Lost in translation in school

School was the first time I felt out of place. I didn’t always feel like the odd man out. I can’t sit here and say I was excluded all the time and that this is the reason for my feelings of alienation. That would be unfair to my parents and it would be unfair to those who have been kind to me, especially in those moments when I felt very lonely. No, it is a little bit more complicated than that. The way I’d frame it is, a lot of the time I felt I was being included but I never felt part of the greater thing. Social and academic success was usually followed by failures that led to shame and guilt which barred me from developing that connection. Consequently I am not one those people that goes to high school reunions or college reunions nor do I want to, I’d feel like a poser. The school where I studied my master’s degree would be the exemption. I do feel some connection to that alma mater. Perhaps it was the friends I made, being there with my ex, doing things my way or being in another country. Who knows? Academic success and failure is measurable, either you passed a class or you fucking tanked. I want to start with this and then maybe tackle the social stuff in another post. Memories of my social life are buried far deeper in my mind and might take some considerable work to pull them to the surface of consciousness.

Up until third grade elementary I was a teacher’s pet and a stellar student. I was a proud little nerd; much like in the Lego movie everything was awesome (if you watched the movie and now have that fucking song stuck in your head, I am so sorry, if it’s any consolation it’s stuck in mine too). Then fourth grade happened. I have sparse memories from elementary school; mostly I just remember so clearly what it looked like. I certainly don’t remember many teachers but I do remember Ms. Baumgartner. I remember her because hers was the first class where I received a grade below an A. Up until that point my teachers had liked that I participated in class, I helped when asked, I raised my hand first every time and gave long winded complex answers for a kid in elementary (my parent’s friends used to say that I spoke more than a manic missing person that’s just been found). In the early stages of elementary that is about all you had to do to get good grades because the course work was pretty basic. Basic math and basic reading interspersed with other basic shit; this all changes in the fourth grade.

Do you remember the first time your teacher went up to the board and did long division and you were like ‘what the fuck is this bullshit, what happened to the queue cards’. I mean that shit was complicated so I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one trying to come up for air. However, I had an additional issue with how I learning things. For the most part I learn by understanding the mechanics of how things work not by memorization. Take for example multiplication. I recall that you were expected to memorize the multiplication tables but I could not that no matter how much I tried. I can’t sit and force myself to memorize anything because it makes me anxious (like when you say moist and people squirm, sorry). This would sound strange to people that know me because I remember the most random shit you can fathom; and I can’t explain that, some stuff just get stuck in my mind. I learned how to multiply via logic. For example instead of memorizing 4X4 = 32, l figured out that 4X4 = 4 + 4 + 4 +4 = 16 + 16 = 32. I’m not kidding this is how my brain works…for the most part. I figure out what the rules are and then apply them. However, when a set of rules is new it can take me a while to be able to use them effectively. Frankly the way they expect you to learn in school, which is very rigid, was just not compatible with how I am equipped to learn.

Not only did I struggle with changes to how we were measured in 4th grade, Ms. B did not share the other teacher’s enthusiasm for my class participating. In her view I was answering impulsively, interrupting and not letting others participate. From my report card “Manuel is usually very well behaved but on occasion is a bit overzealous to answer questions and just interrupts before being called on”. There was something about how I was behaving that did not fit in. I remember being asked by my parents what was wrong and vaguely remember blaming the teacher (which come on we all did at some point). The excuse was that she just didn’t like me personally and thus had taken it upon herself to teach me a lesson by giving me a low grade. What really happened is so much more complex and is a clear example of the lost in translation nature of what life is like for me sometimes.

Routines are part of nature and humanity in general. We all have routines but for the most part people are flexible and can improvise when something affects the routine. I struggle a bit with that last part. When I’m faced with a situation that is very new to me I may just continue to act like I normally would (this can lead to me appearing glib, like going about getting my coffee while someone has a stroke in the coffee shop…just kidding it’s not that bad but you get the point). So when I think back on my early school years I can see how I had a carefully crafted a good student routine; crafted of course in my subconscious mind. I am able to see this with great clarity today because in hindsight I can look at myself and my actions and see the process clearly. It is one part aspie memory one part mindfulness. My carefully crafted routine delivered results in the past so when I started the fourth grade I just stuck to the script. I was setup to fail from the get go and I did not understand why I until now.

Quick tangent; I am not a huge fan of using scripts or programming or robots as examples to explains how I think. It is already very common for people on the spectrum to be described as robotic or scripted. I do not wish to perpetuate this stigma. People may use robotic to describe a mechanical action; however, the label also denotes a lack of emotions accompanying the action. I have heard the term in reference to myself and can tell you that it is extremely hurtful. There is no way to describe what it feels like when you are trying to connect with others, a highly emotional process, and people describe your actions as robotic (i.e. emotionless). Tangent over.

Back to the 4th grade; the teacher gently at first, then not so much tried to get me to adapt. However, despite the admonitions I didn’t change. I was doing everything I knew how to do and the teacher was still giving me bad grades, so I figured she had it in for me. In reality Ms. Baumgartner couldn’t have known that I didn’t understand that I had to change. Asperger’s was not part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994 and the definition of Autism as a spectrum has only been around since 2013. To the teacher I was stubborn as fuck and to me she was a massive asshole.

The way you are taught and what you are taught varies as you age. Abstract concepts are perhaps one of my biggest trouble areas. When new abstract concepts were introduced in school I inevitably struggled (like with long division). To be clear I’m good with imagination. Many times when people struggle with the world they imagine other worlds in which they could be happier. I do dream a lot and only recently when I read that a lot of people on the spectrum use this as a coping mechanism did I understand why. So it’s not that I can’t imagine wild crazy things. It’s more that I struggle with concepts that I cannot attach a logical form to. One clear example of this is physics. Physics is a highly theoretical science. Many of the concepts taught and researched are based on pure theory revolving around objects no one has seen or will ever see. Have you ever stopped to consider how crazy that is? Up until I had physics in school for the first time I had wanted to be an engineer (physics is a compulsory course in most engineering programs). After my first physics lesson my brain immediately yelled ‘oh hell no!’

I had a similar run in with calculus in undergrad. I was horrible at proofs a key component of the coursework. However, practical calculus is highly dependent on logic and rules. Once I learned those rules the course became easy but I had to get a tutor to help me grasp some of the more abstract things about it. Later in undergrad I had to study probability and holy shit that still blows my mind. I’ve learned how to use it but my brain still rejects some of the basic tenants, as in they make me anxious. For example consider this, you can toss a coin 50 times and even if it lands on heads every time the probability of it landing on heads or tails on 51st toss is still 50/50. I mean I know the theory behind it, I did manage to graduate from college, but I still don’t buy it.

I successfully graduated from high school with several shitty grades. I graduated from undergrad in economics after having failed five classes.  And I graduated from an MBA with slightly better grades but still far from the top of the class. The thing is, that after my run in with Ms. B I stopped giving a damn about grades. I cared about how my parents would react but honestly my main focus was on learning. My therapist says it’s because I enjoy knowledge. Consequently I did well in classes I loved and I sucked in classes I disliked. I’m not proud of my shitty grades but reflecting on this helps me understand that I did not do anything wrong. Which I did feel when I was growing up and which probably affected how much I allowed myself to be a part of school.

The point of all this is that there were so many times when I felt like the world around me made no sense. I sat down with a book to learn how to solve probability issues and no matter how many times I read it nothing made sense. It was like reading something in a foreign language, sure the letters are the same but that does not mean I would understand what I read. I’m still here though and it’s not like I did not think about taking the quick exit at times, for example when I failed half of my classes in my first year of college and passed the semester scraping by in the other two; I thought my parents were going to hate me for it, a thought I could not bear. But I didn’t give up then and progressively with each miss step I learned to be resilient. I learned not give up when something kicks my ass because I’ve learned that no matter how good things are sometimes, life always finds a way of testing you and it’s better to be ready.

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