It’s an understatement to say that kids can be cruel. Adolescence is not only a time of finding yourself, but can also be a time to challenge and question the emerging identities of others. Sometimes those identities are shaped by a series of conscious choices, but other times, who we are is subject to what’s in our DNA, complicated strands of heredity that express themselves in a modicum of ways.
Is certainly hard enough to respond to the ever-changing landscape it is one’s body during the middle school years. Puberty. There. I said it. Navigating the complex social and emotional dynamics amongst one’s peers can further complicate matters. This is true even for the “normal” children, those born without anything that truly makes them “different.”
When I think about what I observe on a daily basis, many young people make a choice to make them stand out in ways that are not always positive. Some attention, it seems, is better than no attention. Unfortunately, seeking acceptance from peers is often more important than welcoming those who are different from ourselves. Sacrificial lambs are made of social pariahs. The outliers.
I remember being in high school, now thinking about those students who stood out, ostracized by my classmates. As shameful as I am to admit it, I was definitely a bystander. Heck, I may have even been the perpetrator of some of the cruel jokes that circulated. Now that I have my own child, and 100+ more children for whom I am trusted to care, I am hyper-aware of the cruelty of young people.
It is 2019: there are children who express themselves in ways that I would’ve never imagined. The bravery it takes to be who you truly are is challenging as an adult, but even more so when you’re doing it on a very public, schoolwide stage.
In my time is a teacher, I’ve had students who self-identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and gender fluid. Young peoples’ bravery humbles me. Yet, these identities are easier for some people to understand than some of so-called disabilities in our school system.
Take, for example, autism.
Autism spectrum disorder covers a wide variety of traits. I’ve seen students on the spectrum who are cognitively challenged to a degree that they are not mainstreamed into a general education classroom. I’ve also had students who are cognitively brilliant, but lack basic social skills, placing bullseyes on their backs, target practice for bullies. They simple do not fit in with their peers. School becomes a war zone, the most treacherous of circumstances.
This year, I have a student who is incredibly intelligent, GATE-identified, and also on the spectrum where he was placed during his fifth-grade year.
He doesn’t fit in. Not even close. He doesn’t try.
He sticks out like a sore thumb. Often, he finds himself alone in should-be group settings. After my many observations during the school year, I have noticed that he self-isolates just as often as he is isolated by his peers. I can’t tell if he is an island that has been tragically separated from the mainland, or a ship that has gone rogue from its fleet by its own choosing. Either way, he often finds himself in a solitary position. When it comes time to self-select groups, he is out.
On a particular occasion this year, he found himself at a table with three neuro-typical, female students. After sitting together for about 20 minutes, one of the students speaks up, rather loudly, and exclaims, “Stop staring at me!” Being the student he is, he doesn’t seem to be much bothered by it. In fact, he barely seems to notice. He carries on with what he’s doing, regardless of how flustered she seems to be. As her face reddens, I can almost see the smoke coming out of her ears. Seeking to diffuse the social bomb, I wander to her, leaning in, and ask her, “Would you mind staying after class for a moment?” I assure her she’s not in trouble.
Soon, the bell rings. Doing as I asked, she stays. “Mr. Ferro, do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes,” I say, “I want to talk to you about what happened little while ago at your tables.” She thinks she’s in trouble in spite of my assurance. “I noticed you seemed a little frustrated with (insert student’s name here). What’s the problem?”
“Well,” she thought for a moment. I heard the ellipses. “He stares. All the time. I mean like a lot. And it’s not just at me.”
“I see,” I empathize, “Why does this bother you so much?”
“Because it’s not normal.”
There it is folks, not normal equals unacceptable. This could not be more middle school if you tried.
Teachable moment alert: I thought to myself, what if she’s not aware of why he stares? What if she’s not aware of why he’s different? What if no one’s ever explained to her that this difference is OK?
Under this assumption, I had a bigger epiphany: our schools do not do enough to explain that disability takes away our focus on what students are able to do. Their abilities are overshadowed by what makes them different. We do not have the capacity to have a discussions, as courageous as they need to be, about things like autism. I understand why it may be confusing to a peer, a student who is intellectually capable, yet so socially different, yet, our schools do nothing to educate our kids about other students in their classroom.
We also do very little to educate our own staff on the matter.
Our education specialists, what you would probably consider special education resource teachers, have to hold an autism certificate, but I have received zero training on how to better work with the students in my own classroom. Everything I’ve learned has to do my own reading or my own interest – my own sense of obligation to these students.
“Have you ever wondered why he stares?” I asked her.
She looked at me blankly. She blinked. This is what all teachers wait for: the golden opportunity. I have to make a decision, take a plunge. “He’s autistic,” I explain. “Do you know what that means?” Watching her mental cogs turn, she continues to sit quietly. “I don’t know,” she says, “I mean, I’ve heard of it before.”
Immediately, I realize my responsibility, how important it is for me to get this right. This is my one shot, like a rocket trying to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Either get it right, or burn up.
“Autism is another way in which people can be different. He happens to express himself in ways that we don’t understand. For him, staring isn’t necessarily at you, it might be through you. Socially, he has some challenges that make him appear awkward. Does that make more sense?” She nods her head at me. “Just because he’s autistic doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have feelings, but he may not be as good at expressing that as you or me.”
Immediately upon explaining to her, I have mixed emotions. For one, I’m glad that she has a better understanding of what the other student is going through. Yet, I feel as though I just outed him, like I told a secret that he doesn’t want anyone to know. I’m conflicted, but it’s too late to turn back. Is it better that I said something, or did I violate some sort of privacy, some confidential information that wasn’t mine to share?
Maybe if we stopped making differences taboo I wouldn’t have to do this in the first place. Maybe instead of saying disability, we said ability with differences. Maybe, then, the world of middle school would be somewhat more navigable for our left-of-center children.
Since that day, I have noticed a marked change in the interaction between the two students. He continues to stare, and she continues to be uncomfortable. The difference is, she can live with that discomfort because she understands what is causing it. He can continue to be himself, and she can coexist with that, providing him the space to be who he is, in spite of differences.
Middle school is still the proverbial gauntlet, and each student is a gladiator facing his or her own battle. Some these conflicts are personal, while others interpersonal, a complex amalgamation of social eggshells. Although many young people face the daily micro-arguments deciding who they need to be, many already have these decisions made for them, like my student with autism: he does not get to choose who he is, but the student at whom he stares? She now gets to choose.
It’s unrealistic to avoid responsibility to all parties on the matter. Will she choose kind? I hope so, but there are hundreds of other kids who still lack uninformed empathy. What will we do about it?