I am friends with a half-dozen people on facebook from what I term my childhood: before I turned 18. The other day, one of these women, who I haven’t seen in over a dozen years, had posted something and someone else replied, and I looked at the name, and my heart stopped beating for just a second. Because I knew that name, I knew that person, and though it has been over a decade since I’ve seen her in real life, she showed up in my nightmares quite regularly until a few years ago.
You ever get the feeling that even though you and someone else saw the same movie or play, you had a totally different experience than they did? Or that everyone in the theater was watching and enjoying one show, while you were watching and shaking from fear the entire time? That is how I feel today about my school experience. I was there along with everyone else, but while others had a great time, I’m over thirty and still having nightmares. What can I say? PTSD is a bitch.
I grew up in a very white, very wealthy suburb with consistently high test scores and all sorts of sports and after-school activities to pad our college resumes. 99% of the graduating students went on to college, and there were numerous Ivies on the list of where people got accepted. It was the sort of place where if you did accidentally get pregnant, you were whisked away, hush-hush, and never heard from again. It was the sort of place where everyone was so smart, that they just knew the kids in special education had to be retards.^
I was, from a very early age, an odd kid. I loved to learn and could not hide this fact, but by middle school, I was demoted to the lowest math and science groups. I hated gym, art and any class where fine or gross motor skills were needed. I had a few close friends who propped me up enough that I didn’t really mind the bullying I got, and enough awareness of the world to put things in perspective: being kicked on the playground or teased in the halls was nothing when there were starving kids in Africa or war refugees in Kosovo.
I never really got along with kids, to be honest. Certainly never with teenagers, as I never was one myself. My mother likes to say that I went straight from six to forty, and in a way, it’s true. My closest relationships at school were with my teachers, who I adored and trusted. I was quite honestly a horrible little suck up in retrospect, but I didn’t know that at the time. I only knew that teachers made sense to me in a way that other kids didn’t. Now I know why: teachers could compensate for my lack of communication skills, and other kids couldn’t.
Funny thing about my town: if a kid was in special ed. and his or her parents knew anything about anything, they would take their child out of the school system before high school and put them in one of the many quality private schools nearby. Thus I saw a few friends depart, but I begged my parents to not move me, even if they could have afforded it: I hated change.
I also, although I didn’t know it at the time, hated school. I hated that no matter how hard I studied, I still failed classes. I hated that I knew I was smart as a young child, I knew it, but I couldn’t understand so many things and, before long, convinced myself that I was stupid. I hated the fact that I was in so much pain all the time and nobody seemed to care. I hated gym. I really, really, really hated gym. Sometimes to this day I have dreams of being back in gym class. I wonder what the teachers would say now if they knew that there was a legitimate, brain-based reason why I could never catch that damn ball?
Nobody in my school system, for all that it was so smart and progressive and excellent, had a clue what autism was then. Nobody except one very, very intelligent friend of mine, ‘Maya’, who diagnosed me in ninth or tenth grade. She sent my mother and me an article about it, and my mother asked the school counselors. ‘Oh, no,’ they told her, ‘Ekie can’t be autistic. She can’t have Asperger’s, because she’s a girl.’
And everyone knows that there’s no such thing as autistic girls, right? (cue hysterical laughter.)
So instead of being autistic, I was labeled anxious, and mainlined sedatives for the rest of my teenage years. I did pick up the label of non-verbal learning disability and PDD-NOS, which means Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. I like to call it ‘Your kid’s fucked up, we don’t know why, but we need to give you a label to get services’. Unfortunately, the labels didn’t help me much: the IEP written in 11th grade was so bad, I had a college professor laugh out loud at it.
I left that town six years ago. It was the best move I have ever made, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I still ‘see’ people I knew there on a regular basis. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it lets me see how very far I have come. On the other, there are times when a single name on facebook sends me spiraling straight down the drain, back to the hole of misery and solitude I lived with for so many years.
The problem of being in a place where everyone is expected to be smart and perfect, I have since learned, is that when you are not, when you do not have the option of fitting in, that in the process of making you fit, it can break you. My town, I have learned now, did not just break me. It broke others. It broke Maya. It broke Elizabeth, my dear, dear Elizabeth, who vanished into a cloud of anorexia and mental illness during college and, though she lives within ten miles of me (thank you facebook) I haven’t seen in a decade.
I was a kindergartner with very few friends, I was a second-grader obsessed with death*, I was a sixth grader contemplating suicide and a high schooler who never in a million years thought she’d see thirty. And now I have seen thirty, and thirty isn’t perfect but it’s got some really, really wonderful things in it and really, really wonderful people, and I stare at that little girl who cries in my dreams and I wonder why nobody caught her. And I think that, in the end, I caught myself. I caught myself, I hauled myself out and yeah – I’m still autistic. And my childhood may have broken me but I’ve finally begun to heal and the people that I hold dearest don’t seem to care about my cracks.
I see that name on facebook, and I don’t bother to wonder if that person ever thinks of how horrible she made my life because I know that nobody remembers anything the same way. I wasn’t invited to my fifth or tenth high school reunion – most likely would not have been able to handle them, anyway, with their being held in bars – and I try not to be bitter, and I try to believe people when they tell me that there were good things about my town.
Because even if I don’t see them, now or in my dreams, I know that those good things had to exist. And one of those good things is this: nothing is forever. School ends. And if I left, so can others. If I survived, so can they.
^word used in the context of the time and place; I do not condone the use of this word at any time and do not think it is appropriate for anyone to use.
*in 12th grade, I was volunteering at my old elementary school when I found a story I’d written in second grade about a kingdom where the king, queen, princess, etc, all died in really gory and horrible ways. I asked my second-grade teacher then if I had been a morbid child. She said that without a doubt I was the most morbid child she’d ever met.