I have debated writing this entry for a couple of weeks — for any number of reasons. It’s raw, deeply vulnerable. And in putting this rawness out into the world, I risk so much. I risk people telling me that I’m wrong, that I don’t know myself, that my lived experience doesn’t matter. It’s too high, too verbal, too wordy, too much this, or too much that. I risk the cuts that come a thousand times over in life, the ones that will surely come from people who think they know me… But have only known the masks I have worn early and often. I risk the anger of those who uphold stereotypes, who push ableism both subtle and obvious, who create little boxes that only further systems of oppression.
And yet — it is an essential risk, a jump that I must take, this long and wordy essay, because I think there is also value here, for those open to receiving it. There has certainly been value to myself.
I have been different since… always. I was a toddler who read books, real books, who loved grammar and phonics rules more than toys, who recited lines from The Little Mermaid many times over, who needed my schedule to be exactly right, my 4:30pm He-Man and exactly 3 items for dinner. No more, no less, or it wasn’t dinner. The end.
I became a child who cried for an entire day when she lost the school spelling bee, even though I was just six, because spelling, words, letters — they all mattered that much to me. I got in trouble for interrupting teachers, for correcting them, for not following the social rules of the classroom — on every. single. report. card. Grade 1 through 12. I ate little of the foods my family prepared, choking down a bite here or there, sticking mostly to deli meat and chicken nuggets, over and over. Not one single vegetable, not one, and not that many fruits then either. I remember crying if someone didn’t use separate knives for the peanut butter and jelly. I had to sit a certain way, in a certain seat, still do. Clothing bugged me. Hair bugged me. Shoes bugged me. Socks? That was NEVER going to happen.
My reciprocal friendships were limited, one or two who always left when they found other friendships to be more satisfying. I had exactly one birthday party with multiple peers of my age in elementary school. And it ended with me on the outside, always on the outside, as they played truth & dare, as they pranked me, as they mocked me, at my own party. I don’t think I had a friendship last more than a couple months, maybe a year, until late middle school. I rarely went to others’ houses, not even family. I wanted to be at home, where things were comfortable and familiar and routine. My home, my grandparents’ home, and that was it. I remember attempting to stay at my great grandparents and having to be picked up because I could not sobbing over my need to be. at. home.
I remember these instructions, over, and over, and over: stop spinning, stop rocking, stop making those random noises… stop incessant interrupting… stop the endless talking about my interests… dress differently, more “together”, more “girl”. Remember to shower. Remember to brush your teeth. Be more social. Do more things. One of my closer friends at the time was certain that there was something wrong with me, in the way that I needed to line things up, the way I needed things to be the same, to the point where she even said something to my family. Teachers, too. Counselors. Many over the years. But it was clear that I was not ADHD, the most common childhood diagnosis at the time. And so, I continued on, no diagnosis, just “quirky” and “odd” and “weird” — depending on who was doing the labeling.
But I am not angry at my family, my friends, my teachers. They did the best they could in a time when people didn’t understand. Indeed, they did better than most, in allowing me my endless escape into novels, buying more items for my Titanic collections, and encouraging all of the alone time in the woods and trees that I needed. They recorded my favorite shows on VHS so that I could watch them over and over. They helped me find the exact soft pants that I needed and bought multiple pairs. But these things are not enough, not when an entire culture — your entire school — is telling you constantly that you are weird, you are odd, you are not good enough.
And so, like many others, I learned to fake it. I faked it hard in high school. Instead of being the girl who always reads and stays at home, I was the girl that was involved in everything. I was the girl who talked and talked to everyone. I studied other people. I talked myself through all the rules that my family uttered, through all the things I saw other people do. I reminded myself to look at people, to say hello to people, to laugh when everyone else is laughing. I wore the clothes that my mom picked out for me for as many days as I could (before returning to literal pajama pants and flip-flops). I pushed myself to go to youth groups, to go to football games, to sign up join do do do!
And all of that fitting in, all of that masking — it came at a cost. A deep and treacherous cost. There is a depth of lonely aching, of being certain that there is something innately wrong with you. That you must be selfish, self-centered, egotistical, to not be able to understand all of these rules. That there is something wrong with your need to rock, to stim, to make noises. That you must be unlovable. There is an exhaustion that cuts to the very bones of your being when your day is spent pretending to be someone that you are not. It is an exhaustion that takes everything, everything from you, and leaves nothing but gaping holes. It is a cost that left me laying on the bathroom floor, too many nights to count, with tears streaming down my face. Silent, racking sobs. Gasping for air, gasping for life. I remember sitting there on that cold tile floor and wishing that I could die. Considering how I could die. Wondering what would happen if I were to die. Thinking that, whatever it was, it would be okay, because at least I wouldn’t be alive. And it was an entirely preventable depression, one that I’ve only recently learned to connect to all that painful masking.
Because there are only two other times in my life that I felt that incredibly low. The second was in my early 20’s, when I joined a staff at a school that was filled with similar aged young women. Except I don’t have many shared interests with a neurotypical same-age woman, as if that wasn’t clear already. I didn’t want to go out for drinks, or dinner, or any of those things. I just wanted to talk about teaching. I wanted to belong, but I wanted to belong as me. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. My passion for the last 13 years has been my students, and everything classroom. I collect information about teaching the way others collect subway maps or Lego models; I wanted to talk about that information always. It was my everything. And I was mocked. I was told, again, that I only ever want to talk about one thing. So I tried to be different… To hide who I am. To go get a coffee. To small talk and chit-chat and have lunch with my colleagues. And instead of feeling as if I belonged, I felt misery. That aching, haunting feeling swept back into my life.
Again, that third time — I took a job as a coordinator, thinking that this was a job where I was supposed to talk about my passion with others. Guess what? It’s not. Coordinating is all about social skills, small talk, and “leadership skills” that get staff buy-in. I fell apart. Every day, all of my spoons were used up by noon, between phone calls and favors and meetings and persuasion and trying so hard to be “normal” and social and follow all the rules that make good leaders. I don’t think my husband had ever fully seen me that way, so lonely and lost. I hope that I never enter that place again.
You may be wondering — how in the world does this relate to being a teaching unicorn?
Because you must understand the cost. You must understand that the cost of masking, of faking it, of being someone other than you are — the cost is nothing less than laying on that floor and wanting to die. It is nothing less than feeling as if you will never belong, as if you will never be loved, as if you are worth less than dirt. I’ve lived through trauma, through physical abuse, and none of that abuse brought me as low as those months of masking did. Every time. It is trauma. It is a trauma that cuts to the very essence of someone’s being.
You must understand what you are asking your students when you ask them to be neurotypical, whether their neurodiversity stems from autism, intellectual disability, or mental illness.
You are asking them to give up everything.
To leave behind who they are.
To leave behind everything that makes them who they are.
To become empty in pursuit of “normal”.
It is never worth the cost. It doesn’t matter how great they get at masking, whether they pull off a 4.0 GPA and a smile while doing it. They will be dying on the inside.
This is why the world must change, not our students, not ourselves. Because we are all worth of love and belonging. But we are worthy of that belonging right now, as we are. Every day, we make a choice. Will our teaching uphold systems of oppression, or will it teach our students that they belong? Will the subtle things we say — the things we think we say with love — support them or cut them? The goals that we select? The curriculum we use? The ways we teach? We are teaching so much more than a skill. We promote acceptance or we promote trauma. It is that simple.
I know I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made the wrong choices. I am sure that I have accidentally bought that pain to my students over the last decade, and I mourn for any and every time I may have. I use that mourning to do better. Because I never, ever want to be the reason that a child cries alone on the bathroom floor.
P.S. I do feel like I should add a little note of gratitude to one particular high school friend, who knows who she is, one of my only lasting friends, who always accepted me and my Harry Potter obsession exactly as I am, who always will.