Have you watched Hannah Gadsby’s special Douglas on Netflix? It’s wicked smart, and has a really good section on the set dedicated to what it is like getting a late diagnosis of Autism, and how that makes confusing episodes in childhood make sense. In particular, there is a section about a box, and a penguin…
I think all autistic people have a moment like this. Where you find yourself at odds with someone who expects you to make some sort of leap of logic that just doesn’t make sense. It might be trying to figure out how you’re related to a box — or how a penguin is related to the box — or it might be a teacher deciding that they are going to make their own rules outside those of the school.
If schools were prisons, Primary School would be county lockup
I spent my primary and middle school time in parochial/private school. And I am very intentional in my wording there, I mean it to sound like a prison sentence because it very much felt like one at the time. Elementary wasn’t too horrible, but because I was one of the GT kids (and a year younger than everyone else, and TINY) I was a frequent target of bullying. This came to a head in fourth grade when two events happened:
- An incident on the blacktop where a boy who had been held back a grade decided to up his bullying by knocking me on my ass with a basketball, which resulted in road-rash on the back of both my thighs and a “light concussion.” I responded to this violence with a swift kick to his head… except his crotch got in the way. I got a one day vacation (and monkey-blood all over my legs) and he got in-school-suspension for a week. The nuns agreed I was acting (mostly) in self-defense.
- The end-of-school party where I brought my record player and records and discovered that I did NOT have a good sense of what was “popular music.” To be fair, my parents listened to the oldies station, and did not really like new-wave music, so I was left behind pretty hard. My mom, in her infinite wisdom, had slipped a couple of her/dad’s records in with my “baby records,” so the day was somewhat saved. But I never forgot the feeling of having an entire class laugh at my stuff.
But I would say that primary school was more like county lock-up… middle-school was a freaking state run prison that was overrun with gangs (cliques) and abuse from the handlers (mostly secular, actually). I was not equipped for dealing with this level of hell. I’m sure that for the kids that had been at the school their entire primary sentence were okay. They knew the rules, they understood the hierarchy. I came in at 6th grade (because my primary school was sold to developers, it is now a strip mall) and had NO history. I was already at a disadvantage.
He doesn’t get a name
But my Penguin Moment came in 7th grade. Our school had a policy for 6th through 8th grade that progress reports were given to all students who had a 76 or lower in the class, but only those who were failing (lower than a 70) were required to get a parental signature. I rode that pony all three years I was there. Only once did I have to get a progress report actually signed, and it was in religion class (where I frequently argued with Sister Kathleen). Now my English teacher, who I will not dignify with a name, felt that all progress reports—regardless of the grade—should be signed. While he considered this to be a keystone of parental involvement, I understood it to be theatre. If the student wasn’t failing, there would be no review of the grade… just a simple signature and a “why did you bother me with this?”
So when the first progress reports were sent out, I didn’t get mine signed. I had an A in the class, and it was not policy. My parents would be annoyed w/me presenting them with something to sign that was not a permission slip or a “your kid is in serious trouble” note (which I never got). My grades weren’t terrific, but they were high enough to keep me in the advanced classes and out of notice of the teachers for the most part. Except religion class… but we’ve already touched on that. So at the end of the week, my English teacher noticed that I had not turned my progress report. He addressed me in front of the entire class (I sat front row, all the way to the windows) and asked why I thought I was better than everyone else who had turned theirs in.
Now, under most circumstances, I would not argue with a teacher. But this was dumb. I knew it. He knew it. The class, for all their “oooooooh”ing knew it. So I answered, “the school policy says that only failing grades need a parent’s signature. I’m not failing.” I don’t know what this dude was expecting as an answer, but that was NOT it. “MY POLICY,” he shouted, “is that all progress reports are to be signed.” I thought about it for a second, and asked for clarification, “so what you’re saying, is that your class policy is more important than that of the school?” The room got deadly quiet. I wasn’t “being smart,” or “mouthing off,” I was asking an honest question. Because that did NOT make sense to me. It would be like a city ordinance trumping state or federal law. But that was not how he saw it. I watched the color drain from his face to be replaced by a strange purplish red. In three strides he was directly in front of my desk, and grasped both sides of the writing surface.
In seventh grade I was wearing MAYBE a size 10 clothes and pushing 70 lbs. I was very, very small, but I also didn’t scare easily. Something about sending a bully to the hospital to have his testicles placed back outside his body had told me that I didn’t need to be big to fight back. And, I had no reason to believe any harm would come to me. Our school didn’t use corporal punishment, and I was already a frequent guest of the Vice Principal thanks to my Religion class and Sister Kathleen. I didn’t see the danger any more than I understood why I couldn’t ask for clarification on a statement without calling a teacher’s authority into question.
It was over before I knew it, but it seemed to last hours.
While yelling semi-incoherently about how his “RULES WILL BE OBEYED,” he punctuated every word by picking up my desk (with me in it) and slamming it back on the floor. The final expletive was emphasized by tossing the desk (with me in it) against the wall. I landed mostly upright, but hit my head on a shelf. He then picked up my purse/knapsack, and dumped EVERYTHING on the floor screaming “YOU WILL FIND YOUR REPORT AND TURN IT IN TODAY” before storming out of the classroom.
I should mention that no one liked this particular teacher. He was a strange person who had a habit of spraying English Leather and Polo into the room’s air-conditioner, making it damn near impossible for me to concentrate in that room. He also had a habit of calling students various adjectives for “stupid.” In the winter, he wore a full length grey fur coat, and woe be it unto anyone unlucky enough to get that thing dirty in ANY way. He was not beloved, loved, or even liked. He was almost universally loathed. But he got good grades out of this students, and everyone who took his class was assured a high grade on the TEAMS the next year in the Reading section. So the administration tolerated him, regardless of his… eccentricities.
The silence following the attack was deafening. I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I just sat there, and looked at the mess on the floor. Everything I owned on full display: colored pencils, a sketchbook, several Lisa Frank folders… as well as several loose maxi-pads and clear Bonnie Bell lip-gloss. All on the floor mixed with papers and hair-clips. I swallowed hard, and righted myself in my desk, and then stood up. Everyone in the class was looking at me, I could feel it, but I kept my eyes on the maxi-pad… just sitting there in the middle of the floor. Slowly I knelt down, and began to put everything back in the bag. After a few minutes, one of the other outcast girls got up and helped me organize some of the stuff that had rolled under other people’s desks. Other students began to look around to see if anything of mine had landed by them and silently passed the erasers and pencils to the front, and then over to me. No one said anything. No one offered comfort, or even commiserated that it was a crazy thing to happen. After a minute, I found the report, unsigned, and crumpled.
I turned to the boy who sat next to me, and asked him for a pen. I didn’t feel like digging in my bag.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m going to give him the report,” I responded dully. “that’s what he wants.”
“But your parents didn’t sign it.”
“Well, he didn’t say that it had to be signed by my parents,” I replied, smiling weakly. “I’m still right.”
And with that I signed my mother’s name to the report, and placed it on his desk. I made no effort to smooth it out. He could have it, with all the wrinkles and stains. After a few minutes, the teacher came back in reeking of cigarette smoke and what I recognized as whiskey. He walked to his desk, looked at the report, and back to me.
“well, now,” he said, “was that really so hard?”
And we went on with the lesson for the day. We all pretended nothing happened and when the bell rang we all filed out for our next class. I had a headache as a result of hitting my head, and in my next lesson (gym), I asked if I could go to the nurses’ office for an aspirin. Sister Angela could see the slight bump on my head, and looked at me questioningly, but I just asked her again, with a note of pleading in my voice, “please, my head is hurting, can I go see the nurse?” I could feel her looking at the other kids over my head, and later one of my friends told me that no one made eye-contact with her. They all carefully looked away. “Okay,” she said, “go see the nurse. You don’t have to dress out today if your head hurts.”
I didn’t cry until I was in the nurse’s office. She assumed my headache was very bad, and called my mom to make sure I could take a Tylenol. “She must be in a lot of pain,” the nurse said, “she’s crying.” My mom asked to talk to me and asked me if everything was okay, if I was just crying from my headache. I could have told her. I could have said something in that moment and maybe she would have done something. But i didn’t. Because somehow I knew what had happened was just par for the course for me. But I didn’t want to interrupt her day, or my dad’s day. So instead I forced myself to stop and said, “I think it’s my sinuses. Sister Angela won’t make me go outside, so I should be okay. I will see you at home.”
And that was that. I went back to class, sat on the benches and pushed everything down all the pain and the hurt and the need to cry. I was confused as hell as to what had happened, but I understood one thing. Adults could push me around, could bully me, could hurt me, and no one would do anything. Because I was the weird girl. I knew that the teacher wouldn’t have dared to do that to one of the popular kids, or one of the kids that wasn’t on scholarship. I knew that it was okay because I was different and the kids wouldn’t say anything to anyone else. It would all be kept internal to the students as one more thing that happened to the weird girl. I knew whatever hope I had previously of being somewhat accepted was now gone. An adult had validated their assessment—I was wrong somehow.
The rest of the year was spent in relative isolation. I signed every progress report for that class with my mother’s name and it was never called into question. I knew it wouldn’t be. He didn’t really care that she knew how I was doing in class, it was about control. But to this day, I can’t stand the smell of English Leather. It makes me violently ill.
And now, because I don’t want to end on a total downer. Here is Bandicoot Cucumbersmaug not being able to say the word penguins…. a LOT.