#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman

The headline for this piece is a lie– which would have been a clever reference to the events of The Outside, had I meant to do it when I started writing the sentence rather than realizing it halfway through. I actually have no intention of writing a full review of this book, which is really good and which I started reading last night and finished today. I’m tired and my thinkmeats are all askew and I’d rather just give you the basic genre of the book and then if you aren’t reaching for a credit card with one hand and navigating the interwebs to Amazon with the other we probably can’t be friends.

The genre, according to author Ada Hoffman, is “queer autistic cosmic horror space opera.” It may also be relevant to your interests to know that Hoffman is both queer and autistic.

That’s all. You may go now; I know you have more important things to do.

What a day

giphyI had to be up at what will soon be Regular Time but for today was Two Damn Hours Early this morning, in order to drive across town to drop my son off at day care before driving back across town to go to a conference.  Which had precisely one (1) useful session out of the five that I attended before bailing early with the usual complement of complaints about how these horrible things always go.  Today’s highlight was the first session of the day after the keynote, where the guy began apologizing for having had a “long week” immediately when the first people walked into the room and did not stop apologizing until five minutes after the session was supposed to have begun, at which point he provided us with perhaps fifteen minutes of material in what was supposed to be a 45-minute session and then declared that he was glad that he’d been able to “stretch that out so long.”  The other fucker was an elbow-partner fucker, which is when the presenter for a session decides that the people attending his session to hear him provide his expertise on a topic would rather talk to the people next to them who they don’t know and were presumably also seeking, rather than possessing, said expertise.

Be aware that they could have pointed at me and said “You.  Head this session.” at any exact moment and I would have been able to fill 45 minutes with no preparation at all.  I’m a vet, motherfuckers, and really any teacher ought to be able to fill a time slot that short.  This is Goddamned ridiculous and I was about to type something about how I can’t believe how terrible these always are and how they are always terrible in the exact same way except really by now I shouldn’t be surprised any longer.

The one session that was good was great, though, and provided me with all sorts of useful information for next year.  I will be using stuff that this guy suggested we do.  Lots of it.

Welcome back, I guess.

On a positive note, I had several instances of people saying really kind things to me over the course of the conference, including the principal of the school letting it drop that he had been about to call me for an interview when the principal who ended up actually hiring me actually forbade him to do so, because she wanted me– which I feel like I could justifiably be angry about but I’m going to choose to be entertained by instead.  I randomly ran into the mother of a kid I had in both 6th and 8th grade, a kid who is entering college (yay!) next year, who was all kinds of excited to see me and told me that her entire family generally believes me to be the best teacher her kid ever had.

Which is fucking humbling.

I also ran into two former students today, one who was actually in my class that I ran into at the grocery (and recognized me first, and didn’t run away, and gave me a hug instead) and another who I didn’t actually have but who sat with me at lunch and when I asked him “how high school has been going” (he’s an incoming senior) proceeded to begin with first semester of his freshman year and tell me every class he’s taken and every grade he’s gotten.

On the plus side, he’s doing great, and this is a kid who just kind of makes everyone around him root for him to succeed, and on the negative side, I forgot that you never ask an autistic kid– or at least a kid with his particular stripe of autism– a wide-open question like that unless you’re prepared to get the entire answer.

So, yeah.  Despite the first half of this piece, it was in general a pretty good day.

GUEST POST: Disclosures, Prefaces and Caveats, by Queen Maisha the Good

This is a little different– my amazing friend Maisha posted this to her Facebook feed a week or so ago, and I begged her to let me repost it.  She’s actually the person who got me into blogging, way back in the Xanga days, so basically my entire writing career and everything you’ve seen here is her fault.  

The name’s an inside joke, by the way.  She doesn’t call herself that.

20641326_10212326173003014_1881637019_oI’ve been meaning to sit down and do some writing for a long time now. I needed to write being a teacher, being a mother, being a wife, being a person, and all my levels of self prescribed failures at those identities. I haven’t written anything about my daughter in years, but today I am forced to put some words down and start stringing a level of coherence to my thoughts.

I was leaving Target, headed to Del Taco, and I started to cry. I started crying because of a phone conversation twenty minutes prior. I was still feeling, still aching, still worrying. That’s when I knew I had to write something.

It was a call from the dentist’s office. I’m setting up Leia’s first appointment. The anxiety started to mix in my chest when I asked how they get the children to cooperate. I know they’re pediatric dentists, of course they know how to work with kids. She explained how there’s a playroom and a tv on the ceiling and how the dentists have their ways. And as I listened my heart started beating faster because I knew what I had to say.

“The reason I was asking…I feel I should disclose…my daughter is on the autism spectrum.”

And I don’t know why that was so hard to say out loud. It’s lived every day. And I didn’t realize how much fear, worry, uncertainty curls in wisps around my chest about it. I was scared. Not for Leia, not worried for her to go to the dentist; it’s something she has to do and needs to be consistent with. I was worried what the person on the phone was going to say. Maybe she was going to pause or stutter or take back the appointment slot. Maybe she was going to pour out some saccharin coated “We won’t be able to see a child with those needs.” Ridiculous fears and worries, I know, right?

I used the word “disclose.” Like, I feel I should tell you this, so you have all the information to make an informed decision. That’s what it is. And that’s what it feels like a lot. When I talk to people who haven’t spent much time around Leia, I find myself having to explain. And I don’t know if I over-explain, or under-explain, or just say enough not to having lingering dread.

“Why don’t you bring your daughter?”

“Do you think she would like…?”

“You should put her in…”

“What’s your name, little girl?”

And then I have to explain how neither of us will enjoy xyz because I’d be chasing her around making sure she’s not climbing, jumping or stomping. I have to admit that I don’t know what she’d like because there’s a big chance she won’t sit still or attend to whatever is grabbing the attention of the other children. I have to talk about how I don’t know about her ability or willingness to follow directions or to do what other kids are doing because she’s pretty oblivious of other children. I’ll answer, “Her name is Leia, and she’s 3. We’re still working on saying (whatever it is they expected her to say).” Talking about it reminds me that she is different. But everybody is different. Every single f-c-k-i-n-g person on Earth is different. And I remember that and forget that within a matter of minutes.

Sometimes I can stay in the present, but most of the time I’m worried about the future–her future. I’m worried about the first time a teacher says she’s bad, or the first time she believes she’s not a good girl. I’m worried about something happening to her, and her inability to communicate what’s wrong. I’m worried about whether she’ll ever have friends, because I see other people’s kids and what seem like beginning friendships and I don’t see that anywhere in her life. Kids say hi to her, know her name, and play near her. She’s not necessarily responding back or interacting. I don’t know when she will–if she will. When we go to park and go down the slide together, she’ll say, “This is fun.” And it makes me so happy she’s saying a sentence in the right context, and then sad because I wonder if me and her dad are her only friends. And thinking about, talking about, worrying about the future makes me cry.

When my mind turns back to past, I feel like I can remember when she would say “Hi” to everyone she saw on the street. She would repeat some of the things you asked her to say. She would hand you books to read to her. She would point to things so you could name them. She was developing fine…or so we thought, just a little behind because of the prematurity. So we kept subtracting from that chronological age when she didn’t reach a milestone. Then at a point, the things she did before, the things that were developmentally on track, stopped. Some part of my mind thinks if I look at enough pictures and old videos I can see when she stopped and started taking steps back. Looking at the past, where she was, where I thought she was and where I thought she was going, makes me cry.

Sometimes I think it’s my fault. I think maybe I wasn’t supposed to have kids, that I was too old, too unhealthy, or just the wrong genes. Sometimes when I think back to the NICU days, maybe she didn’t get enough breastmilk. My milk never came in like that. We would nurse and I would pump, but it wasn’t enough. I think if I wasn’t her mom maybe she would have been okay; she would have been neurotypical. Thinking about what I wasn’t able to do, what I am not able to do, makes me cry.

So I have to find my way back to the present. When I am able to stay in those brief moments of the present, I marvel at her. She is fearless, creative, strong willed, musical, loving, and energetic. She is the girl who lived. He who shall not be named tried three miscarriages, preeclampsia, and three months early. But she is the girl who lived. Her life is a miracle. She is a miracle. She is amazing, and she has autism.

There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know about early childhood and development. There’s so much I don’t know about the autism spectrum. There’s so much I don’t know about how to tell what she can and can’t do, will and won’t do, should and shouldn’t do. Everything is uncertain. I crave certainty because faith is fleeting. God doesn’t just show up and tell you what to do and promise that everything is going to be alright. That’s not how life works. That’s not how any of this works. So what do you do?

What would Tim Gunn tell you to do?

Make it work.

On distractions

stressed-teacherToday was… challenging.   And I think I actually do mean challenging, I’m not using that word as a euphemism for “awful” or anything like that.  Today was challenging.

I have two students in my first and second hour class with rather profound disabilities.  They’re both well into the autism spectrum but there are other issues with both of them as well; one has some serious physical handicaps and one has a deeply problematic home life as well.  Of the two, one of them– I’ll call him Matt, since without a pseudonym this post is going to be impossible to write– poses a greater challenge.  Raymond, the other, is a lovely kid and a hard worker; the main thing with him is being able to get past his disabilities to be able to give him the education he deserves.  The other child, to put it kindly, must be managed.  There are days where he’s all there and he’s a student.  There are other days where it’s as if someone has unleashed an untrained, 115-pound puppy into my classroom. I know that sounds cruel, and I don’t want it to be, but it’s a pretty precisely accurate metaphor.

Matt was a disaster (again) today.  We had several weeks where we had his behaviors under control but lately he’s been acting up, throwing things, running around the classroom, running out of the classroom, lots of loud outbursts, stuff like that, to the point where I’ve had to have him removed a couple of times.  I don’t like to do this for a variety of probably perfectly obvious reasons but eventually he hits the point where I need to keep the educations of the other 28 kids in the room in mind.  He fled the room twice during my first class period.   The first time was just for a minute or two and he came right back; the second for a longer period.  When he came back the second time, he shoved one of my girls.  Now, my kids know Matt; they’ve been with him for at least three years now and some of them for much longer, so they know what he’s about and they’re not likely to react to him doing things they way they might react to other kids.  There’s a lot of his behavior that I can redirect or ignore.  I cannot ignore him putting his hands on people.  I tell him I’m going to have to write him up for pushing the girl he’s pushed.

“I didn’t push anybody!” he screams.  Screams.

“Yes, you did, Matt, I saw you,” I say.  The girls by this point are back in their seats.

At this point, Matt starts chanting “MORON!” at the top of his lungs.  At me.  Okay, fine, that can go in the write-up too.  Now, keep something in mind, and I hope this is obvious enough that I don’t need to say this:  I’m not mad at the kid.  Getting mad at him is pointless, because when he’s in his unreachable stages it’s just going to make him happy and under any other circumstances it’s just not useful.  But again: if he’s so far gone today that he’s shoving people I need to have him out of my room.  So I write him up.  This takes a minute; while I’m doing this, Raymond, who normally is not a problem at all, gets angry with Matt.  Says to him, in fact, “I’d like to strangle you for what you just said to Mr. Siler.”

This is also not appropriate.  But, again, I’m not mad; it’s not worth it.  I say something along the lines of “Raymond, threatening Matt isn’t appropriate and it’s not helping.  I don’t want you to talk like that.”

Raymond tends to be a crier; have I mentioned that?  He really doesn’t like it when he thinks someone is mad at him, so I have to be especially careful on the rare occasions when I have to redirect or chastise him to keep him from getting upset.  He gets out of his seat and walks toward me.

Oh, hell, kid, I do not have time for you to have an episode right now.

Keep something in mind: there are twenty-eight other kids in the room– well, probably less than that, since it was so cold I had some absences; let’s say twenty-three.  I’m supposed to be teaching them math right now.

Raymond walks up to me and grabs my hand.  Starts shaking it up and down.  Starts to say something.

And goes away.  For, like, fifteen seconds.   He’s still shaking my hand.  A little train of drool comes out of the corner of his mouth.

Oh, fuck.  He’s having a seizure.  I call his para over.  Nurse.  Nurse now.  His para thinks he’s still dealing with Matt’s shit; I no longer give a damn about Matt.

Long story short; they were both out of my class for the rest of the morning.  Matt was moved to an alternate location until he calmed down; I think the nurse checked Raymond over and decided he was going to be okay after talking with his father but I’m not sure.  Raymond has had issues with seizures in the past but this is the first one I’ve seen.

Go ahead; ask how much math teaching I got done during that period.


Later in the day; fourth hour.  You may recall some posts about the twins.  Originally the twins were both in my third and fourth hour block; it’s been decided since then that it’s best for them to be separated, so I have one first and second hour and one third and fourth.  It was explained to me (and not unreasonably, mind you; I didn’t fight this plan) that the theory was that this would aid in both of them developing some independence from each other, which they badly need.  What it has actually resulted in is that I get to have this conversation four times a day instead of only twice:

(Twin brings me a paper.)

TWIN:  I’m done.

(I look at paper.  It is covered in writing and arcane symbols that resemble no known form of human mathematics in any way; it has no obvious connection to any assignment I have given.  I have had the “I’m done” conversation before giving assignments before.)

MR. SILER:  Did you hear even a single word I said about how to do this?

TWIN:  Oh.  I messed up.  (Turns to leave, without asking or staying to hear what he did wrong.)

MR. SILER:  (Physically stops Twin.)  You need to <insert lesson here.>  Do you hear me this time?  Repeat my instructions back to me.

TWIN:  I need to do it.

MR. SILER:  What do you need to do?

TWIN:  My assignment.

MR. SILER:  And how will you do your assignment?

TWIN:  I don’t know.

Understand, please, that this is not exaggeration, that I have this precise conversation nearly word-for-word at least once daily with each of the boys.  Today we were working on creating bar graphs; a simple, one-off assignment that I can toss in on a Friday where we had a math test yesterday and I thought we weren’t going to have school.  (Yes, it’s connected to my current standards, boss.)  Here was the assignment:  1) Pick a theme; I suggested “favorite X”.  2) Poll all of your classmates on their choice to collect data; 3) Turn data into a bar graph and either a histogram or a pie chart; extra credit given for accurate pie charts since they’re sorta complicated compared to the other two.

Both of the boys, entirely independently of each other, brought me a piece of paper on which they had recorded hundreds of votes.  Both of them attempted to walk away immediately when I pointed out that there were not hundreds of students in the room with them.  Later, one of them attempted to turn in only one of the two graphs, which he’d stapled to his data (which they were supposed to do.)  I pointed out to him that he owed me the other chart as well, at which point he shoved the stapled corner of the pages into his mouth and bit the staple out.

What is this I don’t even.

This is the job, folks.

Well, whatever works, I guess…

imagesI have a handful of severely autistic students.  One of them in particular has been a major behavior issue as of late– he’s been running out of the classroom, throwing things, saying crude sexual insults to the girls, and trampling people in the hallway.  We are trying, for a variety of reasons, some good, some not so good, to keep him in our building and not have to move him into a residential placement of some kind somewhere else.  His issues generally begin when he gets into the building, amplify during Success period, and by the time he gets into my room for Math he’s completely uncontrollable and acting out.

I met with the corporation’s autism consultant on Thursday, and she was in my classroom observing me/him/us today.  (Sidenote:  all three of my classes killed their math tests this week; I’m super happy about how they did.)  We’ve been working on solving two-step equations and linear equations for the last few weeks, and so they’ve been hearing me say the phrase “work backwards” or “do the opposite” over and over and over and over again.  (In other words, 4x = 12 is a multiplication problem; you need to do the opposite, division, in order to solve it.)  Well, everybody but this kid has; he’s spent most of his time either sitting in the hallway or in the main office or the counselor’s office.

He had to take the same test as everyone else, so the autism consultant and his usual paraprofessional worked with him in the back of the classroom.  I heard them repeating my instructions and going over procedures to solve problems, mimicking the language I’d been using.  The kid actually did pretty well.

For the last ten minutes of class, the autism consultant and the paraprofessional disappeared for some reason and left the kid in the room with me.  I noticed after a minute that every time I gave the class an instruction he was doing something else.  Oh, great, I thought; last thing I need is a meltdown when the two people who are here to observe him have left for two minutes.

“What are you doing, Jim?” I asked.  (Jim, obviously, isn’t his name.)

“The opposite,” he said.  “They said I’m supposed to do the opposite of everything you say.”  Big, shit-eating grin on his face.

Parts of my head screamed at other parts of my head.

“Stand up,” I told him.

He sat in his seat.

“Make as much noise as you can until the bell,” I told him.

Complete silence.

“Don’t do any of your missing work, at all,” I told him.

Out comes his math workbook.

Ah, autism.  Every day can be Opposite Day from now on.

The broken tree is gone.  All hail the broken tree!  The guys did such a good job they even took away the broken branches from the last big storm we had, over the summer, which I had hauled off into a corner of my yard and not bothered to finish bagging up and curbing.  The company is called, believe it or not, Skeeter’s.  If you’re in northern Indiana, you should use them the next time something falls down around your house.

(Sidenote: there’s a good lesson in why internet reviews can be a shitty idea here, where someone who perhaps should not be allowed to have an opinion appears to believe that tree doctors are a cabinet company.  Uh, no.)