Learning How to Live

As the fall of 2017 comes to a close, I am one step closer to a new degree and one step closer to a new adventure. When I attend these welding sessions, I am reminded of the engineering classes I took in high school. CADD, circuitry, machine tool; in high school they were to highlight of my day. This is why I am a firm believer that shop classes such as these are more valuable than most academic courses. For me, learning with real-world tools was more valuable than learning from books. As started before, I’m a visual learner and a practical learner. If I’m given a history book and asked to memorize what happened between 1677-1754, I’m only going to use that information once and then never use it again. In an industrial arts class however, you wake up and learn something that you will use in the immediate future and you learn how to be self-reliant in the real-world.

If my school had a class for cooking, I wouldn’t need to rely on fast-food for meals. If there was an automotive course, I wouldn’t need to rely on mechanic as much to fix my truck. If there was a ceramics class, then I could create my own dishes instead of relying on a big-box story for my home needs. The list can go on! Plumbing, glasswork, metalwork, carpentry, and even hunting.

Just to clarify; I am NOT a hunter! I have no desire to hunt. I have a deep love for animals. With that being said, even I can see value in hunting classes for kids. Such classes can teach gun safety. How to hunt responsibly. And most importantly, how to respect your kill.

If my children ever ask me to ask me to take them hunting, I would have two conditions. (1) Be safe. (2) Make dinner out of whatever they killed. Hunting should be related to survival, not killing for the sake of killing. A hunter should kill for food, not acquiring ghoulish trophies. If children learn from the being what a hunter should be, then maybe we can begin to eliminate some of the many murderous poachers in the world.

To be independent is a difficult ability to most people, especially if they are on the spectrum. There are plenty of things I don’t know how to do to survive in the real-world. As such I constantly need to refer to my parents anytime something goes wrong because I wasn’t prepared beforehand. The long and short of the matter is I believe school need to care less about memorizing useless trivia and needs to be about teaching skills they can use to be self-reliant.

Welding

Taking that first step to leave the path of social work was not easy. I invested a lot of time and energy learning how people worked. Years of classes, projects, homework, and tests were just going to be shelved and forgotten. Granted, I wasn’t getting anywhere by wishing upon every star in the galaxy for that fabled phone call from a social service agency. Nonetheless, it was still sad and frustrating that I can’t put anything I learned into practice. So, after ignoring the cold reality social work route has reached a dead-end, I finally started research on a new track, welding.

The first steps to learning more about welding were terrifying for I was on my own. I didn’t have KAP (Kelly Autism Program) to hold my hand and no one in my family has ever taken this path before. I was taking a real-world risk were this was going to pay off or I will be worse off than I started. I was walking into this field on a wing and a prayer and the fear of failure was crippling. So much so I decided to tiptoe into this field by only taking the introductory course.

In Fall of 2016, I arrived early to my first day of class, expecting to walk into a classroom I have sat in a hundred times over. A plain and clean room facing a whiteboard with a teacher behind a podium. What I actually walked into was a gigantic industrial grade garage. Everywhere I looked the classroom(?) disorganized mess of large machines, powerful grinders, tanks of gases, and welders that were twice the size of what I used before. Even the air was saturated with the smell of hot iron and metal shavings, informing me that this room has been well used. I couldn’t see one clean place to sit down, I thought to myself “was this really a classroom?” It also occurred to me that it was a mistake to wear blue jean shorts and tennis shoes this morning.

That first day was spent looking over the syllabus, meeting our professor, meeting our professor’s assistant, meeting our new classmates, and raiding the workshop lockers for tools that have been abandoned by former students.

The first few weeks was split between doing bookwork at home and practice welding in the workshop. The bookwork was composed reading chapters, filling out workbook pages, learning terminology, and learning the individual parts of the welder itself. These sessions did not last long though. After reviewing 2 chapters from the book, the session shifted from lecture to an open lab.

The practice portion involved me actually using a welder to complete certain tasks. The first task I had to complete was drawing a straight line on a small plate of metal with the welder. Sounds insultingly simple, right? Maybe to expert metal-smith, but not to a novice like me. I can’t tell you how many hours (and curse words) I spent trying to get this project right. It seemed like anytime I pushed the nozzle of the weld gun to a piece of metal, all that would come out is a lumpy string instead of a straight line. After 15 or so tries, I realized that welding, although is a type of engineering, is not an exact science but a practiced art. There was hand-eye coordination, precision, technique, patience, and lots and lots of practice. When I learned that, the straight line got easier and I FINALLY was able to move the next project.

At times when I weld, I feel like I’m operating a paint brush instead of a fire-spiting gun. When I wasn’t working on my assignments, I was practicing in other ways. Sometimes my parents needed a trailer hitch for their lawnmower. Sometimes there would be some old chairs frames that needed to be repaired. And sometimes I felt like making some art.

Working on little projects like these are fun for me. I am finally becoming a craftsman and making something extraordinary out of ordinary. Now I get to finally walk in the footsteps of other metal artist. Not to mention, very informative for me. When I am tasked to fix or make something, I am learning about different materials, how to adjust my welder, and putting what I learned to practical use.

I’m not entirely certain where this new direction will take me. Will welding  bring me fortune, adventure, or happiness? I don’t know, but I’m the one that made this decision for better or for worse and i know deep in my heart that it is a step in the right direction.

The Waiting Place

…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night

or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

Dr. Seuss

 

These melancholy words are an excerpt from Dr. Seuss’ famous book Oh, The Places You’ll Go. This book has been often used as a graduation gift to inspire young adults to live unafraid in the real-world. In his otherwise inspirational tale, he describes The Waiting Place as a “most useless place” and can be interpreted as a graveyard where ambition goes to die.

I can ask anyone who has lived long enough that life in the real-world is not all sunshine and rainbows. On the road to success, there will be problems, twists, turns, and dead-ends among other complications on your path. When the path gets rough with ill fortune, some people would rather:

  1. Sit around and give up
  2. Grit and bear their terrible situation
  3. Gamble their future on blind luck

These patient ones’ figure if they wait long enough, eventually a solution will introduce themselves and their problems will magically be solved.

In a scripted fantasy novel, where the normal protagonist is trusted into a fantastic adventure, this method may work. In the real-world, not so much. Nothing ever gets done by keep your hands in your pockets. If you want to change to happen, then you must be bold enough to make that change yourself. I have stayed in The Waiting Place before and I never want to return.

         I too have visited this purgatory. Wishing and dreaming. Praying and waiting. All of it, a waste of time. Of all my talk of doing something better with my life, I have done little to make good on my promise. I have applied to every Social Work industry in the county and prayed to the heavens above that they would change their mind about me. I have waited long enough. I am now 28 years old and still working for a job I hate. The warehouse industry does not need me. People come and go from this job all the time. There I am a number, a replaceable gear, a disposable pawn. My student loans are gone, so what is left to keep me here?

Both of my younger sisters have progressed farther with their lives than I have. One has had the opportunity to be a teacher straight out of college and now living with her boyfriend. While the other has joined the NAVY and has become part of something bigger. Me? The biggest career transition I have made is moving from one warehouse to the one next-door and I got a pretty lanyard that states I have been with the company for 3 years.

Now I could have expressed my grudge towards humanity in a number of ways. I could:

  1. Publish my anger on Facebook and repeatedly post how much the world is not fair.
  2. Be like a coworker and rope random people into whiny conversations about how much I hate my job.
  3. Stop being an obnoxious troll and do something to change my destiny!

It is time to do something about it besides whine. It is time to either find a new path or make one. It is time to go back to school.

 

Fellow Exiles

No sooner, the party ended than my life returned to its usual self. I went back to my job as a warehouse associate, missing absolutely nothing. Waking up at five in the morning, work for ten hours a day, and I’m still not social worker.

Unfortunately, my situation was not uncommon among my peers. Scores of my coworkers were also college graduates not working in their field study. As much as I can complain about the unfairness of it all, I knew for a fact that my fate could have been worse. I have heard of stories about individuals struggling through life because of a bad luck of the draw. I was lucky; I still had my parents’ support and my job offered insurance and benefits.

It didn’t really sink in that I was not alone until one day I was helping Hand in Hand Ministries with a load of donations from a popular toy store-chain. The task required at least two trucks to go collect the bounty from the store and bring it back. Libby recruited a volunteer with an SUV, and I volunteered with the Ford Ranger that I bought right before my Belize trip.

As we were waiting for the toy-store manager to gather the goods, one of the cashiers struck up a conversation asking who we were and what we did. After we explained the HHM mission, the cashier revealed that she was social worker and worked part time with an agency I applied for years ago. After explaining I was a social worker, too, the cashier started to tell me that her introduction into the field was no more forgiving than mine. She had a diploma, but she was not given a free ride. She had to jump through all sorts of hoops and difficult entanglements before she for just a part-time gig.

These notions alone made me feel much better about my own vocation circumstance. It proved that autism was not the only thing that was tying me back and that there are others in my field that struggling just as much as I.

This chance meeting had convinced me that my efforts in college were not to be in vain. I would just need to do a little more work to convince my future employers that I have something to offer them. If a Bachelor’s degree in social work won’t open a door for me, maybe a Master’s degree will. It would take a while yet before I could take on such a challenge. I still had thousands of dollars’ worth of loans from my first go through college, and I wanted to kill off three of my four loans before I try again.

But before I settle down to my studies, I was still restless and wanted to add some community service points to my resume.

 

Working From the Bottom

With diploma in hand and résumé drafted, I was ready to jump into the social-work field and put my new education into practice. In the spring of 2012, I started out by applying to several jobs at a government social-services organization. I had just got out of school, and I was in no hurry to have a job yet. After a few online applications, I kicked back, relaxed, and waited to see where my life was going. About a week later, I get an email saying that my candidacy was rejected. “No big deal”, I thought. Maybe they weren’t interested in me right now. I quickly moved on. However the more places I applied, the more skeptical I became.

About a year goes by, and I was still not in the social service industry and still jobless. I wasn’t being a snob about my search. I tried out many different agencies to at least get my foot into the door. Government, private, non-profit, internships, special needs, homecare, daycare, animal shelters. They all wrote back the same thing, “We thank you for you interest, but we have narrowed our candidacy to other applicants.” Each time I find this dismal message in my mailbox, it solidifies the notion that either I doing something wrong, or something else is afoot.

To prepare myself in this new level of social interaction, I applied to résumé workshops, interview practice, and speech therapy. I learned a lot from these classes on what it means to talk with others in a professional manner. Now armed with new manners, I tried my luck again and applied to a slue of jobs that claimed that they were in desperate need of social workers. However, despite my best efforts I still found rejection letters in my mailbox day after day.

It then occurred to me that these social work agencies were like an exclusive club to get in to. They didn’t want just anyone with a diploma to work for company. To be considered for an interview you need to know someone that already works at the company you are applying to, pass the leisure exam, know the secret handshake, and have 5 years of on-the-job experience. Job experience that I don’t have, and nobody would let me have or provide me a chance to prove myself. I also couldn’t take the license-giving exam because I wasn’t part of a social work company. My life was in a classic Catch 22.

It wouldn’t be years later that I would find out my school didn’t have any direct ties to the state government. Meaning, schools that DID have ties to the state would be given preferential treatment and given first dibs on any social work jobs. Meanwhile, graduates without those connections were on our own and had to figure how to get a job under our own power and I have already experienced how well that goes.

I was in a bind: Student loans were piling up, I was running out of money in the bank, and the Bank of Mom & Dad was closed. I lived in an expensive society and I needed money regardless of my professional goal or my education level.

So, with much bitterness, I applied for a job at a warehouse. Where you get paid minimum wage to shunt stacks of cardboard boxes from one end of an oven-tempered building to another. At first, I did some odd jobs for different companies through a temp agency. Some required that I take a surprise math quiz as part of the application process without a calculator. One place I applied was a tech company that was waiting on parts, and I’m still waiting on their call. Others were warehouses that collected parts for cell phone orders, unloading packages from trucks, etc. Although different in their merchandise specialty, I barely saw any difference between them. They had a complicated work process that didn’t work, the managers ignore the problems, and I had many coworkers that were not friendly. After a half-a-year of bouncing from one warehouse to another, I finally landed a long-term gig in a warehouse that specialized in shoes, among other things.

It was supposed to be just another hot, dust-filled building, and it was. But unlike the other warehouse jobs I had, here the work was simple, the coworkers were friendly, and the managers were proactive. During rest periods, there were times I would have casual conversations with my coworkers. As time went by, I eventually became one of the company trainers for the new warehouse associates.

Was this warehouse my true calling on life? Do I plan to stay here for the rest of my life?

No.

If anything, this detour only fueled my ambitions more. Warehouse work was easy and put money in my pocket, but I needed to move out and experience more. I was not as ambitious like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But I was restless enough to be dissatisfied with my life’s current state of affairs.

For the coming years, I spent the majority of my free time running marathons, involved with Boy Scouts as an adult leader, and working to build up a nest egg for myself. I didn’t know yet what I was saving for, but I lived in an expensive society and whatever I planned to do with my life was going to require money and lots of it.

Graduation Again

I woke up one early on a chilly Thursday morning in December 2011 and went about my usual morning routines. The day should have been like any other, but it wasn’t. For this particular Thursday was my last day of finals. My body was tense with anticipation. My brain was doing everything to retain every detail of my studies. My mind was geared towards facing my final obstacle that lay in wait for me and what it would mean if/when I passed.

The tension that surrounded me was (please excuse the cliché) so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I had faced final exams before and they were no picnic, but this was the test that could decide whether I graduate or not which made the stakes all the higher.

After about an hour or so, I put down my pencil for the last time at WKU and I handed over my exam to the professor. It was over. I was done. I was finished with college!

As I was walking back to my dorm, I felt so weightless. No more tests to worry about. No more project papers to contemplate or complete. I had nothing school-related to fret over. I could not keep this Cheshire cat-like grin from my face knowing full well that another chapter in my life had been completed in the best possible way.

Now came the most exciting time of all. Although I wouldn’t know all of my final scores until many weeks later, I was at my proudest moment, the graduation ceremony. I hadn’t felt this level of joy and self-accomplishment since my Eagle Ceremony or my high school graduation. My fellow social work colleagues and I couldn’t contain our joy as we walked up together to receive our hard-earned diplomas with our families and friends’ looking on.

Although the diploma itself was just a fancy sheet of paper, we give it meaning through our actions and our accomplishments. Then when our diploma is finally handed to us, it forever baptizes our commitment to our futures. However, despite all the cheers, applause of congratulations, and the party afterwards, I knew in my heart that my real journey had yet to start. Graduation was only the beginning.

Unfortunately, this new beginning started out with paying student loans. You see, despite my accomplishments at WKU and throughout my life, I was still burdened with debt to pay and no scholarships to help. During the course of my college term, my family and I had looked for grants to help ease my financial burden, but to no avail. Plenty of money has been used to research autism but not one dime of it goes to supporting an autistic student through college. While at the same time students with other disabling factors (low-income backgrounds, physical disabilities, etc.) can receive grants that can carry them all the way through college. Unfair but true, and I hope it changes soon.

The END is Coming

My final semester at Western Kentucky University—this year marked the final chapter for a very important time of my educational career. As I was going about my usual routines in the semester, I grew more and more restless with each passing day with the realization that the end was coming. All my life, I had only known life as a student. The largest majority of my life had been centered on studying for tests, completing book assignments, and gathering data to compose a project. Now, all my effort and patience was going to pay off, and my life as a student was coming to an end. As my days as a student were drawing shorter, I couldn’t help but count down the number of weeks, days, and hours that stood in the way between me and the real world.

Then something happened to make my graduation even more memorable! Midway through the semester, KAP was hosting their annual support-appreciation banquet. An event to honor all financial benefactors and moral supporters that have allowed KAP to grow over the years. Weeks before the event, KAP asked me to take part in this event by saying a few short words of thanks to WKU and the reigning president on video. The reason they choose me was because I was the only student at KAP who was scheduled to graduate that year.

Something unexpected happened. During the banquet my thank-you video wouldn’t play. In resolution, KAP’s director asked me if I would be willing to provide a live performance. I didn’t have a script handy, I was wearing a dirty jacket and blue jeans, my hair was a mess, and I hadn’t even shaved for the event. I had every reason to say “no”, but I went up anyway. Armed with nothing but my wits, this is what I said:

What I was trying to say… *pauses for laughter* is that I want to say thanks. It is difficult for someone like me to find the educational support that I need to grow to my full potential. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to explore, try new things, and make mistakes when I need to. Again, thank you.

It may not have been the Gettysburg Address, but the audience enjoyed my live performance, rather than the recorded one. The biggest highlight of that evening was that after my speech, I was able to shake hands with the president of WKU, and I received a standing ovation.

I suppose this is one example when something better comes out when they don’t go according to plan. Knowing how to improvise has its merits too.