April 27, 2016

The right to not understand

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:21 pm by chavisory

As I’m finishing this post, it’s nearing the end of Autism Acceptance Month, and almost Blogging Against Disablism Day (which is officially May 1), and the more I thought about getting around to writing it, the more I thought that it kind of stands at the intersection of those two things… acceptance of autism and disability, and opposition to prejudice based on disability.

We talk a lot during Autism Acceptance Month about the rights of autistic and disabled people to education, to employment opportunities, to accommodation and acceptance in public spaces. We talk a lot about our capabilities, and about what we understand about our experiences.

But I think that there needs to be an understood right of people—particularly young people—to not understand. And to not have that impact their right to access and to information.

Here are some examples of how what I’m talking about plays out:

My most-shared post is one in which I ask parents to tell their autistic kids that they are autistic. And every time it goes around, a certain number of people respond, pretty predictably, “But what if he doesn’t understand?”

Or “He’s too young to understand.”

Or “She’s too much in her own little world to understand.”

Or “She doesn’t look like she even notices she’s different. She wouldn’t understand.”

Or when we weigh in on issues of language preferences or sexual orientation or gender identity among autistic people, people say “My child can’t dress himself; he would never even understand this debate.”  Or “Well, you’re fortunate to be able to understand your experience this way, but my child wouldn’t.”

(Side note: There’s a lot I still don’t understand about gender identity. That doesn’t make discussion of it unimportant or useless to me. That would still be true if I couldn’t speak or type or dress myself…which I couldn’t when I was the age those kids are now.)

Or we talk about the importance of learning-disabled kids having access to the same curriculum that their non-disabled classmates do, not only material judged to be on their own instructional level.

“But what if they don’t understand” the same books as their classmates are reading?

 

Well, so what if they don’t understand? How do you know if you don’t let them even try? Is it the end of the world if you give someone a chance to engage with the same material as their age-mates and they don’t understand?

They might not, but what if they did? What if they would, but you wouldn’t even give them a shot?

 

We have to be allowed to not necessarily understand perfectly, not understand everything, not understand right away, or to try and not understand at all, without being declared forever incapable of understanding, if we’re going to get a fair chance to understand. Those have to be acceptable possibilities.

We also might understand differently. We might understand something from an angle that you hadn’t considered. We might understand something later. It is actually pretty common that we understand something suddenly, but after it’s distilled for a long, long time.

That we have access to the information is important, the whole time, not only in the moment when we come to understand it. (Somebody tell me who here really understood, like, Huckleberry Finn, or A Wrinkle in Time, or To Kill a Mockingbird, the first time you read it? To say nothing of something like Hamlet? Here’s a great essay about how practically everyone has spent many decades misunderstanding a well-known poem.  Yet we don’t preemptively decide of non-disabled students that they will not understand this poem, so they should not read it, even though chances are that they will not understand it.  White people are famously having a hard time understanding Beyoncé’s “Formation.” In my elementary school, we were taught to sing “This Land Is Your Land” in kindergarten, “Erie Canal” in second or third grade. I guarantee you that we did not understand what those songs are really about when we were five or seven or eight years old. I saw Peter, Paul, and Mary perform when I was about that age, too, and I did not understand “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “We Shall Overcome.” Does that mean we should have been denied any knowledge of those works?)

And none of this means that it doesn’t matter if information is presented to someone in a form that they can understand whenever possible, whether that means in simplified language, with pictures, subtitles, or in whatever way increases its accessibility. It means that preemptive assumptions about what someone will or won’t understand aren’t a reason to not even present them with the information (or discussion, or work of art, or material that the rest of their class is learning).

How are we supposed to wrestle with information we’re not allowed access to? How are we supposed to ever understand if the fact that we don’t understand is reason enough to keep us from the tools of understanding? Like, do you see the trap?

It starts to look like you don’t, in fact, want us to understand.

Non-disabled people are presumed to be capable of learning from experience and becoming better informed over time. Part of that process is necessarily not understanding something at some point.

If the benchmark we have to meet to be given vital information about ourselves and our own lives is that there is no point at which we don’t or can’t understand it, that’s a game we can never win, because that’s not possible.

If whatever assumption somebody wants to make about whether we will or won’t understand is enough to deny us the information that would allow us to exercise more informed control over our own lives…how are we ever supposed to gain the rights to information, or to greater autonomy?

Just don’t be disabled?

 

And one major irony is that we write and write and write and write about the importance of knowing, of having language for our experiences, about what it means to be autistic, to be disabled, about the positives and the negatives, about the harm of compliance training, about the harm of indistinguishability as a therapy goal, about what acceptance does and doesn’t mean—and the majority of non-disabled parents and professionals persist in not understanding. Often sincerely. But often willfully. A lot of people just struggle with what we’re saying, but a lot of people keep intentionally twisting and misrepresenting what we say and hearing only what they’re determined to hear.

And no one says that for the crime of not understanding, you forfeit your right to new information, or to information presented differently, or to any access to information, about yourself or the world, or your right to keep trying to understand, or to take time to process unfamiliar concepts.

Why is that?

My high school math teacher would say to us periodically, “Kids are always asking me, ‘when am I ever gonna use this?’ And the answer is…probably never. But if you don’t know it, then you definitely won’t.”

If someone is given access to a discussion or a set of information, it’s true, they might not understand it. They also might not be able to express what they do or don’t understand. If they’re not given access at all, they definitely won’t.

March 15, 2016

Love and duty of, and for, creative children

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:01 pm by chavisory

I started reading this article (How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off) wanting so badly to like what I think it’s trying to say, but just wound up so annoyed at many of the assumptions and implications the author makes in order to say it.

It’s true—you can’t program a child to become creative. You can’t engineer that kind of success. Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.

But Grant is kind of just imposing this duty on a certain set of kids in a different way—implying strongly that the right outcome for those kids is to become a revolutionary or visionary leader in their fields. I don’t think that’s fair, either.

Grant also seems unfamiliar with some of the realities of being a gifted child. Whether someone suffers from social or emotional problems, or is kept from learning to be original by adult expectation or fear of failure, aren’t the only factors in whether or not they’ll grow up to change the world. There’s more to the equation than that, and not all of it is even wrong.

I’m going to go point by point:

  1. “They learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8.”

This is not the trajectory that probably most genius follows, though. Particularly for twice-exceptional kids, probably including Einstein, who Grant keeps quoting approvingly. This describes a tiny number of child prodigies, and doesn’t include most people who grow up to be accomplished, creative adults…many of whom spoke or read late, have no particular musical or mathematical talent, or were simply unspectacular at school until they found their own groove later on.

Underscoring Grant’s ignorance here, he talks about giftedness, creativity, genius, and prodigy status almost interchangeably throughout the piece. But they’re not the same thing. Giftedness is widely accepted to entail a high capacity for creative problem-solving, but most gifted children are not prodigies. Prodigies are not necessarily geniuses, nor particularly creative, nor geniuses prodigies. Many impressively creative children are never identified as gifted, indeed are often perceived as academically lacking. All of those things can manifest very differently in different children under different circumstances (and historically, many of the ways in which they’ve been identified have been problematic, to say the least, on multiple levels).

And none of them equate to limitless capability. Any ability =/= every ability. This is a common misconception about academically gifted children in particular. The fact of our advanced abilities in one regard is misapplied to argue that we should be able to do anything else we really want to do (or someone else wants us to do).  This is especially obnoxious for twice-exceptional kids, who have to expend a lot of cognitive resources on navigating the world in ways that most people don’t. In some ways, those struggles can spur creative development. In some ways, though, they’re just draining.

Everything’s not just easy for a very talented child.

  1. “Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery.”

They often don’t, though. Classmates often demean and ostracize precocious or conspicuously different kids. Their parents often misunderstand and undervalue their talents, struggle to relate to them, and fear not being able to meet their needs. Siblings and teachers resent them. Schools tacitly allow bullying and obstruct opportunities for acceleration. Kids with IEP’s are told they’re not eligible for honors or AP classes.

In a recent case in Canada, two brothers were both admitted to a prestigious arts high school. The boys’ home district didn’t blink at transferring the required funding for the younger brother, but refused to do so for the older brother, because his educational funding stream was disability-related.

How many brilliant kids does this happen to whose families simply don’t have the resources or social networks to fight back like the Wrays could?

Particularly gifted or creative kids just aren’t automatically given the supports they should have; they’re often being actively thwarted.

  1. “But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

This is insulting. How are we defining a “whimper” for these purposes?  Why is the most concerning thing about a gifted child’s life the way their career ends, anyway?  Why do you get to declare the outcome of an artist’s career a “whimper” because they didn’t go as far as you wanted them to?

  1. “Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Talent Search…From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.”

Quite frankly, so what? What percentage of anybody makes the National Academy of Sciences? There is one Nobel Prize awarded per year in a tiny handful of fields. That leaves the vast majority of gifted researchers and creators doing necessary, valuable work who will never win a Nobel Prize. That’s not a meaningful benchmark of whether or not they fulfilled their potential as human beings or as scientists or artists.

“For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.”

Why is “revolutionizing theoretical physics” and “falling far short of [your] potential” a meaningful juxtaposition? Those two extremes don’t accurately represent the possibilities available.

Maybe the Westinghouse Search just isn’t a very good predictor of future paradigm-shifting achievement. How does he know that Talent Search finalists who don’t go on to revolutionize a field aren’t in fact fulfilling their potential, but just in ways that are harder to quantify? That don’t win the shiny awards? Maybe their potential just wasn’t what you thought it was.

And anyway, why is anyone particularly obligated to always pursue to the highest possible level the subject they were good at in high school? Does a gifted teenage scientist not have a right to give up something that they find is no longer in line with their own goals or desires?

  1. “The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores.”

I spend a lot of time trying to explain this in other contexts

Different skills are different skills.

Technical virtuosity is a worthy talent—it just isn’t the same thing as compositional originality. Maybe a technically masterful musician isn’t an innovative composer because they don’t work at it—or because they don’t work that way. Accepting that isn’t a sin. We need original composers, and we need highly skilled musicians to execute and interpret their work. One of those things is not morally superior. That it’s relatively rare for someone to be both is possibly not actually wrong.

We have a common language of music because most musicians aren’t going around reinventing the rules of music. That’s okay. (And meanwhile, a lot of young musicians not identified as especially gifted as toddlers are composing their own original works.)

  1. “They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights.”

But you don’t usually produce new insights by focusing your energies on producing new insights, but rather on solving the really unglamorous, day to day, moment to moment problems, and seeing something differently.

I have to tell you here about my favorite piece of paperwork.

It’s a character/scene breakdown. It was the result of a spreadsheet tweak by an unpaid intern PA. It was the third in a series of attempts to satisfy a director who didn’t like either of my prior versions. And he didn’t like that one, either.

But it was simple and brilliant. I would never have come up with it; I have a tendency towards over-thinking. It eliminated an entire layer of translation from the problem. And it has persistently improved the quality of my work in every way, for every show, ever since. It saves time, it saves anxiety, and it saves scheduling mistakes, which saves money; it became almost every piece of organizational paperwork I use while stage managing a whole other multi-media project.

It’s just a rearranged Excel spreadsheet. That’s how unspectacular creative innovation can look. We weren’t sitting there focused on producing new insights; we were trying not to get snapped at by an unhappy director again. And we failed.

But small breakthroughs like this accrue, hourly, daily, in every creative field, into major shifts in thinking over time.

  1. “In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments the psychologist Ellen Winner.”

…And what of the people who do become revolutionary adult creators who weren’t identified as particularly gifted in childhood? What of the disabled and outsider artists, some of whom are supported and represented by places like the Creative Growth Art Center, but some of whose work is never identified until after their deaths or ever at all, who spend the majority of their lives assumed to be categorically incapable by everyone around them?

Where’s the lament for that injustice, when we talk about lost creative promise?

A more interesting question might be, what fraction of revolutionary adult creators was overlooked or written off as untalented in childhood? Or told that they shouldn’t pursue what they did? How many Nobel Prize winners weren’t extremely impressive young children, and what does that tell you?

Again, it looks to me more like the frameworks we have for identifying conspicuous childhood ability just aren’t very good at predicting adult achievement.

  1. “Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves.”

But why should “making waves” be a goal unto itself?

I have seen some of the worst efforts at advocacy or activism born from a desire to “make waves” without having a deep understanding of the topics involved. A lot of acquiring that deep understanding, in order to effect sustainable, lasting change in a field, can look like years and years of absorbing existing knowledge and doing unglamorous work without making waves just for the sake of making waves.

Novices absolutely can make important contributions and insights. They also can crash and burn, or do more harm than good, when they don’t know what in the fuck they’re doing or the history of what they’re trying to do. Context matters. Revolution isn’t always the greatest possible good.

And like, we need gifted surgeons. We need brilliant defense attorneys! To become one can take everything that even the most gifted student has to give. Someone who gives their very best to healing their patients or defending their clients isn’t under-performing because they don’t necessarily decide to make overhauling the system their own highest priority. The problems entrenched in the health care and criminal justice systems have thwarted many of the greatest minds that have taken them on for many years.

And again, there are professionals who actually do this kind of advocacy for systemic change. Just because most people don’t doesn’t mean that the people who should be doing it aren’t. But skill at neurosurgery and skill at lobbying or activism are not the same thing. Different skills are different skills. The fact that the health care and criminal justice systems still harbor massive waste and injustice is more evidence of those issues being very big and very entrenched than of isolated child geniuses not reaching their full creative potential.

I also imagine a lot of highly accomplished doctors and lawyers might take issue with the framing that really they could be doing so much more to reform the system if only their youthful sense of originality hadn’t been quashed. That’s a judgment of somebody else’s life that I’d be very wary of making without an intimate familiarity with what they do and why. Maybe they’re dodging their true potential. Maybe they’re making canny decisions about work/life balance. Maybe they’re actually doing the best they can.

*

There is room for both broad and narrow approaches to art, science, and social problems. Neither is more genuinely creative. The nature of the problem matters a lot.

Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty. So what is all this presumed duty of gifted kids to grow up to be as creative as you think we should be? To solve the problems you want us to solve for you? (If you know so much about what needs to be done, why don’t you go do it and stop foisting your existential disappointment on us?)

Maybe a precocious child’s actual true potential is not the same as your prejudice about their true potential, but that doesn’t make it actually inferior.

Parents shouldn’t drive their highly talented children like achievement robots not because it short-circuits the kind of creative development we really want from them, but because it’s objectifying and cruel.

I just don’t think the goal should be making sure more Westinghouse Talent Search finalists go on to win Nobel Prizes, as opposed to making sure that all children are more able to live their fullest, freest lives. I am so much more troubled by the thought of how many kids—whether formally identified as gifted or not, whether conspicuous musical or linguistic prodigies or not—have their promise and talents thwarted by poverty, by broken educational and criminal justice systems, by ableism and endemic racism, than I am by statistics about a relatively tiny number of prodigies who don’t do what some professor of management thinks they should be doing with their adult lives. And those problems are all of our responsibility to contribute to solving, not to put on the shoulders of singular children to fix for us.

We’re not entitled to the accomplishment of any child, and we squander the talents of too many others.

April 30, 2015

When schools hate it when kids read

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:14 pm by chavisory

gaston

[Image is of the character Gaston, from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, known for his dislike of girls like Belle reading books, and Belle, whose book he has stolen.]

I used to write more about educational issues than I have been for the past couple of years. Partly due to the fact that as I’ve known more of my own friends who have become teachers, and more parents especially of kids with complex educational needs, my feelings have moderated a bit. So many people are doing the best they can with not enough time or money. Perhaps I’d been too strident. I was actually wondering recently if I might more or less give up the topic. Maybe I was a little bit crazy.

Well, the New York Times has come to the rescue with this story of school districts that require students who opt out (or whose parents have opted them out) of New York’s state assessment tests to sit at their desks and do nothing while their classmates take the exams.

With sadness, I conclude that I was not crazy.

The article details that while many districts have relented to parental pressure and allow test-refusing students to either do other work, read quietly, or go to the library, some are sticking to policies of prohibiting them from doing anything but sitting and staring.

“We were not going to reward them by having them do something that other students may perceive as either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment,” says one superintendent.

Either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment, as in doing other assigned homework or reading a book quietly.

I’m just going to throw this out there, school administrators: If you sound like a villain from a Roald Dahl book, you should possibly reconsider your life choices.

Funnily enough, when this story came to my attention, I’d just been telling a friend the story of how my middle school assistant principal had tried to disallow me from reading at lunch.

It actually started with A., a new student that year, who was sitting at a table behind me quietly reading a book one day, when I overheard her being told to put it away by Assistant Principal Jones. A. complied and didn’t say anything else about it, though I asked her later if what I thought just happened really just happened, and she said yeah, she thought it was really odd, too.

Already a lot of things about the way things were done in this school felt stupid, mean, and unfair to me, but this was above and beyond. Not long afterward, having a book I was eager to finish, and not so much trying to be deliberately snarky but definitely curious as to whether I’d draw the same reaction, brought my book to lunch.

Sure enough, Mr. Jones was along shortly to tell me that I needed to “put that away, young lady.”

It wasn’t a school library book, it was mine, so the objection couldn’t have been that food would get spilled and ruin it, or that I was reading and not eating, because I’d eaten and had my empty lunch cooler to prove it.

And this doubly didn’t make any sense, because Mr. Jones was also the person who, every other day or so, was selecting for punishment whole entire classes of sixth and seventh graders for supposedly being too loud. If we were reading, we weren’t talking, so shouldn’t he be thankful for our not contributing to the noise?

In telling Sparrow the story, I finally figured it out.

He didn’t like us reading because then we were proof that he was just picking tables randomly to punish without a care in the world for whether we’d actually done anything wrong. If we were reading…we were obviously innocent of being part of the discipline or noise problems, and he wasn’t thankful at all because that undermined his excuse-making ability for the bullying and scapegoating he enjoyed. Collective punishment of whole classes was common, and treatment of everyone as guilty was justified because “we can’t always tell who the troublemakers are and aren’t,” but now that was demonstrably not true. And this development was not appreciated.

I know this sounds like childish reasoning, but if that wasn’t what was behind it, somebody else solve this for me, because I haven’t come up with a better answer in nearly 20 years.

(Long story short: Our gifted teacher was enlisted to protest to the principal, and before long there were about five of us participating in defiance, and he actually kept fighting the issue, like we went through two or three rounds of this, but eventually our right to read at lunch without further harassment was established.)

Is it self-evident enough that when school faculty would rather kids actually do nothing than read or be tempted by having to see another kid reading, that something is extremely wrong? I mean I’m just inarticulate at the logic that if they can’t control how you use your time, you won’t be allowed to use it at all…but not disbelieving.

Because the effect isn’t only to not make refusing the tests look attractive, it’s to prevent any kid from showing that they can and will use their educational time more constructively.  And they can’t be allowed to generate any evidence that their time is being ill-used, that they know it, and that they do know how to do better with it.

It’s almost like the people implementing these policies are more interested in safeguarding their own ability to see their students as the problem. Their interests aren’t served by their students’ taking an opportunity to prove that they aren’t the problem, by reading on their own initiative.

Now where have I seen that before?

(I know, I know…somewhere down the line it all comes back to funding. School districts ultimately need kids to take these tests for reasons of funding and school quality rankings.

I humbly submit, though, that when growing percentages of students are saying No, this is not a good use of our time and we’d like to be educated as people, not test scores, that maybe schools should try standing up for their students.)

In point of contrast, my senior year of high school, some new set of standardized tests was introduced for which we were a test group for the state of Missouri, and for some reason that made sense at the time, they had half the class take it in the fall, and half in the spring. This left half of us with nothing to do for four hours a day, for two full weeks. They put us in a spare classroom with only the typing teacher to keep an eye on us, but otherwise left us alone, to do whatever we wanted as long as we could do it in that room and without being heard too far down the hall.

People did homework, or just talked while sitting on the combination desk-chairs in contortions not normally allowed, and I have a vague memory of some Hangman getting played on the blackboard. I finished reading Les Misérables and started and finished The Three Musketeers and I think also some Kurt Vonnegut.

And as much as part of me decried the waste of time that we were required to be there when no one cared what we did, part of me was actually pretty overloaded with AP classes and happy enough for a chance just to read a book which has turned out to have stayed with me in a lot of ways besides being how I passed the time while stuck in a room so half my classmates could take a test run of a test.

I remember The Three Musketeers. I don’t remember one single thing about that test. It’s an absolute blank in my memory.

I’m not making this stuff up, and I wish I were. I don’t actually enjoy being obsessively critical of the American educational system more than anything in the world, but it just keeps going to inane lengths to show that it doesn’t really love it when kids independently demonstrate, like, enjoyment of literacy, or ability to act in their own best interests.

I think it might not be a coincidence that those are things we’re supposed to believe that kids don’t have.

If I can boil anything down from this, maybe something like “If school officials can’t fucking stand the sight of a child reading…there is something else going on, and it’s probably nothing good.”

April 18, 2015

Hair color, hypocrisy, and warped priorities

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:05 am by chavisory

So my school district had this policy, too–no unnatural hair colors, including red that was too bright. Kids were sent home under this policy a fair bit and it did not make international headlines.

Emily-Reay_1_3268848b

But aside from just thinking it was unfair and stupid when I was in middle school because I thought people should have a right to self-expression in ways that are harmless to other people, I actually just realized something, while commenting on a Facebook thread about this particular instance, about why it inspired such intense contempt in me for the school personnel upholding it.

The adults making and enforcing policies like this were people claiming that we should look up to and respect them, that they were entitled to our mental time and attention and a huge degree of control over our lives.

But supposed adults who could not deal with a child having green hair…were no way, no how, going to be people who could teach me how to survive in this world or make a life that I wanted to live.  That was a huge signal that the challenges relevant to our lives were…on a different order of magnitude.

Something in me was going “You cannot help me, if you seriously think that this is a big deal and expect me to as well.”  If a student’s loud hair is way outside the range of your ability to cope, if that is what bends you out of shape…you don’t have the maturity or adaptability or the ability to teach them that I need, to put it somewhat mildly.

It really undermined my ability to take those people seriously as grownups, let alone as teachers or authority figures.  It also really put the lie to the claim that so much of what happened in school was necessary to teach “social skills” or ability to work with people different from yourself…when how much clearer could it have been that tolerance for difference was for some people but not others?

March 17, 2015

On being an unexpected kinesthetic learner

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , at 1:38 pm by chavisory

(Crossposted today at We Are Like Your Child)

I start to rediscover that I’m a kinesthetic learner, and it’s odd. It’s so contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about myself, and it feels so good.

When we started learning about multiple intelligences theories, kids who were described as kinesthetic—as learning most naturally through movement or action—were dancers, naturally talented athletes, the class clowns, physical actors, the kids who could never sit still. Kids who were always in trouble for not being able to stay in their seats, likely to pick up a diagnosis of ADHD somewhere along the way. High-energy, daring, uninhibited, and loud.

And I was very quiet, very still, very inhibited. I was always in trouble in PE for not knowing what in the world I was doing or being totally unable to keep up with the rest of the class. I was badly coordinated and nowhere near fast enough for any team sport. I never placed in any event in Field Day. I failed out of gymnastics.

Kinesthetic learners were generally thought not to do well in school because of their need for activity and movement. I sat quietly in class and got all A’s. I had a photographic memory. Teachers were always scolding, “You can’t expect to only study the night before and do well on this test!” But I could. I got into the gifted class and kept my hands rolled up in my sleeves.

But all the while, I just ached to be taught how to do things. I clawed my skin off from having not enough to do with my hands. And I could feel the terrifying void that existed between the fact that I knew about a lot of things, but I didn’t know how to do almost anything. The scrutiny of other people was literally paralyzing. I resented more than anything as a kid when we’d be told that we were going to learn how to do a really cool thing, but then what we actually got was obviously a fake, dumbed-down version, of making gingerbread houses or uncovering fossils. People told me a lot about how I was never going to make it in the real world, but nobody seemed to want to teach me anything real.

But writing is movement, too, and I was better at that than most people. So is beading. So is loading electrophoresis gels.

As a child, making tuna salad or cutting up fruit for myself, people try to take knives away from me, sure that I’m going to cut myself, but I never do. (They do.) I never fall on steep hills or icy sidewalks when adults are sure I will. I never sprain an ankle toe-walking.

I could feel that if I could know a thing in my body, in my joints, in my bones, in how it behaved in my hands…anything I could make a physical habit out of, was a thing I’d always be able to do, that I could never really lose or forget, the way I’ve forgotten calculus almost entirely from disuse, and chemistry, and how I’ve lost my photographic memory to other cognitive demands. (That one makes me mad.)

I start stealing opportunities to do that. Time without a well-meaning adult hovering over my shoulder was time to steal fire.

We have typing class in 9th grade, and once I start learning, my fingers twitch constantly, ghost-typing out any sequences of overheard words against my thigh. I had no idea what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t stop.

I was in high school, and may’ve been listening to a lecture from my grandfather about the difference between people who work with their minds and people who work with their hands, and thought silently, “If I don’t work with my hands, I’ll go insane.”

My acting teacher tells me to get my hands out of my sleeves. I turn out to be good at acting.

At a new job, I initially panic when I learn that my nightly duties will involve moving pianos by myself. But I quickly get a sense of the individual moods and idiosyncracies of the Hamburg, the New York Steinway, the Fazioli—their resistance and center of gravity. They almost have individual wills, like baby elephants.

I get told at a meetup that I have very loud hands, and it makes me so happy.

I start teaching myself a little ASL to make up for the apocryphal childhood gesture language I was trained out of, that I have no conscious memory of, and it feels like breathing air instead of doing complicated sorcery.

September 26, 2014

Signal-boosting post!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

There are so, so many issues and projects and new art and fundraising campaigns out there right now that deserve time and attention and money, and I could almost write a post per day every day to get to all of them.  If I could I would just give the money to every project I like that needs it, but for the present moment I’ll have to settle for calling your attention to a few of my favorites:

1.  The deadline is coming up for submissions to Typed Words, Loud Voices!  This will be an anthology of writing by people who are non-speaking either some of the time or all of the time, who type to communicate.  The editors are Amy Sequenzia and Ibby Grace, two of my favorite advocates and bloggers.  Project description and submission guidelines are here!

2.  The Autism Women’s Network is planning an anthology on autism and race, and we have less than two days left in our fundraising campaign, with almost 50% of our goal to go!  This book is so important because the vast majority of discussion and visibility of autism centers on white autistic men, while autistic people of color suffer from an immense lack of recognition and understanding.

Project information and fundraiser are here.  If you are interested in submitting writing, guidelines are here.

3.  The WordPlay Shakespeare series, which I’ve been working on for about two years now with the New Book Press, has just released its third edition, Romeo & Juliet!  These are Shakespeare’s plays in dual text and video e-book format, and include both the full text and video of its performance by really stellar Broadway and Off-Broadway actors on every page, along with note-taking and study tools.

Almost every person, and teachers especially, who we show samples to, says that they wish they’d had these when they learned Shakespeare in high school.  I’m immensely proud of them, Romeo & Juliet is probably the play I’ve had the most fun working on so far as we’ve refined our understanding and process for this hybridized film/theater/new media format of production, and is available on iTunes and iBooks now.

4.  On Monday night, we had the CD release party and concert for the cast recording of Tamar of the River, a fantastically distinctive new musical that I stage managed last fall, the second original cast recording to be released for a show of mine.  If you have an interest in unique vocal music or storytelling technique, this is a piece you’ll probably love, and proceeds benefit Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together young people from regions of seemingly intractable conflicts to work towards peaceful solutions.

5.  Out of Order is still fundraising!  This is a documentary about the journeys of LGBTQ candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), amidst evolving attitudes in the church about what it means to be both queer and a Christian.  I was excited for this to be out, like, yesterday, and the team (all of whom are working pro-bono out of belief in the importance of this film) is in a fundraising push to finish editing and post-production.

Please take a look at any or all of these that may be relevant to your interests. : )

May 30, 2014

It’s not a sin to be awkward.

Posted in Marginalization, Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 2:02 am by chavisory

I’m was in the office at work with my boss and a coworker, and I do not even remember how the topic of conversation has turned to public schooling vs. homeschooling.  But it has.  My coworker starts in on an anecdote, and I have a bad, bad feeling about where this is going.

“We had a homeschooled girl in my high school chemistry class.  She was like 12.  She was just so far ahead.”

(Maybe not.  Sharp intake of breath.  Slightly too-long pause.)

“But she was so awkward.  And it made the whole class awkward, and it was just awkward to have her there.”

And here we are.  At the moment in which, prior to this, I had actually thought that my acceptance in this place, to these people, wasn’t based on me passing myself off as the right kind of person instead of the wrong kind.

The awkward kind.

But it was.  And I am.  She hadn’t realized, in the way that people usually don’t stop to think whether it’s possible that the people they’re about to mock or denigrate are actually the people they’re talking to.

Oops.  Fuck.

And I don’t want to start a really nasty fight right then in front of my boss, so I say something moderate and reasonable-sounding about how what really matters is not whether a kid is homeschooled or not, but whether they’ve been isolated or allowed to have outside social opportunities.  How some homeschooling families actually just isolate their kids, and that’s wrong, but as long as they’re giving their kids chances to interact with other groups…choir, scouting, church groups, music lessons, art classes…

…instead of “Fuck you very much.”

And I didn’t say what I actually should have, either…in the interest of starting my shift on time and also…not having an awkward argument in my boss’s office.

It’s not a sin to be awkward.

Can we stop talking about it like it is?

A 12-year-old girl hasn’t done anything to you by being awkward, or by taking advantage of her legal right to a free and appropriate public education while awkward.

While we’re at it, can we also stop using “awkward” as a euphemism for incompetent, irritating, immature, overbearing, invasive, inappropriate, or probably autistic but we can’t be seen as scorning someone for being actually disabled so we’re gonna say they’re “awkward” which is obviously just a personal failing that’s fine to use an excuse for their ostracism?

Here’s another newsflash:  I know a lot of people who in fact went through 13 years of mainstream public schooling, who are still awkward people.  Because it actually isn’t being confined in a cell-block building with a limited number of people, exactly your own age, for over a decade, isolated from your community and adult company, and subjected to sufficient peer pressure to just stop being different, that makes you non-awkward.  It’s already possessing a manner of speech, body language, common interests, and gender presentation that’s consistent with those of the vast majority of other people.  It’s having a native language of social engagement that is the same as most people around you.

I served my full term in the public school system, I went to the second-largest high school in my state, and I followed that with four years at one of this country’s most regularly top-ranked party schools.

I am still an awkward person.  And if you thought I wasn’t, you just haven’t seen me in the right—or the wrong—situation.  But I guarantee you it wasn’t lack of ridicule or social pressure to be anything other than what I was that caused this.

It also isn’t being allowed to do your academic work outside of a classroom setting, at a pace that works for you, that makes you awkward, because plenty of non-awkward people do that.

I’d really like people to consider, before the next time they scorn a kid for being awkward, or homeschooling or unconventional schooling for making kids awkward, that they are likely committing a fundamental chicken/egg fallacy.

A homeschooled kid probably isn’t awkward because they were homeschooled.

They are probably homeschooled because they are awkward.

Because they have probably already been forced out of the school system by bullying and abuse or discrimination, or because the school couldn’t or wouldn’t meet their academic needs.

(Being academically precocious: also not a sin.)

I mean, mandatory, universal public school attendance wasn’t even a widespread thing in this country until the early-mid 20th century.  Were we really just a nation of incredibly awkward people until the 1920’s or so?

Even if it really were homeschooling that caused awkwardness, I would so much rather a child of mine be awkward than a whole lot of other things that are nowhere near as socially stigmatized as awkwardness:  Mean, bigoted, superficial, callous, snide and scornful towards people different from or more vulnerable than themselves.

I’ll take awkwardness any day.

May 10, 2014

Behind the scenes of WordPlay!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:14 pm by chavisory

If I may engage in some excuse-making for my recent absence from writing…I’ve been working for the past couple years on a new media project which I’m very proud of and excited about, and we just finished filming our third installment, the WordPlay Shakespeare edition of Romeo and Juliet, which took up most of my past month.

Here’s another good preview in which our director and publisher/producer talk a bit about the aim of the project.  Besides making Shakespeare less daunting for students in general, one of the things we’re hoping is that students with all kinds of learning differences and learning disabilities might find this a useful form of support.

It takes the actors some time to get used to working on the white cyc…it’s a pretty disorienting experience.  Apparently human brains think corners are a useful thing….

romeo_montaguePictured: John Leonard Thompson and Drew Ledbetter

A great snapshot by my ASM from the filming of the opening fight between the Montague and Capulet servants.

WordPlay Romeo Jump 140501

Pictured: Carman Lacivita, Kristin Villanueva, Drew Ledbetter
Photo by Hannah Barudin

Me in the studio, watching the script, and probably telling somebody to do something.  Look at that gorgeous spreadsheet on my computer….

IMG_1190

Photo by Alexander Parker

Romeo and Juliet will likely be available by the end of summer/early fall.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth are already available on iTunes!

Our New York Times review

Edutopia review

It’s been a fascinating thing to work on as a stage manager as well…both in learning to work in an entirely different medium, and very different capacity than what I’m used to doing, and in getting to help make something so permanent in the world.

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.

September 9, 2012

Let’s talk about sex (education)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So apparently school started again this past week, and (in)appropriately, I ran across this article on Salon.com (Americans Want Sex Ed), summarizing a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  The report presents the seemingly paradoxical findings that while a solid majority of both adults and teens in the United States believe that teenagers should be taught about birth control, and also that anti-abortion leaders should support the availability of birth control, and also that they (teens) themselves have the information they need to avoid unplanned pregnancy…a somewhat scarily large percentage of teens then go on to report knowing little to nothing of contraception methods.

But I suspect that the discrepancy obscures, at least in part, a disconnect between the fairly binary way in which we conceive of what “sex education” can and should be–either abstinence only or abstinence plus safety and contraception–and the nuances of students’ real lives, or how well what students are taught about contraception does or doesn’t match up with how they really need or want to be educated about sexual relationships.

If, for instance, you’re a 15-year-old lesbian, it may be true that you know what you need to about contraception at the moment even if that isn’t very much.  Or if you’ve genuinely decided to wait for sex–till marriage or just till you’re older–you might not be wrong that you don’t need to know everything about possible contraception methods right this minute.  Or if you’re on the asexuality spectrum and not seeking a sexual relationship…this information might not be taking up space on your hard drive, but you know where to find it if or when you want it…or if, like some students taking this survey, you’re 12 years old.

Or imagine how profoundly unhelpful a group role-playing game full of scare tactics about the dangers of promiscuity is to someone desperately trying to figure out how to have one good, safe, physical relationship.

It’s also easy to mistakenly think you know everything it’s possible to know, when what you don’t know is what you aren’t being taught.

I was, probably unsurprisingly, one of the kids who thought that I knew what I needed to know.  I’d been through fairly decent classes on what to expect from puberty.  I’d been given information on available contraception.  (In a totally brilliant move on my mother’s part, one day she had picked me up Seventeen magazine’s Environment Special Issue, which she said she thought I’d enjoy, environmental activism being my primary obsession at the time.  It also had Your Complete Guide to Contraception in the back of the issue.  It was years before I realized that handing that over had probably been deliberate and not an oversight on her part.)  I was a biology wonk and already knew more about disease transmission and risk than what was in the health class videos and graphic slide shows.

And, for reasons that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than I even thought they were at the time, I’d taken a stance that I was delaying sex…pretty much indefinitely.

In this state of affairs, I wound up, despite my protestations that the requirement was insulting, in my school’s “Health and Family Wellness” class.  In which I somehow managed to be continuously stigmatized for the very choices that the class purported to be encouraging, because the ways in which I’d made them did not comport with the core presumptions of What Teenagers Are Like or How Dating Works.  At the same time that I did indeed think I knew what I needed to, as far as what I saw available, I felt this gaping absence of anyone anywhere accurately describing how I actually experienced myself or my desires, and how to build a life or be safe and respected in those things.

Now I look back and know that I cannot have been the only one experiencing this, because people who were not represented as having sexual or romantic relationships worth talking about included gay people, queer people, trans people, disabled people…so also disabled queer people…any kind of gender fluid or gender variant people, people on the asexuality spectrum, or now that I try to think of it, very many people of color or of cultures other than Normal American Teenager.  Let alone any of those people having relationships with each other.

What worked for other people was clearly not going to work out for me, but there were no examples of what would.  Or of how to talk about what was true for you, if that wasn’t what was presumed to be the default.

There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I think of more and more often:  “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

So…not getting pregnant was actually not my biggest problem.  The ways in which our school’s sex ed didn’t have much to offer me went way deeper than “I already know all about contraception, this is a waste of my time, and I’d rather be taking art.”  But that was all I was able to express—in no small part because of the poverty of education or language available about relationships, sex, and gender that went beyond the very superficial.  And so I sat in class day after day, feeling more and more alienated from my peers and from how adults presumed I should be treated based on the fact that I was 15 and not much else, being told by unqualified teachers “I’m sorry you think you’re too good to be here,” rolling my eyes at badly produced educational videos, and learning most of what I really knew about love and respect from Mulder and Scully at home alone on Friday nights.  (And I’m not the only person I know who says that I learned what love was supposed to be from those characters.)

How would I have answered a survey question “Do you feel that you have all the information you need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy at this time?”  Yes.  But it would’ve been a stand-in answer for the fact that the question didn’t address anything real in my life.

I can well imagine that if you go to a school in which the name of your sexual identity is literally a bad word (“Don’t say gay” bills have been introduced in both Missouri and Tennessee), or a subject that faculty feel forbidden to address, up to and including when you’re being violently victimized for it, that you might reasonably feel that your ability to name risks and benefits of five different kinds of contraception is a little bit beside the point.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach comprehensive information about birth control, obviously, or work to ascertain whether kids feel they have the information they need about it, but I think in the common conception of what sex education is, this is widely thought of as the ultimate question: whether to teach abstinence only, or whether to teach risk management methods.  But even the seemingly right answer to that question is misleading and even counterproductive when contraception as risk management is taught without a bedrock of positive and healthy attitudes about sex, real-life examples of all types of healthy sexual and romantic relationships, a vocabulary to describe what’s true and desirable for yourself individually, and knowledge and respect for your own sexual identity and those different from you.

Without that kind of knowledge, which should be basic and not controversial, I suspect it may be hard for students to draw easy conclusions about whether the health information they have matches up to the realities of their lives.

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