While I was home with my family over the holidays a lot of things happened that made me feel like a 28-year-old child. Being infantilized seems to be a vital part of every holiday experience. My parents just simplified their lives by selling their big house and moving into a condo in a 55+ community along with my brother who is an autistic adult. I don’t know how they are allowed to live in that condo complex because they are 52 and 53. My brother, Nick, is 23. Whatever.
The point is, while I was hanging out on the couch, my dad dropped an accordion file folder labeled “Sara” on my lap. “Go through this ‘Sara memorabilia,’” he said. “I’m shredding stuff.” My dad will keep a car for 20+ years, however he sees no value in holding onto membership cards to the National Honor Society. My mom has kept pristine records of my life on paper in hopes I’ll pass them onto my non-existent children, who will pass them onto their maybe children. I don’t know when report cards became heirlooms, but I like her optimism.
Of the many honor roll certificates and drama club playbills—dork alert!—I came across my college entrance essay. I wrote it my senior year in high school for early decision entry to my state school. The title of it, simply and not creatively is “Life with Nick.” And it is not good.
Growing up with an autistic sibling really makes your teenage years abnormal in the way that your only goal is to fly under the radar by doing super-well in school, saying no to all drugs, and abstaining from sex. All of this in an effort to avoid causing your already stressed-out parents any undue pain. I remember myself as an obedient, unselfish teen, but in retrospect, I selfishly used my disabled brother as leverage to get into school.
Here are some excerpts from the essay that not only got me into school, but also, incredibly, got me a scholarship. I believe the idea of the essay was to “write about a topic that impacted your life.” Though sibling experiences are totally impacting, it’s apparent my 17-year-old self had just begun to process how.
Intro paragraph: “I never thought having a brother would have such an unbelievable impact on my life. My brother is no ordinary sibling. He is Nick. And he has autism.”
Why is everything so tragic when you are 17? I’m going to bring back that juvenile use of intense punctuation to my writing. Right. Now.
Paragraph 2: “Autism is a developmental disorder with which people are not very familiar. (editor’s note: not true.) Essentially, autistic people have problems communicating and may seem to be in their own world. It is hard to characterize autism because of its varying degrees and severity. Nick is severely autistic, and he has some very unique behaviors, (editor’s note: “very unique” means nothing) but I could never want him any other way.”
Severely. Autistic. There’s my hook. Also, let me explain autism in two essential sentences.
Paragraph 6: “…Sometimes Nick would demonstrate odd behavior. If he leaned into a stranger’s face and started making a low gutteral (sic) sound while we were in the supermarket, my mother would act like it was nothing out of the ordinary and would simply apologize and get Nick back on track.”
Low guttural noises in the supermarket=high-impact life experience. Is Nick applying to school or am I? WTF?
Paragraph 7: “Two years ago, my family moved out to Delaware from Missouri. Nick was not getting the attention and education he deserved in the special schools in St. Louis so my mom home-schooled him until we found the right program for him. We found it in Delaware…We moved a week after my sixteenth birthday.”
Sixteenth birthday. Shattered. Let me into school.
Closing paragraph: “Nick has been one of my greatest teachers, and I doubt he even knows it. I cannot be sure if he understands the concept of learning from one another as social interaction is difficult for him to grasp. I suppose that is the irony of it all. We can all learn from one another and impact each other more than we know. That’s the beauty of being human.
That’s right. I had just discovered “the beauty of being human.” Now you know.
The actual irony lies in this. Fast-forward to now, and I’m applying to grad school to be a school counselor. Once again, Nick popped up in my statement of purpose essay. Apparently, I can’t exemplify my academic curiosity without mentioning my experience with autism. If I do become a school counselor, I’ll encourage teens to write better college application essays.
This is an an essay I wrote when I was depressed a few years ago. I wrote it to try and put my educational experience into perspective in order to get over with it. I've decided to share it.
Education – My Experiences
My education began in first grade in 1974. My state didn’t mandate kindergarten, so my parents didn’t send me, even though my brothers and sister went. It wasn’t easy for me, because school was the first place I ever got to interact with other people, mainly children, as an equal.
Before school started, I was pretty much kept indoors, and not allowed to have contact with other people, except for members of my own family. Being the youngest, I was looked down upon as being inferior, a lower class citizen, and basically, a big joke. During the first 5 years of my life, I figured that was all I was entitled to, and even though I hated it, I lived with it.
In first grade, I had to interact with other kids for the first time, which wasn’t easy. I did eventually learn that I could be an equal to them, and soon settled down into school. The quality of education that first year wasn’t bad, I learned a lot and grew a lot during that year. I had great teachers too, who really gave me the help I needed.
Second grade at that school was a different story though, I had a different teacher, who wasn’t very good, and seldom offered the help I needed. I was also treated like I was lower than the rest of the students. I don’t know what her problem with me was, but it set me back a great deal, both academically and emotionally. When I needed help, it wasn’t given and I was often ignored. She felt that it wasn’t worth it to help those students who needed it. Fortunately, my parents saw this and intervened, first trying to negotiate, then after that broke down, transferred me to another school.
The new school was very different, being more structured than the first, and being a boys’ school. When I started, I was behind in many ways due to the problems of my previous school, but I had a dedicated teacher who helped me catch up the best she could in a short time. I remember having difficulties with cursive writing, which my new teacher helped me with, but giving me a crash course in it for a few weeks at recess every day. I did learn it, but never learned it well, and always got poor marks in penmanship as a result. I don’t fault her for that because she did the best she could under the circumstances.
In other areas, I began to excel, often being on the honor roll, being one of the top students in the class. In fact, my teacher was very surprised at how I had started the school behind, and had caught up and excelled. It was nice to be appreciated, both at home and school because I did so well, and it really felt good to accomplish something.
I stayed at that school for over 2 years, and had one day hoped to walk across the stage and graduate from there. It never happened because while I was in fourth grade, for some unexplained reason, my parents, who had always respected this school, began to despise it. Among their complaints were I was always doing homework, the school is a “playhouse,” and “they don’t do anything,” which I meant they offered few extracurricular activities, which was a true statement, but in my opinion, wasn’t a problem. On one occasion, I was even picked on about the khaki uniforms we had to wear, which had been worn by my brothers at different schools with no complaints at all from my parents. They constantly harassed me knocking everything about the school and eventually, I gave in and agreed to go to another school, the same school my sister was attending.
This new school was totally different from the previous school. It was coed, the classes were larger, and seemed to put academics in lower regard than I was used to. I was also introduced to the concept of “school spirit,” the mindless blind following and support of your school regardless of what they do. I also learned that being a boy who was not athletic was a serious strike against me, since they valued football and other sports over everything else. At my other school, we had always had textbooks that were current and up to date. At this new school, the books were often old and falling apart, if we were lucky enough to get one.
During the second and last year I was there, fifth grade, I was basically forced to support my sister in her school band activities, in order to show “school spirit,” something I had no interest in. I was dragged to every single football game, which I didn’t enjoy at all, and even worse, my parents often tried to make me praise her and tell her how much I enjoyed it, which I didn’t. I would rather have stayed home taking it easy, than sitting in the cold stands being blasted with wind and rain, as we sometimes had to endure. I was also dragged to parades she marched in, and often had to listen to her complain about having to do it. My view was to exercise a little free will and not worry about it, but was told, “it’s a school activity.” She made a choice to play in the band, why not live with the consequences.
One other new experience I had there was being used for slave labor. Since I wasn’t an athlete, I often spent P.E. periods picking up trash on the grounds, which many times, made me miss afternoon classes. In spite of my parents’ complaints, this practice continued. Fortunately, I was taken out of that school, not because of my difficulties, but because of the poor teachers my sister was forced to endure.
Sixth grade was my first and only year in Catholic school. What was really strange was we wore khaki uniforms, the same design I had worn only a year and a half before, that my mother said were “awful looking.” I was also a hard year partially because of the previous summer, which was spent not doing things I liked, but having to go into the swimming pool everyday on my sister and mother’s command. That summer was so humiliating that I often couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, because I felt like a puppet, dancing on my mothers’ and my sisters’ strings.
That year was difficult because many of the students didn’t accept me, because I was a transfer student, and I often felt like less of a person because of the humiliating summer I spent before. I also had a hard time going to my parents, since the previous summer had showed me they didn’t’ really care about how I felt or if I had a problem, but instead about forced conformity. It also seemed like my parents had something to prove to this school, which I don’t understand. In one instance, I had to write about what I had done that day, and my mother was determined I would put no TV on that piece, because she wanted to show I didn’t watch TV, which wasn’t true. She does often lie to get what she wants and even when caught sees no problem with it, but will not tolerate anyone else lying to get their way. At the end of the school year, my mother asked me if I wanted to have a swimming party for my class, to which I responded no. She went to my teacher and set one up anyway, which showed me how little my feelings meant to her. I didn’t know how to swim, and had no interest in it, yet she would do anything to force me to swim, enjoy it, and even devote my entire life to it. I honestly believe her goal was to eliminate everything from my life excluding school and swimming, a life I couldn’t have survived.
Seventh grade was another school I was sent to because of my sister, she was going there so I had to go there. I did not at all fit in, mainly because most of the students in my class had been expelled from other schools, and I hadn’t. I also had incompetent teachers, many of whom were employed there solely, by the principal’s own admission, worked cheap. I was very unhappy there, not only for these reasons, but because I was discriminated against not only at school, but at home as well.
At school, our class was banned from many events, because of a few problem students. That didn’t bother me much, but I also got discrimination at home. My sister would often brag to people about how I spent my summers as her slave because I had to drop anything I wanted to do when she wanted to swim, and often had other students call me “Igor” after the hunchback assistant in the old horror movies.
If I ever said anything derogatory to or about my sister, I would be punished, yet she did all of these things to me, and even admitted to our parents she had done it, but was never punished. In fact, they often said that it was impossible for a girl to be bad, that only boys are bad. The school seemed to preach the same thing, in fact, she was once in a fight and there were no consequences, I was and was punished at school and at home. She should have been punished too but instead she was able to brag to my parents and everyone else about fighting, with no consequences.
Another incident of discrimination was with my sister’s English class and my Math class. We both had to deal with incompetent teachers, who were neither certified nor held degrees. The classes were impossible and we learned little. What our parents did was to go down to the school and arrange for her to get special treatment, meaning the principal would teach her personally, while I got nothing. I felt if she got out, why shouldn’t I? When I said this, I got no answer, no discussion, other than “That’s just the way it is.” Fortunately, I only stayed one year at this school, which was more than enough. However, I wasn’t out of the woods, I had to spend another summer of forced swimming with my sister, which again, made my life miserable.
Eighth grade was my first and only year in public school. My mother made numerous promises to me about how it would be better than anything else, but it wasn’t. I was basically harassed again, for being a transfer student, and because my voice had changed before everyone else’s. A lot of the students constantly grunted at me to make fun of my voice, and nobody would do anything about it. My parents said it had nothing to do with my voice, but instead, was because I “act goofy,” yet would never explain to me what I did that was so bad. I was very miserable, I didn’t know what to do, and suffered day in and day out, and many times, wanted to end my life. What finally brought down my life there was I didn’t participate in an optional project for the science class, and as a result, my science teacher, the only teacher out of six, wouldn’t recommend me for a gifted program, something my parents took very hard. Ever since, even now 18 years later, they call me uncooperative. I was also punished for the entire summer, being barred from TV, music, reading, and any other activity I found pleasurable, being allowed nothing but swimming when my sister wanted me to because “getting in that pool everyday will build you up until you are a human being again.”
My sister in the mean time attended public school, and also refused to activities she didn’t want to do. She was downgraded by her English teacher for not doing some optional projects as well but was she punished, or course not. Our parents simply went to the school board, and got her grades changed, from C to A, and was given me as a swimming slave for the summer. I didn’t understand this, she gets a reward for her behavior, and I get punished. I guess my parents don’t believe in punishing girls, I don’t know.
My sister went to college, but I ended up in another so-called Christian school. During my first year, I refused to be put through “Freshman Hell Week,” in which senior students are allowed to humiliate freshman for a whole week. To me, that sort of behavior had no business in school, and was far from the strict environment my parents told me it would be. What added insult to injury that year was when my parents saw the yearbook and pictures of Hell Week, my mother actually said “You should have gotten together with them and acted goofy.” First I’m accused for allegedly “acting goofy,” and them I’m criticized for not “acting goofy.” This makes absolutely no sense.
My high school years weren’t very happy. My grades were ok, but I didn’t like it at all. I was often picked on because I didn’t do extracurricular activities, I didn’t date, and basically thought there was a world beyond football, proms, and cheerleaders.
The worst came my junior year, I was turned down for the honor society, and my parents at first, thought it was politics, then turned against me condemning me for having no personality, not being nice enough, participating in no activities, and not being “glib,” which has been an obsession of theirs ever since. They often condemned me for believing that school grades are based on work, instead of personality, something I never understood, since I was nice and didn’t make any trouble for anyone. My senior year was uneventful, thank goodness, and I was glad to be out of that place.
Many people complain about the ineptness of our public schools and want vouchers and other initiatives to privatize education. My experiences tell me this will not work. Many of the private schools I went to were no better and even worse than public schools. The public school I attended had textbooks for each student; I can’t say that about a few of the private schools I was associated with. In addition, the excellent school I went to between second and forth grade is now closed, due to lack of enrollment, while the football school continues to stay in operation.
My school years were very painful for me, not only for what I went through at school, for what I went through at home, where it was often preached, “nothing matters but school and swimming.” If I made poor grades, I was punished, but if my sister did the same thing, it was the school’s fault. One day, I know I will completely heal of it all, but now, I’m just working towards that day. The answer is out there; I just have to find it. Amen.
"I am not a number, I am a free man!"