The Fast Track To A Dead-end
Although the Special Needs School was a great academic safe haven for my particular needs, I knew that I couldn’t stay in this place for long. You see I wanted to become a mechanical/robotics engineer for my adult career and to achieve this feat I couldn’t stay in the special needs program forever. As such, I stayed with this school for only three years (4th, 5th, and 6th grade). Just long enough to bring myself up to speed before transferring to the public mainstream again.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that everything in my life just magically fell into place. And I’m not going to tell you that most of the schools that I applied to opened their doors and rolled out the red carpet. On more than one occasion I was almost denied the school of my dreams. Denied the chance to show people who I am and what I’m capable of. Denied the opportunity to fulfill my potential. All because I wasn’t a cut-copy-and-paste student.
At first they were reluctant to take me because I didn’t do so well of their entrance exam, but my parents were determined to get me in and to get them to understand that I had the skills to succeed.
To convince the managers of my Middle School, and later on high school, my parents arranged meetings with Individual Education Program (IEP) and invoked their services. At IEP meetings, you, your family, and a lot of school officials decide what your “program” will consist of.
In these IEP meetings, there will be at least one person in the room who is in charge of the budget. As part of being responsible with the wallet, it is their job to find the most cost effect method your special needs. In other words; do nothing, and say, “We can’t afford it.” Other officials at the meeting feel that if the child is “different”; give them the water-downed course that guarantees a slow road to a lackluster career.
To contend with the IEP board, my parents did a lot of homework before each meeting. In the first few meetings, the board would hand my parents a single sheet of paper and call it the list of rules of what they can and can’t do. My Mom didn’t buy it, and countered their grocery list with their own rules and quoted word for word what is written in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) detailing exactly what I’m entitled to and what the IEP board is required to do. And that always got them. In order to get anything from IEP, my parents had to learn the rules of I.D.E.A. inside and out.
The accommodations that I asked for weren’t unreasonable. I did not ask for the streets to be made with gold bricks. I could understand and do the work like that of my peers. I just understand things in the world in a unique way. All I asked for were some extra tools to help me operate in the best way possible. All we wanted were extra time to complete a class project, extra time to finish a test, and early notifications of upcoming events, plus a rental laptop, as assigned seat on the school bus and in class, and a locker at the end of a row. The reason being for the assigned places; was for a peace of mind.
To me, school buses were a big, yellow, four-wheeled vehicle designed to transport a large number of students to and from school. To everyone else, it was a gas-driven social zoo. And just like any other social gathering, it had unspoken rules of how things are done. Rules like, if you want a seat to yourself, you’re not going to get one. The bus will always have twice the number of people than it’s supposed to have. If you see someone sleeping alone in a seat, wake him up. He’s faking in order to protect his private seat. If you have someone that’s picking on you or bothering with his immature pranks, don’t get revenge by hitting him. He is a jerk, but he will win.
During my daily passage from Home to Middle School, such tricksters have constantly taunted me. They find amusement by hounding me with ill games and this often distracted me from my studies at school. In response, my parents marched up to the bus company and demanded that I would have an assigned seat next to a bus monitor. The company tried to discourage her by saying that there is no policy on assigned seats. But my mom was very persuasive. She argued that either I got the seat I wanted or they were to send a private bus for me. Eventually the bus company complied, and I got a safe seat on the bus to and from school. You can’t imagine what a relief it was!
Just as with school buses, having a locker at end of row was much more vital than you’d think. At the time I also didn’t like being boxed between others. You could say that this was a form of sensory claustrophobia. As such, my mom also made arrangements with the school to have my locker on the ends and my seat location on the ends so that I had plenty of elbow room. Eventually I gradually grew around this and learned how to be more tolerable of inconvenient circumstances.
Engineering was a sensible career, I had a deep fascination with the field of machines, a no-nonsense sensibility, and since my favorite toys as a child were Legos, Knexs, and Erector sets this was a perfect choice. I thought to myself: “How hard could it be?”
When the day came for me to transition from the safety of the Special Needs School to the regular Middle School, naturally I was petrified. The class size was bigger, the students were rowdier, and the teachers were less hands-on when teaching their lesson. However, in order for me to enter a high school of my choice, one that would allow me to fulfill my ambitions to become an engineer, transferring protocols dictated that I needed to take at least two years of public junior high. So, in the fall of 2001, I started my first years of public middle school. The most horrid two years of my life.
My chosen junior high was a mathematics/science/technology magnet by nature. Much of the school’s curriculum was geared towards the introduction of computers, electronic encyclopedias, graphing calculators, and video-editing equipment. In this school, there were also teachers that knew of my condition and very supportive of my ambitions. This school would lay the groundwork for all of my academic strengths and aspirations. The other students on the other hand, I could have done without.
Despite the school’s excellent reputation and good intentions, the atmosphere of this school seemed more appropriate for a daycare center than a school and a wild, out-of-control daycare center at that! My peer’s maturity levels left much to be desired. At first I thought that the biggest adjustment from a safe school to a public middle school was the social order. Unfortunately, it was not just the schools themselves who were different; it was the people that inhabit the school that was different. There were a sizable number of the students that were loud, obnoxious, and immature. Although I was never thrilled about going to school for those two long years, I went anyway to fulfill my educational commitment and to move on. During this time these juveniles often bothered me with childish pranks and they were deliberately disobedient to the brave teachers.
I didn’t understand the rationale behind the behavior of these kids. Even though my classmates were about the same age I was, I still considered them immature, childish, and collectively, the peanut gallery. Why would anyone purposely taunt and test the patience of the one who decides if you pass or fail a class? It made no sense.
In my mind I would often scream, “THIS is the task we are supposed to do, and THIS is how we do it. What part of that aren’t you getting?!” There is a time and place for everything, but I could not understand it. The students knew they had commitments to fill, so why would they waste their precious time to play childish pranks that should be reserved for elementary kids? There were even times that I wanted to aggressively discipline the dunderheads myself.
However, I didn’t act upon my urges no matter how strong the urge or how unpleasant the company. I knew that if I got into any trouble with the students or the school, I might forfeit my chances to enter a respectable high school and have repeat this whole horrible experience again elsewhere in a less privileged school.
As such, I performed my daily tasks and tolerated the company. My dedicated diligence often left me alone quite often. It was a rare commodity during these times to have a proper friend or common companion as I did in previous years. With that, I often found comfort and camaraderie with the teachers rather than with my peers.
This often made me feel like an alien in my own skin. “Why didn’t I act like the other students?” My parents knew I was odd. I knew that the world was odd. But this was the first time I thought I was odd. Why didn’t I talk as often as the other kids? Why didn’t we hang out? Maybe the difference between my classmates and myself was not just intelligence; maybe it was sociability.
Although I was diagnosed with autism when I was around eight years old and I was admitted into a special-needs school, I thought the world was just being unfair. However, during my years in Middle School, I began to acknowledge that autism had a real effect on me and that I would always be different from my peers. Over time, I began to see my autism as a new appendage or a traveling companion rather than a disabling condition. Sure, there was plenty I didn’t understand about people and proper order or things and I needed some special tools to help me succeed. I was still moving under my own power and the people around never handed me anything. I earned all of my rewards with hard work and determination.
My success, despite my supposed disability, was often reflected in my grades at school and in my GPA. In spite of having a zoo for Class Company, I was on the Honor Roll and my GPA was 3.5. I accredit this difference in maturity to my autism. I discovered that because of my autism, I had a no-nonsense outlook on my life and, as such, my persona grew mature at a faster pace as well as my sense of responsibility. I also discovered that I was both task-and goal-oriented when it came to completing my tasks. I never felt right if an assignment was only left half done.
2003 was the year I finally transitioned from middle school to high school. A most blessed change. When I entered through the doors of High School for the first time, I was immediately immersed by new surroundings, landmarks, laws, and culture shock. My particular high school was an engineering magnet school and was equipped with an advanced engineering program. The program was a four-year pre-engineering program whose mission is to teach high school students the basis of industrial engineering, including some pretty advanced courses such as computer aided drafting and circuit building. These courses aside, the students that make up this school were just as interesting.
My first culture shock in this place came to me when came across a peer with his pants sagging below his waist. My first thought that this young man must be unaware what had happened. So being the helpful sort that I am, I offered that he needs to pull up his pants before he trips. As a response, instead of a “Thank you for your concern” the young man responded; “You should pull your pants down!” in a playful tone. The reaction was more than a little unexpected. What custom or reason could possible warrant one’s pants to be so uselessly low like that? My last school was full of jerks, but everybody was clever enough to operate a belt. I tried to think of reason, but I could find none. So, I dismissed the incident that the person was an idiot. This was, in fact, in a strange new jungle.
There were some immature brats here and there. Yet, unlike the years before, the social crowd I was with had matured somewhat. When I looked around in this school, I was able to find individuals who cared about their future and were willing to take big steps to achieve their life ambitions. I didn’t quite understand some of the locals, but then again, school is about learning something new.
Unfortunately, new jungles came with new predators and my parents or my teachers could not protect me from everything life could throw at me. There were some things I had to deal with myself. That’s right; I had bullies in Middle School and High School.
Monsters and Heroes
Bullies are monsters, a word that I don’t use often or use carelessly. Their only objective is to bar another person’s path and sling mud on to another’s ambitions. Bullies are created from the cycle of violence. One bully vents their hostility on a victim for any minute reason, then after a time that victim’s pain and rage swells to the point they take it out on another victim, and then a new bully is born. Bullies breed like an infestation, creating an endless cycle of hate.
This is not the only fate of a victim. A victim of a bully can also lead to depression, madness, and even death. Bullies are creatures to fear. I live in a society where confronting a bully is not so simple. In this modern day, outside of a video game, a sword with good intentions can’t solve all of your problems, even if they deserve it. The rule here is that the last one to throw the punch will lose. After all, who are the lawmakers going to believe is the innocent victim? The one with blood on their fists? Or the one with blood on their face? Might doesn’t make right.
TV doesn’t offer any more clarity. As opposed to TV bullies, real bullies are harder to identify, don’t always get their just desserts in the end, and they don’t magically go away after 30 minutes. Just like every person is an individual and every autistic person is an individual, every bully is also an individual and must be treated as such.
I have learned early in my life that if there is even one thing that makes you different from anyone else, someone is not going to approve. As such, I never revealed that I had autism to my peers. Not in Elementary, Middle, or High School. Never, ever, ever. I feared if the wrong person heard of my struggles, they would find amusement by making my life harder.
Unfortunately, I was right. But autism wasn’t the only factor. To my benefit, they did not target me for my autism. I knew to keep it a secret from my peers. I knew that people had a nasty habit of treating others differently because of things like this, and I didn’t want that. My youthful tormentors usually preyed on me because I was normally seen alone and appeared to be underequipped socially. As such, they would harass me to get a cheap laugh at my expense, copy off my notes because they were lazy, stuff garbage in my backpack, or suffocate me with cigarette smoke in the bathroom. I had a hard time opening up to anyone or trusting someone new. I so wanted to have friends I could hang out with after school, but with so many bullies lurking about, I would just choke. The few people I could open up to at school were the teachers.
In both Middle and High School, I had been in good graces with all of my teachers. Not because my IEP or my parents demanded it. It was because I always strived to go above and beyond of what they asked. When there was something I didn’t understand from a lesson, I would walk up after class and ask for a better explanation. When I wanted to know if my assignment was up to par with the professor’s expectations, I would shoot them an e-mail to clarify if I was on the right track. When I had a question on how to prepare for an exam, I would go and find my professor’s office and ask him/her to give me some direction on what to study. For that, all my professors recognized my earnestness, my diligence, and my sincerity. That audacity was rewarded with help inside and outside the classroom when I asked for it. And I thank them greatly for it.