Monday, April 26, 2010

Original fiction: The Kingmaker Plays Her Hand

You think that you’ve got problems; try being younger sister to the most popular guy in school.

I am only too aware of all the ways in which we differ, so there’s no need for you to point it out. My brother is an all-star athlete and I’m picked last in P.E. He’s in Gifted and Talented Education and I’m not, even though our IQ test scores differ by a mere three points.

“Don’t drive like my brother!” Did I mention that my brother gets to drive his own car? While I have to ride the bus.

Everybody loves my brother, and I have no friends at all. Not even my own family. My parents always ask me why I can’t be like my older brother.

I am always picked on at school, with some fascinating gender differences. While the girls at school merely put me down for qualities intrinsic to myself, the boys all want to be like my brother and they constantly rub it in my face that he is everything I’m not.

You'd think my brother would stand up for me, but he can’t stand his tag-along sister who can't make friends on her own. He’s always first in line to let me know that, next to him, I’m nothing but a toad.

My brother has always been well-liked but he wouldn’t be so hugely popular if someone hadn’t catapulted mashed potatoes at him in the school cafeteria. He reacted with a sort of wounded dignity that won everyone to his side.

Did I mention my brother is in drama? He gets the lead in nearly every play.

No one gave a thought to the underclassman troll whose well-aimed volley catapulted my brother to instant high-school stardom.

Last night, a plan occurred to me and today I put it into action.

Four boys came up to me and began taunting me in the cafeteria. I took careful aim at the leader of the boys and let fly with my spoon. The glob of mashed potatoes hit him squarely in the chest.

The boys were taken by surprise and I used their surprise to my advantage. “I have just given you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I told the startled boys. “You are on equal footing with your hero. Please sign this waiver acknowledging that results may vary by individual.”

I proffered additional copies of the waiver to the other three boys, advising them that I had plenty of mashed potatoes left on my tray. “I gave your friend a free demonstration but I’ll offer you the same opportunity for a mere $5 each.”

My tray was considerably lighter when the mashed potatoes were gone, but I’m going after school to the comic book store. I’ve got $15 to spend.

Copyright © 2010 by Cynthia M. Parkhill. Published in “Creative Expressions” in the Lake County Record-Bee

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Children with autism don't just disappear

The 2010 TIME 100 poll includes Temple Grandin among its nominees for the world's most influential people. Diagnosed with autism when she was a young child, Grandin, 62, is a professor of animal science, an author and speaker.
Grandin has a unique perspective as a person on the autism continuum. She relates the qualities that give her insight into the fears and perspectives of animals in her book, "Animals in Translation."

I shared radio time with Grandin nearly one year ago. I sat in the KPFZ studio with show host Chloe Carl during an episode of Earthwise and Grandin joined us via long-distance telephone. I also read many of Grandin's books, such as "Thinking in Pictures."

Grandin credits her mother's influence upon her success today. Her mother refused to give up on Grandin; she rejected the suggestion that Grandin be placed in an institution. Grandin's mother made clear that good manners were expected at all times. Her mother also used turn-taking games to help Grandin learn social skills.

You can learn more in a book Grandin has co-authored with Sean Barron: "The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships."

Grandin is inspirational to me, because I see many similarities among circumstances in our lives. Absent only a formal diagnosis, I faced similar challenges with teasing and ridicule at school. Like Grandin, my earliest successful relationships involved a common interest: horseback riding for Grandin and medieval reenactment for me.

Grandin and I also share a concern that an autism diagnosis should not lead to diminished expectations for a person's capability.

I harbor feelings of anger and resentment that when I was going to school, my difference was not understood. Autism diagnoses in the United States  were subject to very rigidly-defined criteria until the mid- to late-1990s. By then, I'd already left high school and had additionally graduated from Sonoma State University.

I see children today receiving individualized support; I see bullying addressed proactively -- in school policy, at least.

My former school district,  Calistoga Joint Unified, accepted a $3,200 donation from Cody Kirkham for  Challenge Day at Calistoga Junior/Senior High School. The CHS drama department presented a performance of "Bang, Bang You're Dead." That told me that bullying was at last being acknowledged in my former schools.

At the same time, I wonder, if some of this support had been in place for me, would I have turned out differently? At a minimum, I would have missed the revelation at age 39 that there were others like me in the world. I may also have risked being influenced by other people's beliefs about what I could or could not achieve.

I think it is important, however, to raise the profile of adults on the spectrum. The most recent statistics claim that autism affects one in 94 children. Much less is said about these children's grown counterparts and any services they may need.

Children with autism don't just disappear, to paraphrase an observation in Oliver Sacks' "An Anthropologist on Mars." "In a strange way," he writes, "most people speak only of autistic children and never of autistic adults, as if the children somehow just vanished from the earth."

As an adult who learned as an adult that I am on the autism spectrum, I am not entirely familiar with what resources are available to me; I do know, however, that I'll have to research and secure them for myself if they seem appropriate.

There are no reparations for me if I should ever need support, because the school district's responsibility to me ended when I turned 21.

But to see Grandin in the TIME 100 poll, to read her books and hear her speak is a reminder that there are adults on the autism continuum. People who may be trying to make sense of an autism diagnosis -- for themselves or for someone they love -- can look at Grandin and see possibilities.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Volunteering at Lakeport Library

For two hours today, I volunteered at the Lakeport Library. I pull items from the shelves for which people have submitted hold requests: books, audio books, DVDs and music recordings. I scan their barcodes into the computer to get their routing information, prepare a tag that indicates where in our three-county library system each item is to go and finally I pack them for delivery.

Consider that other people at other libraries are doing much the same thing at least three times a day. The Sonoma County Library, which hosts our catalog, stated in a recent newsletter that 800,000 hold requests are generated in one year. I cited the figure a few weeks ago in my newspaper column.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

National Library Week at UUCLC Lending Library

ALA Graphics poster with UUCLC Lending Library partner logo: National Library Week, April 11-17, 2010. "It's a hub of activity where communities thrive. In tough economic times, libraries give free access to books and computers, homework help, assistance with resumes and job searches, accurate financial information, adult education courses, assistance for new Americans, CDs, DVDs and much more."

This Sunday marks the beginning of National Library Week, April 11-17. What better opportunity to acquaint yourself with our UUCLC Lending Library? Look for the rolling cart full of books in the main hall on Sundays.

The mission of the UUCLC Lending Library is to serve as a resource for deeper understanding of the Unitarian Universalist faith and to present our congregation with reading material from a variety of spiritual traditions.

Some of its recent acquisitions include Forrest Church's sure-to-be-a-classic book, Love and Death. We also have four copies available of the UU Pocket Guide.

Another resource, also newly-arrived, is A Chosen Faith, a classic introductory text on Unitarian Universalism.

Combine these resources with a variety of other fiction and nonfiction books, many donated to the library by members of our own congregation, and you have a dynamic resource that helps our UU community thrive.

Originally distributed via Google Groups email list.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Schools set the tone for bullying

Comic strip in three panels. The first panel's narrative reads, "When teachers bully." A human-looking rabbit says, "All right class ... everybody take hands." A girl and a human-looking cat are also in the frame. In the second frame, the rabbit says to the cat, "No one wants to hold your hand so you have to hold a pair of combs. The children next to you can hold the other ends." The cat has a sad look on her face. In the third panel, the rabbit happily says, "All right! Take hands!" The cat has an angry look on her face and her hands are on her waist. The narrative reads, "How I hated her ..."

Nine students face criminal charges in the suicide of Northampton teen Phoebe Prince (Boston Globe, March 30, I believe school administrators should similarly be subjected to criminal prosecution.

Prince, 15, hung herself Jan. 14. Charges filed on March 29 against the high school students ranged from criminal harassment and civil rights violations to stalking and statutory rape. When filing the charges, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said Prince had been subjected to a nearly-three month campaign of "verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm."

Scheibel said her investigation determined the abuses were "common knowledge" among school administrators.

According to the Associated Press, an anti-bullying consultant said she'd advised parents and officials at Prince's school months before Prince hanged herself but that the officials didn't follow her advice. Barbara Coloroso told CBS's "The Early Show" that South Hadley schools "had policies, but the procedures need to be toughened up."

It's tempting to view this tragedy as remote, an isolated occurrence. But I know that bullying takes place here in Lake County schools -- and, that, moreover, school officials look the other way.

Consider a child who, when taunted on the playground, was told by an aide to go somewhere else. A child whose teacher told the child and her tormentor to work things out between themselves.

In response when hearing these accounts, I could only ask, "What is wrong with these people?" Exactly what is it going to take, to make our schools take bullying seriously?

If a bullied child later lashes out with violence, will school officials accept their share of the blame for having withheld earlier support? Should someone submit a claim for psychiatric costs to treat Complex PTSD that was based upon long-term bullying?

One Lake County district had to settle in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union because of abuse directed against a student for his perceived sexual identity. There are still Lake County students who face similar abuse.

I believe from first-hand experience that schools create the settings in which bullying is allowed to flourish. Even though the teachers weren't involved in the name-calling, the shoving and the systemic rejection that I endured from kindergarten on, I believe that teachers and administrators allowed this school culture to exist.

One teacher actively promoted it. When asking her students to join hands in a circle, she kept a supply of combs on hand. To children like me, with whom my classmates did not want to take hands, she gave a pair of combs -- one for each child on either side, who could then grasp the other end of the comb.

Please understand that these teachers of mine were otherwise well-meaning and decent, with the exception of the lady with the combs. She was evil incarnate to my elementary-school mind. But never-the-less, these well-meaning people put me on display as a school-wide outcast when, in PE, they had the most popular children choose sides for athletic teams.

I don't remember any attempts to quell bullying other than asking me to explain "how I felt" in front of the class.

I am grateful for tolerant officials who at least abstained from punishing me when I acted out from stress. The exterior wall of the principal's office bore visible signs of my rage -- black marks from my kicking it.

It angers me that, almost 25 years after I graduated from high school, bullying still takes place. It angers me, too, that programs exist such as "Challenge Day" and some administrators don't see a need to promote a school culture of acceptance. I only wish there had been a "Challenge Day" when I went to school.

The Konocti district uniquely has an anti-bullying policy in place. Board Policy 5131, "Conduct," explicitly prohibits: "Harassment of students or staff, including bullying, intimidation, so-called 'cyber-bullying,' hazing or initiation activity, ridicule, extortion, or any other verbal, written, or physical contact that causes or threatens to cause bodily harm or emotional suffering."

The policy requires that processes be established whereby complaints can be submitted anonymously.

"Complaints of bullying or harassment shall be investigated and resolved in accordance with site-level grievance procedures specified in AR 5145.7 -- Sexual Harassment." That is, any school employee to whom a complaint is made, must report it within 24 hours to the school principal or designee. Any school employee who observes an incident of bullying, is required to report it, whether or not the victim files a complaint.

How easy would it be for other districts to adopt -- and then enforce -- a similar policy. I hope that discussions of district consolidation present opportunities to do just that, instead of focusing upon how much money can be saved. Any discussions of consolidation must include zero tolerance for bullying at all Lake County schools.

Published April 6, 2010 in the Lake County Record-Bee