The first time you go AWOL, stumbling over the sides of your crib, you might rush yourself over to the bookshelves and select a few titles. You’ll toss them into the crib, understanding that reading in bed is to be the most divine of pleasures, but be forced to cry to get help when you can’t lift yourself back into the crib with your plunder. You’ll be reading fluently by the age of two or so, confusing your mother when your precociousness in life doesn’t match up with your reading prowess; you hide behind her at every opportunity and are subsequently enrolled in pre-school to “socialize” you. Your little sister never has to go.
You’re such an academic wonder, your mother and father push to enroll you in Kindergarten at the age of 4. After all, having an October birthday can’t be a hard-and-fast rule for someone who has been reading for two years, right? The district will offer everyone the opportunity, but only you will pass the screening to gain admission to Kindergarten early. The only thing that tripped you up in the screening? Of all things, it will be the eye chart. In a real doctor’s office, eyes are screened with a chart of a hodgepodge of letters grouped in a pyramid shape. But when reading before attending school is unusual, there will be an eye chart made only of the letter “E.” Some E’s will be facing left, others right, and others are up or down. You will be confused when they ask you to pretend your hand is an “E” and turn it to show which direction the letter E is pointing. You have no idea they are trying to check whether you can see. Had they busted out a real eye chart, the one with all of the letters, you would have passed it the first time, rather than having to go back a second time to have the lady imperfectly explain to you the hand gestures you needed to make to “read” the eye-chart of a single letter.
Your kindergarten year will seem to you typical, but the adults around you will be talking. The psychologist drops in to see how you’re getting on quite often, because the district doesn’t know what to think about this four-year-old in a class of five-year-olds. You are frequently frustrating the teacher because you read the directions for every worksheet and begin it immediately while your peers have to wait for the words to be read. It doesn’t help if the paper is handed out to you upside down, for you can read just as well upside down as right side up.
In first grade, you are predictably placed in the high reading group, but first grade work isn’t really a challenge to you, though you participate anyway, because it is what is expected. At some point, you discover that crying in class can get you attention, so you pretend to cry and are pleased with the results. You’ll use spit if needed, to make yourself look properly upset. The school counselor is fun, and the district psychologist seems nice. You don’t remember him from Kindergarten, but your parents do, and they are worried. One day, you see someone cry for real and decide that it looks dumb. You stop doing it.
Things go on like this for a while without you realizing that you’re in any way different. In recess, you swing the entire time, swinging higher and higher. Swings are perfect because you can make up stories while you swing and you don’t have to tell anyone what you’re imagining, but if you decide to, and you’re young, no one much cares. It’s cool to have an imagination when you’re eight, but before too long you will discover that it is not so wonderful anymore. For now, though, the rules for swinging are simple: don’t go too high or the teacher will say something and if you do the thing where you twist the chains to spin around, you assume the risk that you’ll pull pieces of your hair out.
Recess away from the swings gets complicated.
One day, you decide to play with a bunch of kids and they start making fun of a girl named Angie. They are teasing her, but your words escape you. You know that they’re making fun of her, but you’re confused why they would be doing this. Angie is a nice girl, and while she’s not your best friend, you’ve played together sometimes, when you decide to come away from the swings. They are calling her names and perhaps they are making fun of her weight or calling her stupid. Whatever it is, she’s not laughing and she looks very upset. You don’t understand why they would be making her cry and your mind blanks about what to do, but you know they shouldn’t be doing that. You cannot focus on the content of the words, but she seems like she is going to cry and you know that the teacher has made it clear that name calling is never acceptable. You want them to stop.
“Stop it,” you say over and over again completely unaware that such pointless words would have no effect on bullying. You try to go off to play with her, the child equivalent of changing the subject, moving away from these kids, but she does not want to play. You are confused.
Eventually, a teacher finds out.
The principal is informed.
Late in the day, you are called down to the office with a group of the aggressors. While you are sitting there, the principal is yelling at all of you and you don’t understand why you are there. He asks people, individually, what they did. He gets to you.
“I didn’t do anything,” you say. You’re still very unclear why you’re being lumped in with them.
The principal seems uncertain. The other kids quickly talk about how you were making fun of her, too. But you weren’t. You were defending her. Too late, it dawns on you that you should have gotten a teacher.
The principal writes down what they say, effectively silencing you. “We’ll be calling your parents now so they know about what you did.” You learn that your words can easily be ignored, cast aside as if they are meaningless. You learn that other kids can gang up on you and retell the story in another way, and their words will have more effect on adults. You remain confused as you go back to your classroom. Your parents never do say anything about it, and you wonder if Angie explained what had happened and they were never called, or your mother let it go. No one ever explains this event, so you are left to draw your own conclusions and from this you learn that the swings are the safest place to be. You spend your recesses on the swings until they take them away from you in middle school.
Middle school, or thereabouts is where the differences aren’t so cute anymore and without the swings to ground you, you have no way to encounter social expectations in a way that you can handle; when you’re swinging, you have something to talk about since you are doing something. Without the swings, you flounder. Instead, of doing, you’re expected to wander around and talk with your friends during lunch break, which is hardly even a recess. You have few friends, so you mostly walk around alone and imagine things, but it’s not the same as when you could swing. Your fantasy world is your own, but you have no idea no one else’s brain contains many magical kingdoms and the others aren’t characters in some sort of epic drama unfolding each day during your free period. This is when you make your fatal mistake.
“I’m a kind of witch,” you say, innocently, when some girls come up to you to talk. The girls laugh. You think you’re making some friends, so you smile.
“You’re an evil witch?” says one. She must be the leader since she spoke first. Judy Blume taught you that much about school dynamics.
“Well, no, there are three kinds of witches,” you say, somewhat confidently. You’ve made up a little catalog in your head of these things and since you have an audience, it’s time to share all the knowledge you have on the topic. Better to make this last.
“So, tell us,” says the leader. She seems to be really listening to you. She must be interested, so you are pleased.
“Well, there are good and evil witches and those who are somewhat neutral,” you say, in the professorial tone that makes all the kids a little wary. Who says “somewhat neutral?” By the way, remember, you’re also the youngest in your class, but you sound at least twenty years older. Half the time, only the teachers can understand you. “The neutral witches worship nature,” you say, not really sure how to explain it, but your tone is such that you sound like an expert. You know this because you have studied enough television shows and movies to know this is how these people address questions.
The girls look at each other and start to laugh. They pass looks around that seem to mean something, but you don’t notice anything since you are in your element.
“So, which kind are you?” the lead girl asks. She’s blonde. You don’t know why it is, but so often the lead girl is blonde. You don’t understand why that has any significance, but it seems to matter to those who make the rules.
You don’t answer. You see yourself as not evil, but good, but you learned to play at calling up the wind from a mixture of an idea from Sabrina in Archie comics and some book on witches you’d found. That might make you a nature witch. Regardless, you don’t know enough to call yourself one or the other, but to reveal that would destroy the façade of being all-knowing that you’ve built for yourself which you believe your audience accepts as valid.
By the end of the next class, everyone knows you think you’re a witch, and the next few recesses are spent trying to get you to nail down what type of which. The teachers notice this, and decide that “something” must be done. You get hauled into psychology.
You’re too young to understand the significance of another visit with the psychologist (same guy, by the way, from way back in Kindergarten). You’re too young to realize what a file at the district psychologist’s office means. You have no idea that now you’ve kicked up another firestorm where teachers will be watching your every move, down to the fact that, by chance, you happen to wear flats that seem a little pointed which they assume mean witch when you in fact were trying to avoid wearing leather and had limited options since you also hated tennis shoes. You feel betrayed when you hear that the teacher you adored, your fifth grade teacher, told them that you were kind of weird then, too. Something about playing weird games at recess. All of this is said in front of you, as if to accuse you, rather than to understand. Every move you had made since birth was scrutinized again and again. You learn that you don’t have anyone to trust, not even those whom you thought of as allies. You are a messed up kid, apparently.
But the math in the mid-to-late 1980’s doesn’t add up to Autism. You’re a weird kid and you must be stopped, not understood. If you try to check out a book on witches in the school library, the teacher will ask you if your parents know about it. If you even mention anything remotely witchy, the look of anger and/or frustration will come. It’s bad enough the teachers are treating you strangely, but the witch incident had another unexpected consequence. Your best friend from kindergarten who you stopped seeing when you were forced to transfer schools in fourth grade even though she lived closer to the new school you were forced to attend than to your old school? She’s never speaking to you again. And I mean never. You’ll see her as an adult, and she won’t speak to you. You go through the rest of your school days friendless, with a crop of associates who are also social outcasts you sometimes talk to, but it’s clear they’re giving you a wide berth, too. They aren’t your friends, not really. What is this obsession everyone has over having friends, anyway, and why can’t you seem to make any?
When the witch incident blows over, a few of the boys start up. This time, one of the boys you always thought to be nicer, comes up to you and asks, “Would you like to marry Mark?” He gives the name of his good friend. You know full well this is a joke (thanks again, Judy Blume), but you don’t know what to do about it. You weave away from them, avoiding the group as they go between you and some other social outcast, trying to convince her the other main boy, Jeremy, wants to marry her. The other popular boys find this hilarious. You can’t get away. You shuffle around the crowd in the area you have to stand before school after the bus drops you off, waiting for the bell to ring so all of you can enter the building. It’s packed with kids since the space is small and the population of the school, large, but this keeps people all in one place, even though entering that place makes Mos Eisley out to be a fairyland by comparison for you. No one asks you what you think.
Eventually the teachers find out, and one later corners you to verify the list of names involved. You don’t know that the social rule here is to not add any names to the list, though Mark, the one who supposedly wanted to “marry” you, isn’t listed. You have a rule in your head that says that you must always tell teachers the truth, so you tell on him, too. You wonder later whether you should have. Only Jeremy is forced to call you to apologize. You don’t know how to handle the call, trying to apologize to him for saying anything at all. Your father, who had answered the phone and had likely hoped that the call was a first boyfriend, isn’t surprised when he learns that the call was not social, but a required apology call. That was his second guess.
This all means, of course, that both the boys and the girls ignore you now. You’re a good target, but they know you’re likely to tell on them. So instead, you are now a social pariah. You wonder if this is better than being harassed. You don’t say anything about how you feel about any of this, because somehow you feel you deserve this, since it seems, in some way, sanctioned by the teachers.
Fortunately, teachers are more forgiving, and over time, you start befriending them, forgetting the ones that betrayed you. One English teacher, a former police officer, seems to support you more than the others and doesn’t himself seem to fit in with the adults. You subsequently worship him. You grade papers for him in study hall, and sometimes even during class. You cannot do enough for him. He supports your writing and even lets you cast one of your plays in class. He encourages you to try out for the school play, where you do a great job, you think, but when the cast list is posted, one of the director’s pet students gets cast. You think you can hear your English teacher mumble something under his breath, but you have learned that you cannot talk about this. You must pretend not to see what happened, that only the popular kids, many of whom have no actual acting talent, got cast. You must pretend. It’s a little easier now, though, since you see that at least one adult understands what really happened here. You don’t understand why he seems as powerless as you.
In high school, more teachers seem to value you as a human being. You need them because things have gotten worse. There’s no one to sit with in the cafeteria except acquaintances who don’t seem all that keen sitting with you, anyway. When students are allowed upstairs in the last few minutes before classes start, one day, you hear them mooing as you come up the stairs. You know it isn’t a coincidence, but you pretend not to notice. This goes on for a few days, before you discover you can hide out in the library and later the journalism room over lunch. You stop eating lunch and avoid eating in front of people. You are ravenous when you get home.
Your teachers don’t notice the bullying or the refusal to eat, but they do provide sanctuary and invitations to join clubs and activities. You start with forensics and become a storyteller and study your craft with intense devotion. You will never be the best storyteller, but you’re not bad at what you do. You eventually start placing at regional meets and do well at state-level competitions. You audition and get into the school play because the drama director cast everyone. You will not be cast in a play again until senior year, when the choir director always saves a role or two for seniors. You’ll do so well in that role with a single line that, in the future, the lead tells you how his aunt asks about you and remembers your role more than she remembers his. You’ll get cast in the spring play because the director likes you a lot and because you are now known as being funny.
You’ll join mock trial and the newspaper and yearbook. You’ll be in so many activities that you rarely go home. You feel as though you are a school leader, but you’ll never be asked to a dance or selected for any major achievement. One day, an English teacher who you’ve never had for a teacher walks up to you.
“I wanted to let you know that I wrote you down for Badger Girls State,” she says.
You know that physical fitness is inexplicably part of the Badger Girls State list of qualifications and that while no one ever seems to know what it is you do at Badger Girls State, it seems to be just a prestigious event that only a certain number of juniors are allowed to attend from each high school. You know it has to do with the teachers picking and they seem to inexplicably pick the same girls, by and large, who are later named to prom court based on peer vote. The girls selected are always thin and pretty, and do far fewer activities than you do, though school service and academics are supposedly a significant factor in Badger Girls State. But in Badger Boys State, some heavy boys tend to get selected. The rules must be different for them, apparently, even though the qualifications are the same: smart kids who are involved in activities. You are ranked in the top ten percent of your class and no one does more extra-curriculars than you do. You smile at her, but you knew that you were never going to get on that list. By now you know that popularity is really all that matters.
“I don’t think you get the recognition you deserve,” she continues.
You don’t know what to say to this, but you know that crying is not a choice. You’ve learned, long ago, you aren’t allowed to wish for recognition. Girls like you don’t get it. Girls like you are lucky that eventually high school students get bored of picking on fat, socially awkward teens, and just ignore them instead. You say something like “Thank you,” but her calling attention to the fact that you were never going to be on even a teacher-selected list, has made you feel uncomfortable. It reminds you that you are a lesser being when sometimes you allow yourself to forget. In the end, though, you know, deep down that no matter how many clubs you join, you will never be allowed to be the best at anything.
Sometimes, though, sometimes you think that this time will be different. Before senior year, you are the only senior going into her second year as a newspaper editor and the only senior on yearbook staff with three years of writing experience, though only one year of yearbook experience. You don’t mind much when you are named co-editor with a rising sophomore named Candy who is fantastic at layout since you have the same amount of yearbook experience. But at newspaper, it’s different. You assume that you have to be made editor-in-chief all on your own because no one has been on newspaper as long as you have. As you leave the room while the outgoing seniors deliberate, you remind them that you “love them all,” and leave, feeling absolutely certain that they’ll make the right decision. For once, you will be recognized because seniority matters for this. It doesn’t take them long to decide. When you return to the room, they reveal that they’ve decided to make you co-editor, with someone with less experience and name as your co-editor the same girl who got the same musical role that you were “meant to play,” but didn’t get, back in middle school, who was named to Badger Girls State and was queen of at least one dance, and on the court for all the others. She is not in your AP courses with you. The editors tell you that they’ve decided that you won’t tackle the “tough” issues. You spend the next year trying to prove them wrong.
You go to college and study to become a teacher. The details don’t matter except that you were smart to select a small school for women instead of a large university. You learn that when you’re with women and girls and men aren’t around, you get by a lot better.
And then you marry an Autistic man, years later. You meet him online (where else?). You have a child who is diagnosed with Autism at 4. Your son has been reading since he was two. Your husband subsequently gets a diagnosis of Autism with a supplemental diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He has not been to war. You laugh over how school must have hurt him, but your own school experiences were much better.
After all, you became a teacher, didn’t you? How bad could those school years have been?