(Benjamin gives Dolly a kiss)
It’s April, and not only are the birds singing and the pear trees blooming here at the Doublewide Ranch, but it’s once again National Autism Awareness Month.
As long-time readers know, my son Benjamin is autistic. Anyone who might be interested in reading about his experiences growing up autistic can click on “Autism” under “Categories” in my sidebar.
As I’ve looked over my previous posts about Benjamin, I’ve wondered if I’d painted too rosy a picture of his life now. Don’t get me wrong—he really has come a long way from the days when he’d rock back and forth, when he’d scream if I deviated even slightly from our usual route to the library, when he barely talked except to echo what others had said. Yes, a very long way indeed.
But when you go through the bullying and torment that Benjamin did growing up, simply because he was different, it leaves a permanent mark. Especially for a sensitive soul like his. Sensitivity can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you often see and hear and feel the beauty in this world that others overlook. But a curse, too—because this world is not always beautiful.
I’ve written before about the importance of teaching our children to embrace those who are different, as has Benjamin. But I thought it was worth repeating, because sometimes it seems that folks are becoming less and less tolerant and more and more disparaging of each other’s differences. So please forgive me for preaching once again (and,very likely, preaching to the choir).
My last post expressed the importance of not judging people by their outward image, by the things that hide the truth of who they are, and how we are all subject to the temptation of being judgmental. Sometimes those who congratulate themselves the most for their open-mindedness and eagerness to embrace diversity can be the least aware of how narrow their definition of diversity is.
When I was in my early twenties and far more naïve and innocent than I am now, I went to a party in Chapel Hill with the newspaper reporter that I was dating at the time. The party was a reunion of sorts of some of his classmates from the School of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. They were mostly journalists in their 30’s from newspapers in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill who would have, for the most part, called themselves open-minded, tolerant, and progressive.
When Rob told me we were going to the party, I was really nervous. These people were all sophisticated college graduates, some of them with master’s degrees. I wasn’t. I pictured a party where everyone was having intellectual discussions and eating fancy hors d’oeuvres and drinking dry wine with their pinky fingers extended. So I dressed up in my Sunday best, with panty hose and heels and makeup and extra hair spray. Like I said, I was naïve.
When we got there, I saw right away that everyone else was in t-shirts and shorts, drinking beer and playing volleyball. My heart sank and my face turned crimson, but I was determined to make the best of it. Surely all these open-minded journalists wouldn’t care what I was wearing. Isn’t journalism all about looking beyond the outward appearance to find the truth?
The snickering started almost from the minute I got out of the car. At first, it was subtle–a snicker here, a snide remark there. But as they got drunker and drunker, the ridicule became more open, especially when I gamely tried to play volleyball. (Yes, I did look ridiculous, but like I said, I was trying to make the best of it.) One of them wondered where Rob had found the “redneck girl.” Another asked if I was looking for the Baptist church down the road. It would have helped a lot, I guess, if I’d gotten drunk, too. But I’ve never really been into that. Seems like it too often turns people into jerks.
My point is—even people who think they are enlightened and unbiased and open-minded can be provincial in a way that’s sometimes subtle, but no less bigoted than anybody else. In their case, it’s often hidden behind a thin veneer of political correctness, but all it takes is a naïve country bumpkin girl (as I was) to bring it out. Even our local progressive alternative weekly paper (that has many fine qualities otherwise) fairly often features cartoons that make fun of local white country people, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They’d never think of ridiculing minorities or gays (and that’s a good thing, of course) but uneducated country white people are fair game.
What I’m saying here is that we need to be teaching our children that it’s not okay to make fun of ANYBODY because they’re different from us, whether it’s their skin or the way they dress or even the way they talk. That is true “diversity” training. And we need to set an example by never ridiculing other people in front of our children, no matter who they are. Some of Benjamin’s worst bullies in elementary school were the children of highly educated professionals who, no doubt, taught their kids not to make fun of minorities or gays or people in wheelchairs. But apparently, they didn’t go far enough. I always made it clear to my children that they would be in some seriously deep doodoo if they EVER made fun of anyone.
But they never did. They have always been tolerant of differences (especially their weird mama!), and I’m happy to say that they both have friends who are black and white, gay and straight, loud and quiet, Buddhist and Baptist. And I think they know that their lives are far richer for having opened their minds and hearts to all kinds of people.
Benjamin really is doing well overall. He’ll be a senior in college next year in the Honors program and has so many friends that I sometimes can’t reach him on the phone. But he still bears the scars of the cruelty he endured. Sometimes the pain manifests as anger; sometimes, as depression. The wounds were deep and painful, and while the scars have faded some, they linger. And seeing his sadness still breaks my heart in two.
All because of children who weren’t taught that all souls have worth and value—no matter how they look or talk or dress or worship. No matter what drumbeat they march to. Even those who march just a little out of step.