May 31, 2013

Studying the right things

Posted in Schooling and unschooling tagged , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, caused a slight kerkuffle among my alumni community this past week, when he said, in reference to the fact that apparently large numbers of jobs in Georgia are going unfilled, that “students are studying the wrong things,” and that “If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”

Where to even start.  Oh, I’ll just start.

1.  The point of a university education is not to fill a quota of jobs in particular industries that just happen to be available in the state.  The point of a university education is to support and fulfill a student in the long term, not simply as a worker but as a learning, thinking, creating person.  College education should enrich an entire society with a liberal range of thinking skills, not simply enable young adults to fill available jobs.

If industries with jobs to fill are failing to attract students and applicants by making a reasonable case that the work is worthy of their dedication for the salaries they’re offering, that is not the student body’s fault.  Industries with jobs to fill are not entitled to students’ lives or attention.  A graduate has no particular duty to take any given job, anywhere, or to train for any given job just because it’s available.

2.  It is so easy to take the stereotype of the undisciplined, flighty, starving actor or artist and say if you studied drama and now you don’t have a job, maybe you studied the wrong thing.  But who would look at an unemployed graduate who studied business, marketing, or biochemistry, and say “Maybe you studied the wrong thing.  Maybe you should have studied photography or playwrighting?”

But maybe they should have.  Maybe a kid who sacrificed their true interests to what they were told was more practical, responsible, stable, or lucrative, would have been better off pursuing what they were a natural at.  Maybe they would have found that being educated where their strengths and intuition lie is actually more reliable and life-sustaining.

3.  People do work in the arts!  Maybe this is overly obvious, but I really think that some of these bigwigs who run their mouths off overlook it.  People work in the arts.  People really do make their livings in the arts.  People who quite possibly couldn’t sustain employment in more conventional career fields do so in the arts.  People with very specific and uncommon talents find a life in the arts.  People study for and work in the arts who damn well know that that path is their best bet.

And it’s not like the only thing to do with a drama degree is act or direct.  There are jobs in management, administration, development, and design, just to name a few areas.  There is such a profound ignorance of what it really takes to run the theater world, that, just for instance, I had not even heard of what would become my own job until I was in college.

Do too many people study drama expecting to be able to find jobs, or sustain themselves by performing, who then can’t?  Sure, probably.  But so what if everyone made more practical choices and studied dentistry or engineering instead?  Would the economy then have the jobs available to support all of those people?  A society can’t absorb an overabundance of nurses or computer scientists any more than it can a glut of theater artists.  There aren’t a limitless number of jobs for electrical engineers, either.  If everyone who hears Chancellor Huckaby’s speech takes his advice and chooses their field of study based on where job openings in Georgia currently are, who says those jobs will still be so plentiful, or even exist, five or ten years from now, and what happens to those students then?  And in the meantime, what happens to a society that decides it doesn’t value the education of its artists and creators?

4.  Make no mistake:  I am employed because I studied drama.

Beyond the fact that I still actually work in the specific career which I chose in college, my education in theater gave me opportunities to develop communication, interpersonal, collaborative and analytical skills that I just would not have had access to otherwise.  I found a world in which the kind of person I was at heart wasn’t considered a fundamental problem.  I found a niche that demanded my natural skill set.  I got told for the first time that the way I learn is a strength and not a weakness.  I deeply understood how my own mind worked for the first time when I was taught to use a two-scene preset light board.  Somebody taught me how to yell.

I really and truly don’t like to think about where I’d be right now if I hadn’t studied drama.  And there’s almost nothing for which I’m more grateful to my younger self than the fact that she had the foresight to not listen to people like Chancellor Huckaby.

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May 30, 2013

The woods are lovely….

Posted in Explorations tagged , , , at 12:53 pm by chavisory

bear creek mt trail

I got to do a little hiking this past weekend.  This is Bear Creek Mountain, in Walton, NY.

May 25, 2013

The wisdom of Nickelodeon (circa 1991-96)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:34 am by chavisory

I was working on a film shoot a couple weeks ago, and standing around on a break one day, somehow I got to talking with our costume designer and the 12-year-old member of our cast about how much better Nickelodeon shows were in my childhood than they are now.  While I was a little embarrassed to have almost no idea what is even on Nickelodeon these days, he was a connoisseur of vintage Nickelodeon, and we wound up talking about shows like Clarissa Explains It All, Doug, Rugrats, Salute Your Shorts, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, You Can’t Do That On Television, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.

And one of the things we realized, in trying to figure out why those shows were so cool, and felt so good to watch, even though they were in some ways ridiculously wholesome, was that they managed to make you feel like they were always firmly on your side as a kid.

Although almost wholly non-objectionable in any way, they weren’t family shows.  They were kids’ shows.  They weren’t so much trying to teach any lessons, or make your parents happy, as they were dealing with the world the way that kids actually have to deal with the world, with all of its petty injustice, anxiety, and ludicrousness.  There was lightness in the situations, but there wasn’t trivialization or mockery of kids’ problems.  Adults were not always ultimately right, or even good or well-intentioned like they were in other network family shows.

And as I thought more about it, I realized something else that day.  Those shows weren’t just on the side of kids…they were practically always, as far as I can remember, on the side of vulnerable kids, underdogs, and oddballs.

Compare, for instance, the way Sponge is portrayed in Salute Your Shorts compared to Screech in Saved By The Bell.  When Sponge is called names and pushed around and valued only for his huge memory for random facts, it is actually wrong.  Or Sam the weird neighbor in Clarissa and Skeeter the weird sidekick in Doug compared to Kimmy the weird neighbor in Full House.  The bullies and jerks were the bad guys in those shows, and while you’re still supposed to have compassion for those characters in their own way, they are the actual antagonists of those worlds and you are not supposed to approve of their behavior and join in laughing at their victims.  There weren’t characters who were there to be ridiculed.

Heroes and protagonists of Nickelodeon shows felt dorky and inferior…and it was okay.

And I was thinking about it some more as I was going through an old journal this week (which I almost never do), and re-reading an entry about realizing that the things I’ve tended to really love–music or books or TV shows–were things that made me feel like a person.  Things that I liked okay were things that at least let me feel like a person.

Things that I could never manage to like much at all, even when everyone else around me loved them, tended to leave me feeling like I couldn’t laugh at the characters I was supposed to be laughing at.

Nickelodeon shows never did that.  And while I was warned all too often that the amount of TV I watched as a kid was going to rot my brain, I’m starting to suspect that the more subtle lessons of those shows may actually have been among the most quietly but deeply impactful sources of strength to follow me into adulthood.

(And then there was this.  How many things in life have you really been more afraid of than that?  The top comment reads “This is why we 90’s kids are so intact”…and I think she may not be wrong.)

May 9, 2013

Escape to the moon

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:54 am by chavisory

fire escape moon

 

May 2, 2013

Dear Emily

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:44 am by chavisory

I meant to write this even before I knew that today (er, *cough cough* yesterday *cough*) was Blogging Against Disablism Day.  Hey, serendipity!

I saw this on Facebook, shared on a friend’s page, a few days ago:

Emily Xxxxx
Hey, my name is Emily. I’m 19 years old and I have high-functioning autism. I was diagnosed when I was 2 1/2, when my parents noticed that I stopped talking and developing normally. I never wanted to be snuggled. Loud noises scared me badly. I would parrot everything my parents said. I didn’t like people in general. I’d have a hard time sleeping at night. I was a very picky eater, and didn’t like things if the textures weren’t right. I also didn’t like it when things would suddenly change. Once I was diagnosed, I was put into speech and occupational therapy right away. My therapists thought that I would never be able to go to a mainstream school, learn how to drive, keep a job, or get married. I proved them wrong. I was put in an IEP program when I went to an autism preschool at 3 years old. I learned how to read when I was 4. I was good at remembering things with details. By the time I turned 5, my teachers ran out of things to teach me that were in their curriculum because I picked it up fast, so they started teaching me things that I would learn in kindergarten.
Now I’m in my freshman year of college,I changed my major this past semester to studying special education, and not social work. I work part-time in a call center for an anesthesia medical billing company as a billing specialist. I stopped being on the IEP program when I was in 9th grade. I have a driver’s license, I graduated high school with a 3.2 GPA, I’m engaged to be married next fall to an amazing guy, who loves me and accepts me for who I am. I still have some OCD tendencies, and I still have some texture issues when it comes to certain foods. For the most part, people can’t even tell that I have autism.
For you parents out there with children on the spectrum, don’t give up on them. Help them reach for their potential. Look for the talents that they have, and help develop them. My parents didn’t give up on me, and I’m forever grateful for them, because I get to live a normal life. I am getting married July 5th.
Thank you,
Emily

Dear Emily,

I saw your post on Facebook, through a friend’s page.  (I’ve removed your photo and last name.)

My name’s Emily, too.  And, with some notable exceptions, which we’ll get to, I could’ve written large chunks of your story.

You’ve done a lot, and you should be proud.  But your note left me worried and uneasy for you more than anything else.

*****

I never developed normally.  But I was misdiagnosed, and there were no IEP’s when I was in school anyway.  I don’t know if there were special schools in our area, but if there were, from what I’ve heard from friends who were in special ed, nothing leads me to believe that they would’ve been good places.  Speech and occupational therapy existed, but it had been decided that I was just shy and stubborn and didn’t want to talk, not that I was in fact having serious language problems.  Far from being told that I would never do things like go to school, live by myself, or get a job, it was just assumed that I should be able to do everything that everyone else did, and so no one thought that they needed to teach me anything.  I had to just figure it out.  It was fly or die.  And that much I knew for sure.

I read a lot.  Thankfully, my first grade teacher was good at teaching writing, and I loved it.  I spent a lot of time outside.  I learned to drive.  I was in gifted programs throughout school.  I graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA.  I was captain of my scholar bowl team, copy editor of my senior yearbook, and editor of the school creative writing magazine.  I graduated from college with honors and with two degrees.  I learned to stage manage and held office in the college debate society.  I worked in a campus biology lab, for the local community theater, and then as a barista for several years.  I moved to New York with friends, and I work in theater full time now.

And for most of my childhood and adolescence I was in a desperate race to prove, both to myself and others, that I could do anything that I needed or wanted to do, because I was so (reasonably, as it turns out) terrified of winding up not being allowed to live my own life.

I’m hugely proud of a lot of what I did.  But I also did some fairly horrible things to myself, and it took me a long time to realize that the fact that I had to wage that war in the first place was wrong.

Recently I was out with a friend, and she said “Your education sounds like hell.”  I had to agree.  It was, and no one had ever said something like that before, or told me that yes, it was all real.  Most people trivialized it or called me spoiled or oversensitive or assumed that because I was smart, it was all easy for me, not that it was war, day in and day out.

*****

Sudden noise, visual over-stimulation, and unwanted touch still hurt me.  I’m still very sensitive to texture in my food and clothing.  I still walk on my toes, I have a strange gait and an accent that people can’t place.  Frequently my emotions don’t connect to my language abilities very well and so there are things I can’t communicate.  I worked really hard at developing speech, organizational, and motor planning abilities, but they can still be overtaxed, and I can’t go around expecting to be able to function in the ways a non-autistic person would take for granted, or to push my boundaries for extended periods of time.

And none of that is a reason I can’t be happy or productive or ambitious.  It does require that I honor how I’m actually built and how I’m not.

*****

I’m glad that I had people, who I know and who I’ve never met in person, in large ways and small ones, in words and not in words, deliberately, and not so much so, to tell and show me that it was okay to be autistic.  That it isn’t wrong.  We’re not wrong, to be this way.  That we’re okay.  That we’re supposed to be here.

I’m glad for all the writing and information from other autistic people that helped me put it together that autism is not what we can and can’t do.  It’s not how we’re defective or inferior.  It’s how we’re configured to process information, to feel, perceive, and use language, to learn and grow differently from most people, and there’s nothing wrong about that.

I don’t take pride in the fact that a lot of the time, people can’t tell I’m autistic, because all that means is that most people wrongly equate the condition of autism with prejudices about what we’re not supposed to be able to do, or with bigotries about us being incapable of empathy, love, warmth, or friendship.

These days, most people know that I’m autistic.  Partly because I write and talk about it, but partly because both my ability and willingness to expend energy on suppressing physical signals of autism have gone away.  I’m glad that I’d already read some of Amanda Baggs’s and Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s writing, so that I knew what was happening when it started happening to me and didn’t panic or blame myself.  My brain gives me fewer choices now about how I can and cannot abuse it.  I had to start letting myself feel what I feel and need what I need again.

And I’m better off.  I mean that.  I’m healthier.  I sleep better.  I feel like a whole person again.  I feel like a real person, like I fit in the world again.  It’s an incomparable experience, to know that you belong in the world exactly the way you are, that no one can take that away from you again.

*****

And the other thing?  That whether or not anyone can tell you’re autistic has anything at all to do with what kind of opportunities you have, or what kind of respect or affection you get from other people?

That’s wrong.  That’s bigotry by definition.  If you would be worse off if other people were able to tell that you’re autistic–regardless of your actual, individual character traits, qualities, abilities, and intelligence–that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with being autistic; it means there’s something very wrong with how other people see us.

*****

By all means, we should tell parents to look for and nourish their children’s strengths, and believe in their potential.  But not giving up on your children doesn’t mean putting a premium on them having the most apparently normal life possible.  Normal and good, or worthwhile, or satisfying are not synonyms.  My life is hugely different from yours.  Other autistic people will have lives that look very different from mine.  And that doesn’t mean that they’ve failed.  That doesn’t mean that they or their parents did it all wrong.  It means that they’re different, and made the best choices possible for themselves, and that fighting their autism or any other aspect of their true natures into the ground was just not on the priority list when compared to learning things, or spending time with a topic of obsession, or just enjoying life for what it is.

What we did–to survive, to grow up, to have our own lives–is not wrong.  But a lot of the ways in which we were forced to were.

I think we’re capable of making a world where no one’s success or acceptance depends on how well they manage to look like something they’re not.  We all deserve better than that, and so do you.