When I began subbing as a teacher’s aide in my hometown school district, I thought that the last school I’d want to take an assignment at would be the elementary school I started attending when Lyndon Johnson was President. I have a heap of memories and not all of them are good ones. I tend to reflect more on the bad than the good. I didn’t know I had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when I was attending elementary school since I didn’t have an ASD diagnosis until after I turned 58. Since being formally introducted to my constant companion, I now reflect on those elementary school years with a different pair of lens.
After a couple of years of subbing, I did get up the nerve to take an assignment at my Alma Mater. The main part of the building and the cafeteria are still there. Of course, memories flooded back as I walked the hallways. I wondered if the classroom I was working in was one that I had spent one of my school years. My report cards had many “A”s and a few “B”s. If there was ever a “C”, I don’t recall it. I recall being the teacher’s pet in 5th grade and being such only made it a lonelier school year for me. I don’t recall any friends because I don’t recall having any.
I recently subbed for the school’s P.E. aide. It was a good day. The highlight of my visit to my alma mater was an encounter with a 6th-grade boy. The game of the day for his class was tag football. He wanted so much to play with his classmates but a brace on each leg was too much of an obstacle. He was given a football to play with by a kind classmate. He fell while trying to kick it and I walked over to help. I asked him if he wanted to play with me and he took me up on it. We played catch and then switch to kicking the ball back and forth. His braces didn’t get in the way of throwing a pass I could catch or kick a ball an honorable distance. He told me when he got tired. I could have played more but I didn’t tell him that. I hope he had as good a time playing with me as I did him.
The staff at my alma mater are so kind. So many of them are not shy about saying “hello” or “thanks for coming”. I ran into the Principal who thanked me for coming at the end of the school day. I told her that her school was my alma mater. She lit up and said, “Then, it must feel like coming home.” I nodded and told her that it is hard to believe that Lyndon Johnson was President when I started elementary school. I kind of wish I hadn’t said that. In other words, I walked right into that one. She said in a nice way, “Oh, that was a LONG time ago.” I said with a sigh, “Well, you didn’t have to put it quite that way.” This time my humor wasn’t way off. The principal of my alma mater wasn’t rolling on the floor but she wasn’t far from doing so.
I am a baby boomer. I can tell if I’m talking to a fellow baby boomer if I ask such questions as: “Does Gomer Pyle ring a bell with you?” and it rings a bell with them. I don’t mean the reruns on TV land, but the original TV series. The thing I remember most about Gomer was his exclamation: “SURPRISE, SURPRISE, SURPRISE!” It drove his commanding officer, Sergeant Carter, up the wall.
Life does have its surprises all right. Some good, and some not so much. One of my autism traits is my need for routine and so I don’t necessarily welcome surprises. Even good surprises can give me some anxiety until the surprise wears off.
One of those things I am surprised to be doing is working in the same school district I grew up in. I am a substitute teacher’s aide where I work in elementary schools. I’m often flooded with my own school memories as I go about my job from one school to another.
I recall the subject I dreaded most was a favorite of many of my peers – Physical Education (P.E.). With a weight problem and awkwardness, P.E. was a humbling experience. I scored high in the classroom but fell behind on the playground and ball field. Sometimes on my rump!
If someone had told me back when I was attending an elementary school that when I got to be 58, I would return to that same school to fill in as the P.E. coach’s sidekick, I would have told the person they had a wilder imagination than I did. That’s saying a lot because my imagination was and still is off the charts. It sure threw me a curveball to not only be working in a gym class but above all, to like it! I have become an avid walker, tennis player, and I even shoot baskets! Instead of at the age of 8, but at 58.
I did return to my old school recently to fill in for the P.E. aide while she was out for a day. I was escorting the 5th-grade girls out to the court to play volleyball. One of the girls came up to me and asked, “How old are you?” Now I’m on my 4th school year and if I had a quarter of every time I’ve been asked that, I could buy lunch at McDonald’s. Now I could have taken a serious tone and advised her not to ask older women their ages. Or, I could have given a cute answer such as “39 and holding”. She probably wouldn’t have believed the holding bit anyway. I could have pled ignorance or pled the 5th. But this was the last class of the day and I was tired. I just told her the truth.
She said, “My Mom is thirty-three.” I thought, “So what?”, but minding my manners, I only thought it. Sometimes I say too much and this was one of those times. I told the youngster I went to this school back when I was her age. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Really!” I nodded and said, “Yelp. No kidding.” I surprised her but she had a bigger surprise for me with her comeback answer: “My goodness, this school must be REALLY old.” She was quite empathic about the “really old” part as if she was referring way back to the “horse and buggy” days. My heart dropped knowing I walked right into that one.
The girls were learning to play volleyball. One of the few things I could do in P.E. that I had some success at was serving the ball in volleyball. I was far more confident on a volleyball court than let’s say a baseball diamond where I was terrified with fear that when the bat met ball, the ball would make a beeline towards me. Seeing that the girls were novices, I took the ball and served it. After a successful demonstration of what a volleyball serve looked like, I heard some “WOW”s from the girls. I surprised them all right! I sort of surprised myself since I couldn’t remember the last time I served a volleyball.
Although I am shy of surprises, I am thankful for them too. If the Lord gave us the blueprint of our entire life on this earth at the start of it, we’d be strangers to hope. If our lives were neatly planned and organized, no surprises, there’d be no reason for faith. I’d rather be thrown a curveball every now and then than live without any hope of something good happening around the corner.
It isn’t always the big battles on the Spectrum; it’s the little ones too. The little ones are bigger at the time than they are in hindsight. It is in hindsight I can write about them and have a chuckle or two. If I can laugh about any battle, it hasn’t defeated me.
A little one started when my Mom interrupted my blog-writing asking me to open a can for her. I’m not complaining about that. It just throws me for a bit to pause when I’m creating a masterpiece. Arthur (arthritis) makes opening a can with a manual can opener a painful proposition. I figure I better have empathy since Arthur probably already has his eyes set on me in the near future. I come from a long family tree of Arthur’s victims.
This made me think of a battery-operated can opener I had seen at a store having a 20% off sale the very same day. Since I was planning on going anyway, barring a large crowd, I made note of it to look for one. With a small showing of customers at the time I entered the store, I went ahead and bought a red Handy-Dandy battery-operated can opener, one of those As See on TV products. Besides my Mom needing one, I am attracted to a battery or electric gadget like a coin is to a magnet.
I took it out of the package in my bedroom to get the gadget up and running without my Mom knowing a thing. I wanted to surprise her by doing a “show and tell”. That was a good plan but that’s not how it went down. After installing two “AA” batteries, I pushed the button and not a sound was heard. I tried placing it on a can in case the opener wouldn’t work without having something to spin on. That’ didn’t work. I was so frustrated! I don’t give in to defeat easily when it comes to gadgets. I am the “gadget queen” in my clan. After numerous efforts, this “queen” eventually came to the conclusion it was a “lemon” can opener.
I didn’t ask for this battle, but it fell in my lap and I saw it as having two choices. I could toss it and try to forget it; or, I could take it back to the store for an exchange/refund. My Mom would have taken it back to the store without any hesitation whatsoever. Me? Just the opposite. I have a phobia of customer service desks. My first inclination was to do to the malfunctioned opener what I do with party invitations: toss out!
The price receipt, though, kept staring at me. Guilt is another biggie of mine. I came up with an idea to ease my guilty conscience. I’d put it back in the store bag, go back to the store, and if there was a store clerk who seemed friendly enough, I would ask to exchange it. I didn’t want a refund because I wasn’t ready to give up on presenting my Mom with a can opener that would defy her nemesis, Arthur.
I’m proud to say I got up the nerve to approach the customer service desk and asked for an exchange. She took the lemon and dropped the exchange item in a bag with a “have a good day”. I could breathe easy now as I walked out the store after my victory of facing the exchange challenge. I know such transactions come easy for a lot of folks, but not for me.
It was back to the drawing board. The only difference was it was black instead of red. I wish I could say that after the battery installation, the handy-dandy opener came to life. But that’s not how it went down. It wasn’t making a sound either. After repeating what I did hours earlier with the red “lemon” one, I re-dressed it back into its package. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to the store or not. Two customer service interactions in one day — there’s only so much I can take!
It was aggravating I couldn’t get a gadget to work. I can’t thread a needle, but I know my way around setting up a smart phone, smart watch, etc. I had to try one more time to save my reputation for gadget-fixing. I used a can of chili as my guinea pig. Just as I was about to take my finger off the start button and give in to defeat, the opener came to life. It started its journey around the can lid while I watched in amazement.
This was supposed to be the end of the story. Nope! A few weeks later, the black handy-dandy opener met its fate of a trash can after opening a can of green beans. It did a spin around the lid of the can. The problem was it wouldn’t let go of the lid. They were inseparable! I did manage to free the green beans but I had to toss the can opener with the can still in its mouth.
Now, most people would have given up by now. But I don’t give up easily. I wasn’t about to be outdone by any kind of gadget. I received a 20% off e-mail from a store and I saw this as a sign to go ahead and purchase No. 3. I’m thrilled to say the third one was the charm. As for what my Mom does when she needs a can opener, she still hollers for me and I do the honors.
She’s small for her age, but she has a strong will. She tests the patience of teacher and aides, but if one asks any of them about her, they will smile and probably say, “oh, she’s so cute.” When it is “choice time” in P.E., her choice is basketball. Although the basketball is almost as big as she is and she can barely lift it up in the air, she is fiercely attached to it. She doesn’t need height to dribble the ball anyway. That she can do and if she was allowed, she could do it far longer than most kids her age.
The two boys are in the same grade, attend the same class, and are both on the autism spectrum. Their relationship is much like two brothers with one being the leader and the other the follower. I watched them as they came in together for gym class with the leader leading the way. Sometimes the leader is like an older brother who sometimes likes having his kid brother around; and other times, not so much. I noticed he would sometimes attempt to veer away from his shadow, but his shadow would always find him.
A cubicle wall to him is an invitation to climb it. He is quick to catch the teacher or aide with their backs turned and seize the opportunity to escape and climb up high enough to touch the ceiling. It takes a good bit of coaxing and/or threatening to get him to jump down. All bets are off that he won’t try again to climb to the top at the first opportunity.
She doesn’t like to write. I could not relate to her disdain for writing, but I could relate to her shyness. I was a total stranger when I came into her classroom with the task of trying to keep her on task. She did write a few lines and the teacher was satisfied since the teacher knew it was all she was going to get. She was a puzzling mystery to me. Absolutely quiet. No emotion. No frown, no smile. Just a long, blank stare that ran right through me. I wondered what she was thinking, but she gave me no hints.
He’s the new kid on the block in his school’s autism unit. I first met him weeks after he arrived when I subbed in his class. His teacher and the other aide bragged on him. He was quiet. No meltdowns — not yet anyway. He did his classwork without complaint. He was one of the few who would get through the class day without even a time-out.
On a day I was subbing in the gym, I saw him come in to join his grade’s general ed class. The activity of the day was shooting baskets. The children were separated into lines of three. One at a time, each one had a turn on the floor to shoot baskets. They were to shoot from one of the rubber round tiles spread out on the floor. Some of the tiles were easy being close to the basketball hoop; while others were more challenging being further away.
He knew how to sit in line and wait his turn. He knew to take the ball and aim for the hoop, but he didn’t know to pick one of the tiles to shoot from. Instead, he got up close to the hoop and tossed the ball. To his credit, on most of his tries, the ball did go through the hoop. He wasn’t in full compliance with the rules, but I didn’t deter him. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t want to take away his triumphs. It’s hard for me to not be partial to the kids who live on the same spectrum as I do. Sometimes in watching them, I see a glimpse of the child I used to be.
Have you ever told a joke where after you delivered the punchline, you could have heard a pin drop? Silence isn’t golden when you’re aiming for giggles. It’s a horrible feeling. I know. I’ve been there. More times than I care to remember, but then, one time is too many.
One of those times was at a get-together for new church members at the pastor’s house just outside of Washington, D.C. Except for the pastor, all those attending were total strangers. I wasn’t eager to go, but I tried to think of it as an adventure instead of an endurance contest. This happened long before I was formally introduced to my constant companion of autism.
We were gathered in a circle and invited by the pastor to introduce ourselves. After introductions, the pastor sought volunteers to speak up about anything that suited their fancy. My mistake may have been taking the pastor literally about “anything”. I thought of a story that had recently happened to me at the grocery store. I thought it might be a big hit since I had told this story at work and gotten some laughs. Not many, but some.
The story took place in a check-out line. The lady behind me struck up a conversation about the pint of crab meat she had in her hand. She showed me the price and asked, “Isn’t this price ridiculous?” The price meant nothing to me since I didn’t know what the running price was for crab.
I said to the lady, “You’re right, it is ridiculous. But I’ll be honest with you that I’ve never had crab meat in my life. If fact, I just recently had shrimp for the first time and as far as I was concerned it all could stay in the ocean.”
She responded with words I had become familiar with since becoming the new kid on the block in Washington, D.C., “You’re not originally from here, are you?”
I responded, “No, Maam, I’m not. I’m from New York.”
I don’t think she appreciated my joke. Dead silence! I’m 99.9% certain she knew I wasn’t from New York. My Texas accent was a give-away clue. HA!
I was trying to pull at her funny bone, but I think I nudged at another bone. I have since learned that “words and actions are often misunderstood by others” is on the list of autism syndrome traits.
The response around the circle at the pastor’s house was similar to the woman holding the pint of crab. When I got to the punchline, not a chortle or a titter could be heard. Finally, someone broke the silence with a serious explanation about accents and all. After the circle broke up, I retreated to the furtherest corner away from the new members club. I wasn’t the first person to leave but I sure wasn’t the last!
I wish I could forget the whole thing, but my brain’s memory hasn’t obliged me. Thoughts of embarrassing moments pop up in my brain as much as annoying pop-ups when I’m browsing the internet. I know I should try to remember instead those moments when I couldn’t have heard a pin drop because the room was livened up with laughter. In other words, those times when I did NOT have to say “Hey, folks that was the punchline.”
At the end of a school day, I was asked to join the autism unit and help put their students on the bus. It had been four months since I had subbed in this unit. I don’t know that any of the students recognized me, but I did them. One of the youngest ones who has no verbal skills came up and grabbed my hand. She had one mean tight grip! I didn’t pick her to walk with, she picked me. Why? It’s beyond me.
She was slower at walking than the others. After she would take so many steps, she would bend down, almost plop down on the floor. I didn’t rush her though. It was a blessed privilege to walk with this child who couldn’t say a word to me but she could smile and squeeze my hand.
We are far apart in age and on the spectrum, but it is the same spectrum. Some of the traits she struggles with I struggle with too. No one really knows what autism is like except those who are on the spectrum. And, those like myself who are, cannot possibly explain it. That is true of any disorder.
When it came time, I wasn’t ready to put the little girl on the bus. As I watched the bus roll away, I couldn’t help but wish the walk to the bus had been longer.
Half a dozen year ago I was living in the basement of a three story house in Warrenton, Virginia, located in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. My landlord invited a young lady from work to stay for a few weeks. It was just until their new home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, was available. Her husband worked at the White House and she had a government job. She and her husband were leaving Washington, D.C. and their government jobs behind. Their escaping the so-called Capitol Beltway wasn’t extraordinary, but going from working for Unlce Sam to serving the Lord and seminary students in Broken Arrow was.
Their reason had nothing to do with a better salary and job benefits. This couple was taking a big cut. The cost of living is cheaper in Broken Arrow than D.C., but even with the difference, it still was a big cut!
The only reason they were making this gigantic leap was because they both believed it was God’s will for them. Logic or common sense had nothing to do with it. Some of their friends and colleagues were shaking their heads in disbelief. But my having a personal relationship with Jesus, of having my own experience of moving halfway across the country in the other direction (Texas to D.C.), I understood that it was by faith alone, they were going to Broken Arrow.
This couple had no visible proof they had God’s blessing. They didn’t have a crystal ball that clearly showed they would have and maintain a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. Being human, I’m sure they were tempted to second guess. “What if we fail at the seminary?”, or “What if we can’t pay our bills?”, or the scarier question, “What if this is our own idea and God had nothing to do with it?”
Despite whatever doubts entered their mind, they pressed forward. I admired them tremendously. I wish I knew how it worked out for them and how they are doing but I have since moved back myself and lost touch with my former landlord.
When I think about living my faith and what that looks like, I often think of the couple who only went to Broken Arrow on a leap of faith.