My office-mate/good friend and I have a long-standing joke between us. It has to do with my powers of invisibility at work. In the nine years I've been here I seldom get invited to major events, or special programs, or to serve on committees (although that could be considered a blessing in the academic world). One time not long ago I was walking across campus and a person high up in the administration stopped me and welcomed me to the college.
"I've been here nine years," I said. "But thanks!"
If my office-mate/friend and I are together on campus and an incident of invisibility happens to me I'll look at her, and pass my hand in front of my face. Cloak of invisibility, engaged.
And we'll catch each other's eyes and snicker, in a juvenile way.
It doesn't bother me too much, this not seeing me. I guess for me it's much more important that my students see me for who I am: someone who cares deeply and passionately about their success, and who is rooting for them every step of the way. I love to teach, and to explore new course material; I enjoy being around my students and I hope they see that. I think they do. That's what matters to me the most.
I do think a lot, though, about how we go around seeing or not seeing people. Sometimes we see only their external selves, and we pass judgments. Sometimes we fail to notice much at all. Some people are very good at making sure they control what people see, and how they see it; others are caught in a difficult trap: for many reasons--mainly reasons beyond their immediate control--people see them in wrong and negative ways, and those wrong ways become almost a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. They can't escape it, and they begin to believe that they are what others see, no matter how misguided, how unjust, the perceptions might be. I encounter many students who struggle with this. The good, smart person they really are is in there somewhere, behind layers of the person so many people told them were and they just can't shed those layers, try as they might.
I struggle with how I know people sometimes see L., and with how hard we fight to make sure people see him in the ways he deserves--ways that celebrate his strengths, his intelligence, his talents and good character. Part of my anger last week stemmed from an unthinking (and unkind) comment one of L.'s resource teachers said to him after an incident, and in the course of a conversation she was having with him about friendship. One example of being a good friend, the teacher told L., is to praise a friend for something good they did, and to say cheerful, encouraging things to them when they are feeling bad.
I know you're not the type of person who does these things, was what she said to L. But that's what most people expect from their friends.
"How did you feel when the teacher told you that?" I asked L., when he recounted the moment to me.
"I felt insulted!" He said.
And, of course he did. I get very angry when people make assumptions about L. along those lines. When they assume that a child with AS is a cold, detached kind of person who doesn't get his feelings hurt and so it's okay to insensitively point out perceived deficiencies. While L. may have trouble empathisizing, and while he may say just what he thinks, and sometimes come across as downright rud/defiant in the process, and while he may be impulsive and controlling he is also a deeply sensitive child, who gets his feelings hurt--even more than other kids because he simply doesn't know how to fix the way that people see him.
When I took L. to school yesterday we were running late. The wind was whipping around as I rushed him to the front entrance of the school. I stood at the top of the cement steps so I could watch him go through the glass doors. A mom and her daughter--another 5th grader--were also running late and were close on his heels. At the door L. stopped and did something I have never seen him do:
He held the door open for them, and let them pass first.
I stood there, buffeted around by the wind, and my arms tightened around my chest--to hold myself together, I think. I felt a surge of pride and joy. I was too far away to hear whether the mom and daughter thanked him; I certainly hope they did. They breezed past him--my beautiful, caring, sensitive, intelligent, good son, in his gray sweat pants and favorite shirt--without even turning to look at him, though. I wanted to shout out to them:
Stop! Acknowledge what he did! Look at him!