that acceptable?

Should I be concerned when I can’t stay awake so I go to bed and then can’t fall asleep?  Do we chalk it up to having lost a loved one?  Is it fair to do that when I act like nothing has happened?

When does it stop?  When does my life go back to whatever I used to consider normal?  Do I need to set an appointment with myself to have a nervous breakdown?  I’d really rather not.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Eulogy for a Role Model

My mother passed away today.  I should feel really sad, but that isn’t what has overtaken me.  Rather, I feel that I can go back to seeing my Mom, in my mind’s eye, as I have always known her, and not as the extremely infirm and ill person whose hand I held and who looked me in the eyes without recognition when I visited about a week ago.  That was only what was left of my Mom when cancer had taken its hold.

But let me tell you about the Mom that stupid cancer never knew.

I can sum up who she was with one brief story.  It carries a simple yet profound message.  I remember during my second year of teaching, I was talking with a rather small-for-his-age seventh grader in East Orange about getting teased and picked on by his peers.  We were out in the parking lot between the school building and the playground, and he was close to tears.  I told him that my mother had always told me that when people say hurtful things to you, it’s got nothing to do with YOU, and everything to do with THEM.  People pick on others to deflect attention from the things they dislike in themselves.  They try to make themselves feel bigger by making others feel smaller.  And when you know that, then you know it doesn’t work, and you actually feel a little bad for the other person.

The thing is, I don’t think I ever really thought about the things I learned from my mother until that moment.  I was not yet a parent myself, and I wasn’t all that far into my second year as a teacher.  I was 22 or 23 years old, and I can promise you that despite what I may have thought of myself at the time, I did NOT have any kind of life experiences of my own to be spouting wisdom at the next generation.  But what I did have was my mother’s wisdom.

My Mom’s father died when she was 3 years old.  Her sister was 2 and her brother was 1.  Her parents had only been married for five years and one month.  And then her mother died when they were 17, 16, and 15.  They lived with an uncle and aunt and cousins until they each went off into their own adulthoods.  My Mom came to America just a few years after her mother passed.  She met my father within her first year and she immediately fell in love with him and his parents.  They saw her as another daughter, and I know she was grateful to have a new chance at having this kind of family.  She called them Mom and Pop, just like my Dad did.

Just like with everything, she didn’t miss out on what this new opportunity brought her.  When I started researching my family history, and I asked my parents about their ancestors, Dad would often be surprised at things Mom knew about HIS side.  When he asked, “How do you know THAT? I didn’t know that!”  She would respond that his Mom told her, when they spent long hours talking while he was away in Texas and Korea with the Air Force.

That’s just how Mom always was about everything.  She got involved.  She did for others.  She didn’t expect anything special in return.  She treated people with respect and kindness, and as my Facebook wall can now attest, they remember her well for it.

My mother was humble.

When I was born, the youngest of four kids spread out over ten years, my father was working three jobs to support our family.  When I started school, my mother went back to work.  At Burger King.  Then she worked at Roy Rogers.  Then The General Store behind the counter and in the deli section.  She worked for many years at Ralph’s Pizza, and she only gave that up to take care of my niece at my sister’s house.  She later did a stint as the person in charge of overseeing Social Security for people in my home town.  Throughout these years, she was also super involved in our local schools, through the PTA, various clubs and other efforts, and eventually served on the school board of my high school.  One of my proudest moments was when my mother got to give me my high school diploma at graduation, because she was a school board member.  

You see, Mom didn’t even have the equivalent of a high school diploma.  She left school, as one did in her homeland of Scotland, at age 16.  It was rare for someone of her background to stay longer than that.  She had grown up poor in Glasgow, and then she had to be all grown up before she was even 18.  But she didn’t feel sorry for herself; she just learned to DO.  And to BE.  To be a really great and giving person.

No friend ever came to our house hungry and left in the same state.  We may not have had much, but we could always share.  I wore clothes, played with toys, and read books that had been passed down from three siblings (and perhaps more people outside our family).  Mom did not waste.  Anyone who ever tried to use a pen in our house will know that it was really hard for my mother to part with anything if there was still hope for it.  The cup of pens that could each only scrawl one letter is a subject of many a joke through the years in our house.  To this day, I have to have my husband throw things away when I am not looking, and I can’t throw food away.  My mother was the Queen of Leftovers.

Little things I remember about my mother still make me smile or even laugh out loud.  The notes she always left, on the back of papers that had been notices from school or old homework, to let us know where she was (usually work or a meeting) and when she’d be back.  Or to take something out to defrost.  Or for us to leave our own whereabouts.  That time my brother and I made a ringing noise, handed Mom a banana and told her it was for her, and she had the banana to her ear before she realized we were messing with her.  Walking across town to the supermarket every Friday, where my Dad would pick us up after work and pay for our groceries with the wages he had just gotten.

My mother taught me the value of hard work, compassion, and laughing at yourself even when life gets crazy.  Easygoing through everything life threw at her, as long as there was a cup of coffee -- or better yet, a cappuccino -- to be had.  It was Mom who, after losing the love of her life, helped the rest of us gain perspective: “We had fifty wonderful years together, and most people never have that.”  

I think my favorite things about my Mom, though, are how much she loved us all and valued family, and how easy it was for me to make her laugh.  When I think about everything she went through in life, it’s easy to see why family was so important to her.  Even though four of her seven grandchildren lived thousands of miles away, she always sent a card and asked for annual school pictures, and she always had everyone’s important dates written on her calendar.  She kept in touch with loads of people across the ocean each year at Christmas.  And when she could travel to see us, or with us to Britain or elsewhere, there was always time for laughter.  Just being alive was cause for celebration and smiles.

So all those things about myself that I love and treasure -- those come from my parents.  My sense of humor, and my love of family and heritage.  My need to do for others simply because I can.  My patience and my positive outlook.  I can’t take credit for any of these good qualities.  I can only count myself lucky to have had amazing role models in my parents.  And my gift to them, now that they are both gone, is to share their gifts with everyone I meet.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Lesson I Could Live Without

When my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, six and a half years ago, it wasn’t supposed to happen that way.  He went into the hospital to have a heart valve replacement operation.  That went well, but he caught pneumonia in the hospital and a few days later, he was gone.  Turns out he had undiagnosed emphysema that no one knew about, so that didn’t help.  But we never saw it coming, and I just kept telling myself “it wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”

Now, as I sit across the room from my mother, in a hospital bed in my sister’s dining room, on oxygen and sleeping a lot, I find myself thinking it wasn’t supposed to happen this way either.  But it is happening.  My mother has cancer.  And until about three and a half months ago, no one had any idea.

She has never been a complainer, and with her memory getting worse, we figure she just didn’t let anyone know she was feeling sick.  Or she didn’t know.  Either way, she is near death now, and I am powerless to do anything more than watch.

Of course, it was bound to happen eventually.  Parents die.  We say it’s wrong when a parent outlives their child.  Almost all adults go through the loss of their parents.  But that doesn’t make it suck any less when you look at someone who has been there all your life, someone you’ve traveled with, laughed with, shared meals with, and spoken to every week or more, and that person is gone.  The body is still there, but the person inside . . . you’ll never have them back again.

When I lost my Dad, I had all kinds of regrets.  The last time we saw each other face-to-face, we had argued.  At the airport.  Over stupid stuff.  We were fine later, but it doesn’t change the fact that I never got to look in his eyes again, or hug him again, after that last awkward time together.  And I had been really close by on a school trip that took me to New York City just a few weeks before he died.  I saw other family, but not Dad.  Weather was a problem, and he wasn’t up for heading into the city in the torrential rain.  No big deal.  But, of course, none of us knew he’d be gone less than a month later.

I live on the other side of the continent from where I grew up, and where my family still lives (except for one brother) to this day.  It has meant I have not been with family a lot of times when I would have liked to.  It also means I miss out on day-to-day drama, and I am okay with that.  However, it means I can’t be here to help when things get rough.

My son and I visited in April, before my mother’s condition came to light.  I didn’t know when we would be back for our next visit.  Then I ended up coming for a week in June and I am here for a week again in September.  It seems such a paltry contribution.  My sister and brother have had to do it all.

And it’s not like life and all its special demands suddenly take a hiatus while you deal with all the really unpleasant aspects of end-of-life care.  Work still beckons.  Other family members still need you.  This has been hardest on my sister, by far.

So as my brother cleans out the house from its forty-five years worth of family life, and my sister juggles work, family, and Mom, I have been able to mainly get on with my life on the other coast.  Affected by it all, yes.  But not to the point of it preventing me doing all the things I do in my world.  I’ve even managed to resist crying most of the time.  It’s as if it hasn’t been as real for me as it has for my siblings.

But now, as I gaze across at my sleeping mother, cradled between the rhythmic cacophony of the oxygen machine on one side, and the Nat King Cole it desperately tries to drown out on the other, I can avoid reality no longer.  My mother is dying.

I keep expecting it to happen right now, as I sit here.  But my mother is a strong woman.  She has always been a fighter when it comes down to it.  Her life has not been easy at many stages.  She lost both her parents before she was out of her teens.  She came to this country an adult orphan with nothing left to lose, really.  She met my father and got a new set of parents in the in-laws who saw her as another daughter immediately.  She has since lost them, my father, and all my aunts and uncles save one.  In response to each of these losses, she has always uncovered a bright side.  They had a long life.  She and my father had fifty wonderful years together, “and most people never get that.”

For Mom, though, there is no bright side.  Maybe that she doesn’t appear to be in pain, and she has been largely unaware of how devastating her disease is.  Or that it has happened really fast.  Just a few months.  Can the darkest of darkness have a bright side?

If she wakes up while I am here today, I will walk over there, stand beside her bed, and talk to her.  She will not know who I am.  She doesn’t understand what’s going on.  But today, in the midst of all this, I understand some things I never dreamed I could fathom.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I can stay silent no longer.

This is a really rough week for death.  Actually, it’s been over a week.  Israel and Gaza are killing each other.  ISIS is exterminating people in droves in the Middle East, one NASCAR driver accidentally killed another just yesterday, and then a police officer gunned down a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

I was already feeling pretty sad, given that I keep seeing all this, and meanwhile, in my little corner of reality, my mother’s health is declining from cancer and Alzheimer’s, and it’s kind of a race to see if I get to say goodbye to her at Christmas or if she’ll have lost the battle by then.

And then today.  Depression killed Robin Williams.

That’s right.  I’m not going to make the victim the subject of that sentence.  I’m not going to accuse this actor and comedian we all love of committing murder of self.  Because depression is the killer.

If people want to say that a person who commits suicide is weak, then fine.  They’re weak in the same way a person in the final stages of cancer, or ALS, or multiple sclerosis is weak.  If they’re selfish, fine.  They’re selfish the way a person in the final stages of a torturously painful disease begs death to end the pain.

If you’ve never struggled with depression or addiction, then please: count yourself lucky and SHUT. UP.  You really have no idea.  If you have had to spend some part of your life battling one of these diseases (that’s right; I said it), then you know.  It could have been you.

It could have been me.

Now, granted, the only thing I’ve ever been addicted to is nicotine, for that brief period of a few years when I smoked maybe half a pack a day at most.  It was a rough time.  I quit.  It wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t impossible for me.  I guess I’m lucky that way.

But I know depression.  I spent years on medication, and I was hospitalized once for a week.  I know what it’s like to really believe the horrible, crazy things your brain tells you about the world, about reality, about your worth as a human being.  Thank God I recovered.

Depression is a disease.

Cancer is a disease.  We all know about that.  Who among you has never known a person who has had cancer?  Cancer attacks the body by dangerously multiplying diseased cells at a quicker rate than the body creates normal, healthy cells.

Heart disease is a well-known scourge as well.  Many of us have it in our family tree somewhere, what with high cholesterol and a tendency toward heart attacks coexisting in a society in which our increasingly sedentary lifestyle (guilty as charged) is conspiring with genetics to kill us early.

Multiple sclerosis.  Stroke.  ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Diabetes. Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s.  You know their names.  We all live in fear that they will strike those we love.  Or ourselves.  Something happens in the body that isn’t the way it’s supposed to.  Illness ensues.  The sufferer has a decreased quality of life, is less able to move, and/or experiences pain.

I could be describing depression there.  I typed those sentences and it wasn’t intentional that I was also describing depression.  Addiction.  These two diseases, often found hanging around together, happen in the brain’s chemistry.

Something happens in the body that isn’t the way it’s supposed to.  Illness ensues.  The sufferer has a decreased quality of life, is less able to move, and/or experiences pain.

When depression or addiction claims a life, where’s the compassion?  So now we’ve somehow decided that there are acceptable diseases and shameful ones?  Why do you think so many people don’t get the help they need?  Why do you think they’re afraid to seek treatment?

No one chooses emotional illness or chemical dependency.  Robin Williams didn’t start using cocaine back in the day because he thought it would be great fun to be a drug addict.  He didn’t replace that with alcohol after finally cleaning up because he thought “everyone loves a drunk.”  He was self-medicating.  He could make you laugh, cry, love him, and idolize him.  But he couldn’t make you help him.  And he couldn’t make you stop him from succumbing to a disease any more than you could have cured someone of cancer.

So if you’re the person who says, “what a waste,” or “how selfish,” or “how could he do this to his kids,” then please move along.  There’s nothing for you to see here.  Depression, addiction, and suicide are not choices any more than cancer is a choice.

It’s been said all over the place, and I’ll say it again: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.  Be kind.

Even after they’re gone.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Reactions to my son's diagnosis

Three weeks ago, we learned that our son has mild Asperger's, or autism spectrum disorder.  We've been doing a lot of reading, talking to each other, explaining here and there to friends, and planning to meet with some folks at his school (which happens tomorrow).  Most people have found out from Facebook or Twitter and read my blog post about the diagnosis.

But as I've communicated with other friends directly over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that I have had to respond to a particular reaction a few times and it solidified for me what I think and believe about my son and about autism/Asperger's.

These were perfectly well-meaning folks, and their reactions didn't upset me, really, but they did give me pause to think, and I felt I needed to respond immediately with what I believed to be most helpful.

These friends apologized.  They expressed that they were sorry to hear about our son's diagnosis.

I immediately responded that they didn't need to feel sorry.  We are glad to have this information, and also relieved to know what causes our son's difficulties in school and with some other social situations.  Now that we have understanding, we can help him feel and be more successful.

During this same few weeks, I've been reading a lot and I have come to discover that the best known Autism organization, Autism Speaks, is at the center of considerable controversy for a number of reasons I won't go into here.  One area of concern is that the organization seems to consider autism a disease that needs a cure.

My son doesn't have a disease.  He doesn't need a cure.  What needs to be eradicated is the ignorance around autism.  It's a different way the brain is wired in some people, and for a subset of that population, the effects are much more impactful than for others with the condition.

I wouldn't want my son to be changed.  We, as a family, will learn together how navigate the world with autism as a part of it.  People who meet my son, whether they know his diagnosis or not, fall in love with him.  Who would change that?

Writing to my son's teachers about his diagnosis

Five days ago, I wrote to all of the teachers my son has had this year in his first year at a new school.  I also included his counselor, the learning specialist, the division head (like a principal for grades 4 and 5), and the psychologist who performed his evaluation and gave us the diagnosis.  I thought I would share in case any other parent would find it helpful as a model for explaining Asperger's.

Hello everyone,

I am writing to C's teachers from this year because I wanted to share a little bit about what we recently learned about C's learning differences.  Earlier this month, C was diagnosed with mild Asperger's Syndrome.  To be more accurate, since the new DSM-V does not include Asperger's as its own diagnosis, he officially has autism spectrum disorder.  Again, it's very mild, but it is a definite neurological difference, compared to most of his peers, that helps explain so many of the challenges he's faced all his life.

In C's case, we see the Asperger's Syndrome most clearly in the following areas:
- low frustration tolerance (when he becomes overwhelmed, he shuts down -- his brain does; it is not a choice)
- slow processing speed (this is not an indication of intelligence, just processing)
- problems with motor coordination (especially with writing)
- deep interest in certain subjects (tsunamis, ships, World War II)
- being behind his peers in some social interaction skills (this includes not being able to pick up cues that people don't have time or are not interested in hearing about his specialized interests, and also talking like a "little professor" about the things he knows a lot about)
- emotional reactions to unexpected situations (abrupt change in routine, being caught off-guard, not feeling like he has control over choices, being embarrassed by not being able to do the same things the same way his peers do)

Please understand that autism and Asperger's are not caused by parenting mistakes or a child's choices.  It's a different neurological layout of the brain's wiring.

C knows about his diagnosis, but he doesn't fully understand it yet.  We've been working with him to explain when things come up that encourage conversation about his differences and how they are a part of his Asperger's, and not his or anyone else's "fault."  We don't really know yet how he would feel about discussing it with anyone at school.

A friend and fellow educator recently pointed me to a video she had just shared with her sixth grade students to help them understand a classmate who has autism.  I wanted to share it with you, as well as a link to a blog post I wrote the day we learned C's diagnosis.

The video is by a young man who himself has Asperger's/autism: http://youtu.be/x5m5vqrFZpc
(He actually has about 175 videos on his YouTube channel, so I've got summer homework.)

And here's my blog post from May 10th, the day we got the results of his evaluation: http://originalgeek.blogspot.com/2014/05/if-you-know-my-son-please-read-this.html

Since you've all been an important part of C's life this school year, I wanted to give you some information that, although we got it late in the school year, can help explain some of the things we didn't completely understand earlier.  And you will, no doubt, meet more students like C (though Asperger's and autism present differently from one person to another), so well-informed is well-prepared.

Thank you for all you've done for our son this year.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

If you know my son, please read this.

Asperger’s Syndrome.  Or, more technically, Autism Spectrum Disorder, because the DSM-V has moved Asperger’s into the ASD group now.  Mild.  But still.

I cried.

Not because my kid has been diagnosed with mild autism.  Not really.  I cried because of my fear of how he will be treated.  Viewed.  Discussed when he or his parents are not present.

I’ve worked in schools for over twenty years.  I know thousands of teachers.  I spend almost all my waking hours interacting with, training, supporting, and listening to teachers.  And I have also taught students who had diagnoses of autism or Asperger’s.  I’m not proud of the fact that I have also thought things.  Wondered what’s up.  Not really understood.

More than twenty years surrounded by education professionals is what gave me my initial intense gut-wrenching reaction.  People will hear that my son has Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder, and they will think or even say out loud, “Oh…..”  The knowing “Oh.”  The “Oh . . . well . . . yes . . . . . . “

The unspoken “I always thought so” and the slightly arrogant “so that explains it.”

I hear almost daily how educators talk about kids who learn differently.  If I am really friendly with them, I will sometimes point out, “That’s my kid you’re talking about too, you know.”

I should be grateful that we have a name to put to it.  I should be relieved that he will be eligible for services and accommodations he may not have been before.  I should be enlightened and brave and self-assured.  Because I’ve been in education for all these years, and I’ve read and learned so much.

But I cried.  Because I am his mother.  And I know how people talk and think and look at people who have autism or Asperger’s.

Some people don’t even believe it’s a thing.  Some people think it’s an excuse.  Some people think it’s weak.

The good news, I guess, is that for people who knew my son before, and see that he’s still the same great, funny, wonderful, amazing, charming kid, maybe they will have their eyes opened.  See, even a kid like him can have autism spectrum disorder.

It’s not a death sentence.  It’s not a bad thing.  And I am not upset that my kid has a diagnosis.  The more I reflect and read, the more I see it more clearly than I’ve ever allowed myself to before.

But I cried.  And I couldn’t speak.  And even later today, driving around alone, running errands, I nearly cried a bunch more times.

Because, in some ways, it feels like we just found out that we may be poised to wage a war here on any given day.  We may have to fight and struggle and defend his right and ability to have the same opportunities as everyone else.  Opportunities that aren’t just being allowed to do something or go somewhere.  Opportunities can also be the mere act of being seen to be just fine the way you are.  Or believed to be capable, despite a label of something that says you’re different in some way.  Or treated as equally valuable and valid.

I’m not proud of the fact that I cried.  I should be better than that, no?

But when every day you have to have at least one conversation about what your kid can’t do, or what he does differently, or what takes him too long (everything) compared to his peers . . . with his school, with his teachers, with your spouse, with the child himself, with family and friends, with strangers sometimes . . . you get tired, and then when someone says, “your kid has mild Asperger’s,” you cry.

I have more to say.  There’s another blog post in me.  But it’s about ALL the things we learned today.  First, though, I had to talk about how I reacted to what I was told.

And now I’ve done that.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Minecraft homeschooling: pro and con

I will start out by saying I looked at their class offerings a while back and don't feel strongly either way, but I did want to address some of what Amy Milstein of UnschoolingNYC had to say on her blog.

I don't strictly love the connection between Dickens and Minecraft, partly because I've never been a great reader and never been all that into Dickens, to be honest.  But I get why one thought led her to another: it's not uncommon for the schoolification of something to completely ruin it.

So that's where I want to start: why do we let school ruin stuff?  It doesn't have to be that way.  If something becomes sucky because we do it in school, then we need to stop suckifying stuff when we schoolify it.  That alone, if we could make it happen, would change everything.

But let's look specifically at Minecraft.  I counter that using Minecraft in schools could be one of the ways we eliminate The Suck and bring in The Awesome.  I'll come back to this.

Clearly, Amy writes a blog about Unschooling, which I completely respect.  School as we know it does not work for MANY kids.  Hence the growing popularity of homeschooling and unschooling.  I'm all for that.  But don't the folks involved in those alternatives need some accountability to prove that they're doing their kids a favor by opting out of their local public schools?  I think that is what Minecraft homeschooling is trying to provide.  I won't say (because I don't have any actual experience with them) whether they do it well or not, but it seems to work for some people, so yay for them.

What got and kept my attention though, is the idea that making Minecraft a school thing would somehow ruin it.  First off, you can't ruin Minecraft.  It's just. so. good.  But even if you could, it wouldn't really be Minecraft you'd be messing with.  It would be how your kid is spending her time, what kinds of learning experiences you're encouraging, etc.  You don't ruin a state park by taking kids on a field trip there.  You don't ruin computer programming by giving kids a ton of different ways to experience it.

If you're homeschooling or unschooling, and you've eschewed tests and grades, then rock ON with your bad selves and don't grade the Minecrafty experiences either.  Give students as much choice as possible in the videos they find and watch, in the goals they set for themselves, and so forth.

When I use MinecraftEdu in my Digital World classes, which for the record are at a private independent high school, I do provide some guidelines and requirements as well as student choice within those guidelines.  We make our MinecraftEdu world an extension of our classroom, and I'd have to argue that I provide a respite of non-suck from the purely academic experiences my students are immersed in the rest of their school day.

Wouldn't these kinds of experiences, if they were spread throughout our public schools, encourage some (not all, and I am cool with that) of the current homeschoolers and unschoolers to consider coming back?  People have a lot of reasons for opting out of public schooling.  Whether they choose private (for religious, philosophical, or other reasons), homeschooling, or unschooling, sometimes their main reason is they don't agree with how public education is DONE to their kids.  Most of the awesome stuff happening in public schools, in my opinion, is being perpetrated by those who are getting around the stupid things and seeking forgiveness later rather than permission up front. (Hi Karl!)

So why not bring in fun, awesome, engaging stuff from the world where our kids are already spending a ton of their time?  Just don't suckify it.