Archive for July 2011
I think the first thing I need to say is sorry. You, you with the prettiest eyelashes in the world and bright liquid eyes that made me forget to breath when I forced a glimpse at your profile for politeness’s sake—you have done nothing wrong. Your only crime was being assigned a girl with an inexplicably broken computer who could break you simply by averting her gaze.
I know I hurt you without even meaning to because you are kind and beautiful with a smile in your voice and you kept trying to catch my eye and coax a connection out. You never grabbed my face, you never ordered me to look at you, you never forced me to drown in your eyes, you just kept smiling and coaxing and worrying until you were a confused an rejected puppy. You never made that my fault, either: you wracked and searched yourself for what you were doing wrong, for how you were hurting me.
I wanted to come back to the Apple Store afterwards, clutching the warm cookies I had purchased myself as part of the intricate bargain I’d worked out to permit myself to brave the mall alone. I wanted to come back, and smuggle you a cookie, careful of crumbs and keyboards, and explain.
Beautiful boy, 12 people pressed into a 12’ x 12’ space hurts me. The lights and movement in the mall hurt me, the perfume and music pouring from Hollister hurt me, the building renovations and constantly shifting stores hurt me. I came to you reeling and battered and you, kind, beautiful boy, had me leaving the store with poetry in my head.
(I wondered, kind and calm and perfect boy, if maybe you have an autistic sister or girlfriend like me, because I’ve never had such perfect, easy, accessible service.)
You seem like the sort of boy who might understand, in your fingertips and the neglected spaces behind your ears, what I mean when I whisper about disability as violence. You might understand embodying a brain and a way of speaking and moving and an existence of violence and victimization and forced memory and reminding others. You might understand shattering between bones of steal and searching for glue. You might understand as being seen as fundamentally violent yourself.
You might understand this, I think, because the compulsion to break and undo and ruin exquisite things runs as deeps in humans as our need to protect and hoard them, and I suspect the second leads to the first. This is cruelly and hideously unfair to everyone, but I suspect it is worst for the beautiful, breakable boys like you.
I wish you well. I write to you because I can hardly write this to Kody or the others, and of course I’ll never send this to you. I guard my own violent and violated beauty too closely.
I think my computer might behave now. Thank you. When I left I almost reached out and touched your arm. I almost tangled our scraped nerves together. I almost said “you have beautiful, beautiful eyes, and I do too, look.” I swallowed it down with a dozen quiet, desperate disclosures of I’m autistic instead and promised myself I’d write.
The new OS installed beautifully.
As Kimba starts talking and typing more, and as I start to develop working relationships with other students, a lot of my assignments in lifeskills have become centered around writing. Writing, being a writer (and versus being a speaker), and teaching (is this possible?) writing have thus featured heavily in my thoughts lately.
Most of my concern lies with regard to voice.
I am a writing snob: not because I am the most eloquent, grammatically-adept, perfectly spelled starving artist to ever grace the world with her words (ask me about my journeys with commas sometime, or my passionate love affair with fragments and run-ons), but because I am a writer. I am not someone who writes; I am someone for whom there is no other option. This is the difference between “I am someone who (hatefully, regretfully, anxiously) talks” and “I am a writer.” My writing, a complete opposite to my speaking, is joy and confession and a need for both of these things, and I hope this is transparent.
I have talents that I’m not supposed to have: I can tell who crushes on who by how they stand, I can read strides, I can hear the tonal differences between an alto and a soprano singing the same line so clearly that to me they sing entirely different notes, and I can read through the lines and tell when a person doesn’t need to be writing at all. That, that is what makes me a snob, because I cannot abide a person putting pen to paper or fingers on keys when they don’t need to, when word choice is not as relevant and demanding and essential to them as breathing and syntax is about being correct and not about being evocative.
I am a writing snob, and some of the kids in lifeskills are my very favorite writers.
I could write pages of context about the impact of Kimba’s sparse, elegant, punch-to-the-gut syntax when he told me about being made to eat out of the trash, about spaghetti…no. Cheeseburger…no. Dogfood yes. Bad boy. Go outside. Stay in the yard.
(Because bad boys don’t get to eat food, but they do get to eat garbage, or wood covered in old lead paint, and they get put and kept outside, and this was the first time he ever sat me down and tried to tell me something, and he can use much more verbose syntactic structures but he was more concerned with making damn sure I understood exactly what had been done to him.)
I want Tanya to make a book from the story of her life she carefully encoded in her response to a picture I showed her of a balloon alone in the sky:
The boy bought a balloon, and it was red. He was walking and holding his balloon, and then he let go because he was stretching up to the sky, and the balloon flew away. And he wanted that balloon, but it flew away and it stayed in the sky for a month and then it got struck by lightening and exploded. Kapow! Pieces of it everywhere. The boy bought another balloon, and he lost that one, too.
(And the most important part of the story, she said, is that it is funny. It makes people laugh (because he loses one balloon, and then another). Not the boy though.
What about the balloons? I asked.
Probably not the balloons either, she confided.)
I imagine handing these manuscripts off to a crotchety old Honors English teacher I had, who writes a biweekly column in our local paper that makes me want to throw rotten eggs because he doesn’t need or even really want to write, it drips through his every sentence, he just wants to stand on a box and pontificate and evaluate, though never himself. I imagine handing him these snapshots of my students’ souls and watching his red pens slash through them. The honesty, the effect, the things they say outright as well as in silence (he had what he wanted, it disappeared, he got a replacement, that disappeared too, it’s a funny story except for how it’s not at all), the things these intellectually disabled children can do without even trying that he simply cannot…they wouldn’t matter at all.
He would be threatened by their voice.
These students have voice. Interestingly, one is a selective mute and another rarely speaks above a whisper, but when they have a story, when they need to make you understand, they have more of a voice than almost any other writer I’ve read. I’ll take Tanya’s understated she taught me how to play UNO as a reason for letting her bully pretend to be her friend over the cheerful notices the teachers and secretaries send out about field-trips and costume fees or the “Rural New Hampshire And The Single Girl” column in the paper. Tanya is honest. Tanya isn’t afraid to mean it.
A voice is something honest, a certain unique blend of said-and-unsaid, a particular flavor of syntax and vocabulary and control that stays with you long after you’ve put down the book and think you’ve understood everything you just read. It’s arresting and affecting, and my students have it in spades. I would submit that they’re really never had a choice in the matter and, given that few of them have had any practice in writing before this past month, they haven’t yet had a chance for it to be beaten out of them.
(There is one student. Her mother refuses to believe she is intellectually disabled, or treat her medical problems, and insists that she must do the physically impossible and pass as normal. She is allowed to attend Special Olympics events, which her mother coaches for, as an assistant—she signs the other kids in and out and keeps track of scores, but she isn’t allowed to compete, or smile. She writes like a caricature, like a frightened and desperate mimicry of what she is told she’s supposed to sound like. She’s not allowed a voice. She can’t mean anything, and behind every sentence is a nervous laugh or a hiccuped sob.)
These students aren’t writing novels, and they don’t let their voices out outside of specific circumstances: quiet, time with their thoughts, accessible method of expression, a clear question, and so on—the sort of things every writer needs. But because they are intellectually and/or developmentally disabled, because they need help spelling or scrawling, because their syntax is alternately sparse and cluttered, because they aren’t even really supposed to have thoughts let alone voice, because different means harder means defective means not worth it…because of all of that, it doesn’t matter what they write or how well they write it.
(I find most publications too poorly written to bother with. I have a nightly debate concerning whether or not I should just erase everything I’ve written ever because it is so shitty. I want to emphasize, again, just how elitist I am about writing, how much of a snob I am, how low my expectations were when I sat down to write with them, and how much crow I’ve eaten this month.)
These kids are writers, and it doesn’t matter because it’s not allowed, because their writing samples will be collected and graded and judged more harshly, against higher standards, than any of my essays in AP English ever were (go ahead, read the NH Alt. Assessment Standards and see for yourself. Come into our room and watch how these kids have to prove that they’re sentient on an hourly basis, and then please tell me why I still feel surprised when I see their essays thrown in the trash). People with no voice of their own and no belief that a lifeskills kid could ever have anything to say are the gatekeepers of who gets listened to, who gets read, and they superimpose zombie faces and stutters over Tanya’s stories and say we really need to focus on her handwriting.
So you see, I’m supposed to teach writing, which is less a matter of direct instruction about commas and more a matter of facilitating practice in having a voice. Drawing is just looking, and singing is just hearing, and writing is just listening to your own voice. These kids need to be told, explicitly, repeatedly, by at least one fucking person, that they have voices, and they are valuable voices, and they deserve to be heard, and the first person they should want to listen to them is themselves.
It takes practice.
What I want to know is: how am I supposed to do this, and how can I justify doing this at all, when, as Kimba will be only too happy to remind you, the ones with voices just get their tongues cut out?
Sometimes I think the greatest crime in television is caring.
Giving a damn is already practically illegal anyways, so it makes sense. A lot of the time, in fact, giving a damn is actually more of a punishable offense than anything actually offensive. I get yelled at for organizing books too efficiently, for Chrissakes. It doesn’t even stand imagining, what happens when we say stop it, don’t call them that, you’re talking about another person, do you mean to, do you understand, you can’t do that. When I ask someone to please don’t say “retarded,” it hits me, you’re working in a fucking special ed classroom for crying out loud, your student is three feet away, what are you thinking, it is agreed that the problem is that I can’t take a joke.
I cried for ten minutes when they said “the ayes have it” last night and New York got marriage equality, and Dad told me to quiet down, he was trying to sleep. I didn’t know what was worse—not being able to tell anyone about the results, not being able to tell anyone about the newest cut that barely even stings anymore, or being so fucking grateful that at least I wasn’t called dyke, because we know how that one goes.
(My brother gave me a sarcastic thumbs-up, and my sister told me that she’d known it would pass, and she’d give the rest of the country ten years. I wanted to congratulate her on being so blithe, I wanted to ask if she knows how long a wait ten years is, I wanted to remind her that at least mom would go to her wedding, I wanted to ask her if she’s ever watched people vote on her right to make a family and if she’s ever seen them vote it down. But that’s not funny or neat or easy and thus allowed, that’s messy and hurt and I would mean it, and so I kept quiet.)
I was at the White House conference on bullying in March, which framed violence, in all forms—physical, sexual, emotional, verbal—against students as a civil rights issue. In a group discussion, some immigrant students from the Chicago public school system told us, in excruciating detail, about the physical, racially-based violence they experienced every day. They said that, whenever they tried to report this violence to a teacher or administrator, the same response would come back:
“Why are you telling me this? You’re making me upset. You’re hurting my feelings.”
(The students are being beaten, are failing classes because of chanted racial slurs whenever they sit down, are afraid to come to school. The teachers feel bad because the students are implying that perhaps, if they are not safe at school, the teachers are not doing their jobs properly. The teachers’ feelings are hurt. So the students, the victims, get punished again.)
It’s not a racial thing. It’s not an issue of Teh Gay, or of cripples and madmen and fools. Strip away the aesthetic revulsion, the fear and the ignorance, the complicated socio-economic histories and the familial scars, and people still like to treat other as disposable objects, good for entertainment and not much else. We’re each other’s toys, and if we don’t amuse sufficiently then we probably need to be whacked a few times, the way you hit a CD-player when it skips. Maybe we need new batteries. Probably it’s easier to just throw us away.
(Some people say we evolved the way we did because we’re so good at killing, and we certainly killed off our preceding species quickly enough. It’s a quick hop-skip-jump from amusement to mascot to mystery to menace, and broken human playthings seem to implicitly threaten that we’ll steal, or at least break, all the other toys too. Loss and sacrifice and discomfort and fear we might be next can all trigger our kill-switches, apparently.)
Perhaps I’ve lived an exceptionally awful life, but I find that hard to believe when I watch flocks of smiling, popular people being silently unhappy together. There are reasons people lie about and keep secret how they feel and what they think, and I’ve seen one too many terrified college girls fighting and drinking and cutting all their hair off and then going to class the next morning with bright, store-bought smiles to believe that it’s just me.
True, I get furious, sometimes, when I tell someone about being mistreated because of my autism and they respond with a tale of their own frustration at the hands of some cruel peer or unnecessarily draconian teacher or boss. One of these things is not like the other, and the whole thing never reads as anything other than the familiar “that never happened, that story isn’s allowed, let me show you the script, let me show you the acceptable ways to be and get hurt, too bad they’ll never apply to you.”
Sometimes, though, these things are almost exactly the same in all the ways that viscerally matter. I’m abused because I’m a not-person. To hurt someone without using your fists you just make them feel like a not-person, or, at the very least, a not-okay-person, and you can do that to anyone. Everyone suffers because, as humans, we’re just naturally very good at hurting each other.
Which is not to say that we aren’t also very good at making each other feel incredible, or at least happy, or even just warm and safe for an hour, and that can be enough. We have families and stories, and these are not only terrifying weapons, but also powerful things that can create a lot of good—and when they don’t, we can make new ones. There’s joy and beauty in the world, and sometimes another human seems to hold it all in the spaces between their joints.
Maybe that’s why we hurt each other so very well.
It’s all very stark and dramatic, and that’s a useful way to make a point, but life doesn’t come with points. Life comes kind of blurry and murky and bled-together and wonderful, and maybe looking back you can scoop some of it into a coherent narrative, but the words are never quite sufficient. After all, they said I could get married means something bright and happy, but there’s also something angry and resentful and undefined, because they never asked if their marriage offended me. And then we have to think about all the things marriage means and represents, and what it means for the couples who, watching the votes be counted, whisper that they’ll still love each other just as much if it doesn’t pass. Life is just too big for the words we have and the stories we learn, except for when it’s the other way around.
Most of us don’t go around slaying dragons and going on quests of many miles. Happily-ever-afters are unsettlingly complicated, and the problem with slaying one Evil Overlord is that another always pops up. Curiously, Evil Overlords like to disguise themselves as people we rely on and must be polite to, and quests of many miles tend to consist of driving oblivious children to and from soccer practice, piano lessons, and gymnastics every day for ten years and never driving over and off the bridge.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation is a truism, but no one ever asks why, and if maybe it’s because we think we missed the train to something spectacular years ago and there’s no honor in what we have left, and so we don’t claim the words and stories we were taught to dream as our own. We grow up, and we stop reading children’s literature and picture books, and we’re told that archetypes and mythos are something besides history and biography, and we lose our sense of importance and solidity and any sense of ownership of our own story or right to any words which might mean anything.
Stealing a person’s words, their ability to look clearly at something and see it and know that they do, is the smallest and easiest way to kill someone.
What I mean is, I say child abuse, and people think of my student, caged and beaten and raped and made to eat out of the garbage for nine years. Well, yes and no—yes, because if anyone deserves those words, it’s him, and no, because things are rarely so harsh and vivid and obvious. There’s a reason children like him are so rare and his situation comes up in textbooks as a Worse Case Scenario, one of the Worst in the History Of Our State. Life is a game of ripples and things adding up and subtle variations.
My student will never be the same because he never got to be not-afraid for his first nine years, until eventually he just couldn’t feel fear anymore. I will never be the same because they made me take my clothes off in the car once because I’d drooled all over them, and because I only had to be hit a couple of times before a raised voice was enough to have me looping those experiences and hitting my self, all on my own. His father hit him in places no one could see. I wished someone would just hit me one more time, now that I knew what I could do, so someone might believe me and maybe it would stop. One of those experiences is stark and dramatic and mercifully rare; one is quiet and common and so easy to justify, overlook, pass over. People see my student’s misshapen collarbones and fall silent in horror; no one notices that after a lifetime of being slapped and grabbed for flapping I can’t raise my arms from my side, because the whole point was to make me unnoticeable.
Our situations are different, and so it gets decided that one of them doesn’t count. Similarly, people who have never had the horror of growing up in a community where you get taken away if you’re not good enough declare that since my student’s institutionalization was stopped at the eleventh hour, it doesn’t count. (Just like, if you run away fast enough from the homophobes on the street corner, somehow magically nothing could have happened. Just like if you never say no, you must mean yes. Just like, if they don’t put a gag in your mouth or knock you out, you should be able to fight them off.) I’m glad the world is so very tidy and convenient and adjustable that knowing you were supposed to spend the rest of your life somewhere unspeakably horrible because you just aren’t good enough has no effect on a thirteen-year-old boy. I mean, clearly someone needs to tell him this, as he for some reason feels otherwise. Someone should also probably tell his classmates, who now know—and who always knew, but now it’s reconfirmed and a little more fresh in their minds—exactly how unsafe they are.
It doesn’t count because he doesn’t (we, they, you, don’t) count.
There aren’t any stories about that.
I have this niggling suspicion, though, that there are an awful lot of people in the world who have been told that they don’t count, don’t get to be in the stories, things were never quite bad enough, or maybe they were too bad to be real. I have this feeling that there are an awful lot of us, and that if we just stopped keeping ourselves a secret, we might blow that lie out of the water.
This is where Glee comes in.
Glee tells you, right in the pilot episode, that it’s about not-people discovering that they’re people. Oh sure, there are layers and complications and distractions and other features and a million different ways to say the same thing, but it really does come down to that. It always surprises me, because since when is that a story I see on my TV?
We consume media in a context of constant, casual violence against some and dismissal of everyone else. We expect to be entertained in the middle of an environment in which no one, no matter how skinny or blonde or popular or perfect, can expect to be safe and happy for long. If our television program is going to do anything besides lie to us about following our hearts and happy endings, we’d rather it at least didn’t mean it.
So Glee gets sneaky about it. They give us Bryan Ryan, a Special Guest Character who gets an entire episode devoted to what it is to be a closeted gay American without every actually showing any icky attraction to men. They delve down into layers of nuance and complicated human relationships and the terrible compromises we make and they talk outright about being closeted and cutting yourself off without ever pulling a visceral homophobic reaction from the audience because Neil Patrick Harris (and can we talk about that casting choice?) kissed a guy.
That same episode we have Artie, our wheelchair-using character, learning how to tell people that he doesn’t care about his legs, he doesn’t need to be fixed, he’s got other things he’s worried about. Difference is, he’s not some sort of coded metaphor. You see his chair before you see him. And so all the other characters (and the audience) see is a poor, suffering boy (in a wheelchair, just a cripple bound to his chair) miserable because he can never achieve his dream of being a dancer. Artie spends the entire episode negotiating what all of that means, and how to make himself heard and believed through all the other noise, while, yes, getting a little sad that he can’t just get out of chair and make the entire problem go away. But the episode is called Dream On, and being able to walk doesn’t change the people around you.
The point these two intertwined storylines make is that it doesn’t matter how badly you want people to hear your own voice, they much prefer the dream they have of you in their heads. It’s an entire episode, on the heels (and a continuation) of the similarly-themed Laryngitis, devoted to showcasing that on every level, from casting to costumes to musical numbers to the actual lines delivered, Glee plays around with metaphors and story-telling and scale and variations on an idea and performance versus experience to look at how humans negotiate the space around each other.
(There’s very little joy in the Glee Club, sometimes, if that gives you an idea of what they mean.)
We start out with the writers taking a complicated, unjust experience, stripping away the salient, fundamentally other part of it, and delving waaaaay down into it and all its complexity and nuance. It becomes a story about the fucked-up ways people treat each other, and the fucked-up consequences that has. The audience, to some degree, gets it, and likes it, because it’s not ANGRY, it’s not about TEH GAY, it’s not scary and divisive and other. We don’t have to change the way we treat whole classes of people because of this now, do we?
(I think the point being made is that yes, we do, but it’s entertainment so if you don’t want to hear that, you won’t.)
Probably the most frustrating part of Glee is that the show focuses on universal problems of human relation, but it’s aired in a world where only a few characters out of the oversized cast are universally regarded as human. The only two characters played and seen straight-away as human, right from the start, are Finn and Will. Besides being straight white middle class males, they have two other very important, tightly-linked things in common:
- They’re allowed to rage.
- They don’t hurt people on purpose.
Kurt (gay) snarls in his songs, Quinn (teenage pregnancy) yells that she’s furious, Puck (juvenile delinquent and Lima Loser) explodes and punches people and gets sent to juvvie, and those are all Bad Things. Finn kicks over a chair, Will terrifies his wife, and those things are fine. Those things are natural, healthy, human reactions to the (not-) people around them being awful. Kurt and Quinn and Puck learn to be angry quietly, to smile through their teeth, to take names and social security numbers and sometimes just to wait. Finn and Will are allowed to feel, and show, their hurt.
Their rage is safe and predictable and about socially sanctioned things and won’t ever shake anything up. Kurt, Quinn, Puck? They might hurt someone’s feelings.
They might make someone uncomfortable.
They might ask someone to risk something.
Kurt and Quinn and Puck can hurt people just by breathing, just by being there, and it will always, always, be deliberate. Finn and Will only ever hurt people by accident, and that’s the catch. Finn and Will are people. Good people. Good people don’t, can’t hurt anyone, and since Will and Finn are Good, and since they didn’t mean it to hurt, didn’t even know it could, it doesn’t.
(They’re not like my student’s father, so obviously intent on destroying people, and so their actions have no consequences. They’re good, and if we feel hurt by them, then that’s our fault, and if we argue, then we’re bad, bad people, trying to sully their goodness. That’s just not who they are.)
Isn’t that a cool trick?
(That is the real reason my phobia of lifting my arms, and my student’s near-institutionalization, and so many other things, Don’t Count—what was done was never meant to hurt, and the people who did it don’t hurt, that’s just not who they are, the whole thing is really just better off forgotten, it doesn’t ever need to feature, it doesn’t (we don’t) count.)
But what Glee does such an uncannily good job at showcasing is just how, exactly, anyone can make anyone else Not Count, and what that does to all involved. Simultaneously, it fleshes out people we see first through Will and Finn’s eyes—because we can’t see not-people through their own eyes—and turns them from cheap and easy stereotypes into painfully real, immediate, people. The process is messy and long—two seasons in and it’s still not quite complete—and it’s complicated by the fact that it happens with an audience going through the same process. People laughed at Bryan Ryan’s quips and cried at Artie’s tears and didn’t quite put the pieces together. The cast donned shirts stamped with their shame and sang about baby I was born to survive, and it wasn’t quite obvious enough to change everything.
(It’s entertainment, it’s not supposed to mean anything, and it has to be packaged such that people can ignore the real parts if they don’t want to see them. It’s not allowed to count.)
But a few of us get our words and our stories back, and if they were any more obvious about it, it wouldn’t work at all.
It’s (we’re) all the same, you see.