Alex Barton’s Lesson

All parents are teachers but many of us are mere amateurs.

I have long been an admirer of the teaching profession, their vocation and dedication, all of them. We entrust our children into their care, in loco parentis, secure in the knowledge that they will do their part in guiding them along the treacherous path to adulthood.

I was therefore a little alarmed to read that a young Kindergartener, “Alex Barton,” had been voted out of his class, a bit like one of those popular reality shows on the telly. This wasn't a case like “Lord of the Flies,” where the children had run amuck without adult supervision, but rather, his ousting was instigated by his teacher.

It made “me” wonder. It made lots of “people” wonder. It made his mum take “action.”

I wondered why a teacher might do such a thing? Five years old, seems a little young to be teaching Darwin's theory of “survival of the fittest,” but I'm obviously not up to date on the State curriculum.

How else might this have come about? Maybe this was merely a role playing exercise, helping the children learn “kinesthetically,” where we learn by doing. An early introduction to the power of the vote, elections and democracy?

Then there's public speaking or the debating aspect. There are any number of valuable lessons to be learned, to say nothing of voicing opinions and sharing.

Perhaps this was a carefully orchestrated plan, to teach inclusion by demonstrating exclusion, lesson one, with a follow up next week?

It could be that this was a litmus test to check the class' moral fibre, a bench mark and launch pad for a new campaign of social awareness.

Alternatively the teacher decided that her students were in need of a demonstration of the “bystander effect.” The bystander effect is when an incident occurs that requires action from the onlookers but few are able step up to the plate. Alex found that two of his classmates were able to act, but who would choose to test five year olds?

I expect it was something to do with the harsh lessons of reality, that life can be a “popularity contest.” When is the right time, developmentally and chronologically to learn that lesson?

I wonder what her plan was? I'm just curious. It seems a curious lesson plan to amateurs. I wonder if the rest of her profession concurs? I somehow doubt it. I suspect she is in the minority, singled out with a unique perspective. I wonder if she is a good sharer? I'd love to know her perspective? I'm sure we'd all like to understand.

My own behaviour as a parent would not hold up well under public scrutiny.

I'm sure there are some saintly types around who never lose their cool. Sadly, I'm not one of them. All to often, every day in fact, I'm pushed to the point of “exasperation.” I lack the patience and temperament for “teaching,” and more importantly, a vocation. My retaliation is usually in the form of sarcasm. Luckily no-one around here understands sarcasm. Unluckily my tone makes the underlying message unmistakable = Mum is mad. I make many mistakes and more than a few hideous blunders. I've learned to forgive myself the errors and vow to do a better job tomorrow, every day, but that's the nature of human frailty.

Fortunately, no-one's going to call me to account for my misdeeds.

I get away Scott free.

It's only all the “children” that will pay.

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Many moons ago when my brother was visiting, he walked into the family room where the television was on.

“You're not watching that!” he guffawed, being the intellectual type that he is.
At the time, I was in hot pursuit of my daughter whilst simultaneously breast feeding my son and carrying his ‘big’ brother.

“Yes, I am!” I snapped. Probably due too many leaky hormones.

The truth of the matter was that I wanted to watch Oprah on the telly. I wanted to be like my new American pal. I wanted to fit in. I wanted 'normal.' I knew that the vast majority of the female, stay at home mom population, watched Oprah every afternoon, whilst their little kiddie winkies frolicked and played, or napped.

My new American pal was a kindly woman with a huge heart. Whenever we met, she would ask me if I had watched such and such an episode. My response was always the same, failure. She always made it sound so interesting. I always felt that I had missed something. I had.

These days, now that life has changed so much during the intervening years, I still have Oprah's broadcast available to me via TIVO. 5 episodes every week, which I dutifully delete every Sunday night. Although I have watched a few programmes between then and now, I can't watch the celebrity ones as I never know who they are, I can't watch the 'be a better looking person' ones because I am old, I can't watch the 'this tragedy happened to this person' ones, because they are too depressing.

I remember that my mother would listen to “Woman’s Hour’ on the radio every day. We children were sworn to silence or banned from the vicinity. ‘Oprah’ seemed to be the modern equivalent. I was unable to work out why such an ordinary every day pastime, was completely beyond me? Of all the things that I could or should have done to prove to myself that ‘all was well’ this would seem like a bizarre choice. I chose it precisely because it seemed so ordinary and easy. It proved to be anything but.

I decided that my failure was due to the fact that my children, none of them, enjoyed afternoon naps, whereas every other mother on the planet had a different experience. I chose to ignore the different time zones throughout the world, which I believe would be evidence of denial.

Now that I am even older but not particularly wiser, I still wonder who those women are? Who are the viewers? I suspect that even her recent programme on autism would not have reached me in the situation I experienced, nor other people, who might be similarly situated. If the programme airs at four in the afternoon, [I just checked] who will be watching?

Me? No, afraid not. I’ll be wrapped up in the homework debacle after a slightly more successful school pick-up run. The children I chase are bigger now than those far away days. It’s still just as noisy, if not noisier around here but there are more words than there once were. But I’ll give you a dare – if Oprah takes up breast feeding then I’ll watch her programme.

Is that a double dare?

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Full of potential


It's not an interview.

It's more of an on site evaluation.

The new potential baby sitter is of course foreign.

This means she is far superior to the local version, where children are parked in front of the telly as soon as you leave the house.

I watch her reactions carefully, and completely ignore the antics of my children. Her arrival is timed perfectly. My youngest son is in full level 10 meltdown because his chores are incomplete and electronics time is therefore delayed. I am tempted to capitulate and create a good impression. He flails on the floor at full volume at the outrageousness and unfairness of my rules. “I am dah hate you, bad, bad, bad!” he shrieks. I sequence the other two young people through their 'greeting new people' steps, although it is difficult to hear anything at all with the screamer in tow.

I explain a few basics as we step over the riling body of my youngest. Her eyes are wide but she not on retreat. “He's a bit of a drama queen,” I mention in passing. I explain pertinent facts to assist her and the simple evening routine, tidy toys, clean teeth, wash face and hands, put on your pyjamas, which I expect exactly matches the routine in 99% of American households.

I am in mid sentence as junior bolts for the door, or rather bolts for the chair that elevates his diminished stature, that permits him to remove the deadbolt and bolt into the garden to the street.

We retrieve him. “I hate you! You are bad bad bad. I am go!” He marches through the house in the opposite direction with the determination appropriate to a monarch.
“Does he say that a lot?” asks the baby sitter.
“Every day,” I reply.
“Wow, I thought it was just me?” she wavers. “I mean, my 9 year old says that all the time!”

I look at the new potential baby sitter with more warmth. We are all parents and sometimes it's hard to work out what is autism and what is typical?
I race after him and the baby sitter follows my steps just in time to witness his contact with the button that opens the garage door to facilitate his escape. An alternative route to adoption.
“Sorry there's so many doors,” I whimper, “he'll be just fine if he get to 'electronics.' I just need to guide him to that point.”
I have already explained the significance of electronics. I know that she gets it. I can see it in her eyes, in her body language.

Every so often, some kindly parent takes pity on me. I thought I knew about girls but boys were a different species, a species I knew nothing about. Generous people throw me balm and help recalibrate my brain. Just yesterday I was in mid moan to a pal:
“Geez Madz! Get over yourself why don't yah! My boys piss on the walls and floor all the time! That's not autism!” I resist the urge to kiss her manicured toe nails for the unwarranted gift of a seductive dose of sanity.

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The long goodbye

[from the weekend]

I make him do it against his will. I make him hold the pencil, although I skip the pencil grip to correct the manner in which he grasps it.

I edge him towards my make shift chart, a soft shoe shuffle but in bare feet. He faces the chart but his chin drops down so that his eyes can avoid it.

“It's going to be fine dear,” I coo. He raises his arm stiffly, like a lever and draws a wobbling line through 'Saturday'. This is everyone's visual cue that we are on the last day of the holiday. Sunday has a arrived. The last 24 hours before they return to school.

Luckily for me, I learned a long, long time ago that transitions, the passage and concept of time, were a challenge. A week's holiday was fabulous but at the end, a monumental weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth would ensue. People would make accusations that they might, or might not regret, based upon a faulty concept of time travel. Wild angry rebukes about theft of time, larceny of holidays, and kidnapping of leisure by some willful nere do well, would whirl around the house.

I attempt the usual platitudes, the joy of seeing 'friends,' a quick spiel about what constitutes a friend, the pleasure of being back in a familiar class, adding verbal clues to the visual ones in that room. He is not impressed and snuggles back into my dressing gown burying his face. He nuzzles and giggles the plumbing, holding excessive quantities of Ensure. Such affection. He mutters into the material, “but I stay home,' he pleads. I lift his lovely face, smooth his troubled brow and utter more reassurances, that all will be well. His nose crinkles with annoyance, “no I wanna stay home and play Gameboy forever!”

Hmm. Definitely time to go back to school.

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Early Days 6 – It's all relative

[From way back when]
Junior son and I have arrived early at school to pick up his brother from his Special Education Day Class, now that he is in First Grade. We’re early because it allows him to adjust to the ‘new surroundings,’ even though it’s been a few weeks now. It helps to be first because then additional people arrive gradually. We need to avoid the deluge of a crowd. Another mother and her child are also waiting outside the same door. We join her on the bench and I smile. It's reciprocated.

I make sure that junior is on the far side of the bench, as far away from her and her son as is physically possible. My son doesn't look at the other mother, nor her child. He might notice if it was a baby, but toddlers are in the same category as dogs and cats, small creatures that are unpredictable and need to be avoided. He starts to count the holes in the bench; it is a matrix of blue circles. His nose is two inches away from the bench, the holes and his fingers. He can touch it because it is smooth, not hot nor cold, because of the shade on a sunny day. Our awareness of tactile defensiveness and sensory integration grows. I’ve learned to appreciate these things as we cope with complicated matters like temperature. He counts in a whisper but explodes with “Barnacles!' when he realizes that he'll need to start at the beginning again, because he's not following a mapped path of holes.

The other mother's son beams hugely at me with large smiling eyes, heavily lashed. He's still in nappies [translation = diapers.] We mothers start to chat, as we have a good 15 minutes to wait. She tells me about her family, husband and two boys. She's very open. I know now that her child is not in the class room behind us but in a different, mainstream class. She tells me what a trial the little one is, so energetic “you wouldn't believe!” she sighs. I would.

Junior's body starts to push against mine. I know that my bottom is covering the holes that he wants to count. He's not going to ask me to move, he's just going to shove my weight out of his path; his 45 lbs is going to move my adult bulk by will power alone. I tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. He keeps pushing, oblivious and absorbed. When I don't budge, he eventually snaps “wot?” with a “tone of irritation.” Many autistic children respond, if at all, inappropriately, or out of proportion. Eventually he glances up at my huge immovable form with annoyance, his face scowls. I catch his eyes but before I can speak he realizes that he's lost count again “Fish paste!” he bellows hurling himself on the ground, beating it with his fists, kicking up the dust [ translation = dirt.] He wears long sleeves and long trousers in the baking 80 degree heat. He realizes that the bare flesh of his exposed hands, has come in contact with something that he would rather not have contact with. Immediately he is on his tippy toe feet, flapping his arms and rain dancing to shake off the debris. I make brushing gestures over him, being careful to avoid the head area. His head and shoulders are especially sensitive and strictly off limits. He slumps, crestfallen and chin fallen. His eyes fall on the bench and he flops on it to start counting again. This kind of persistence and determination, often form a mesmerizing form of “perseveration,” which is calming.

The woman next to me smiles, kindly “he's a funny little guy!” I pause and glance at her, trying to gauge if it's worth it. It would seem that I will see her often.
“Actually he's autistic.”
“Autistic, he's in a special education class, Pre-K. So is his brother, that's who we're waiting for, he's in Mrs. K's class.”
“He doesn't look autistic?”
I don't say anything. We both watch him counting holes; 203, 204,205. He will be five years old in a few months. Her son keeps interrupting, wanting her attention; Watch me! Watch me! Play with me! Play with me!

The loud haler starts crackling, warming up ready for the siren. I move swiftly to the other side of him ready to pounce. The end of the school day is announced. It is very loud, with lots of static. I check whether he is about to meltdown and cover his ears or whether he's disengaged from the whole world, solely intent on his task. It could go either way, but I'm ready to grab him if he goes hurtling off ears covered, to run blindly towards the traffic; 237, 238, 239. What is the American sporting game where you have to catch the ball just in time? Ah yes! Cricket.

“You'd never know, would you?”

I would now.

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