Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Practice of Friending

I was a bit late arriving to the Facebook station, maybe because it takes me such a long time to mull over trends and then weigh whether I can hop on before their hipness pulls away. But thanks to the urging of a former student and my sister, I joined the crowd on the platform. You have to find your way and decide whether social networking even serves any purpose for you. Once you figure out the etiquette (i.e., don't post negative or personal messages, as everything has potential to go public), you can refine your role on Facebook. I myself like to flit around as a demi-Kokopelli, that flute-playing trickster whose image is overused in Southwestern advertising. I like to post my little quips and then see what kind of response comes 'round. (Aside: Kokopelli also has allusions of randiness, fertility, and agriculture, but I doubt much of that fits my Facebook profile.) Anyway, to its credit, the Facebook phenomenon does help link you to friends from the past and it helps acquaint you with those you might not otherwise run into. For me, it's become an entertaining conduit to my more traditional friendships.

From my fog of adolescence, I do remember my mom stating, "Jean, do not ever lose touch with your friends." I was a little know-it-all about human relations in those days, so of course I shrugged her off with my silent retort, "Hummph...what would MY 50something mother know about friends? I don't even see her running around with any friends!" Of course, I'm leaving out the parts like my mom raised 4 kids on her nurse's wages, she worked the 3 pm to 11 shift, there was a time when 5 of us relied on one Ford Maverick...yeah. But her exhortation comes back to me now. How prescient she was. Our friends, virtual, real, remembered, upcoming--these are the figures that stabilize and enrich our lives. Everyone knows this; it's just been crystallizing for me in recent years.

One serendipitous result of Facebooking was re-meeting a teaching colleague from the late '80s. I bet we had not seen each other for 14 years prior to her visit to Pasadena last weekend from Olympia, WA. We had a hilarious, sad, wondrous catchup, cataloging our many life changes and just reflecting how we cope and teach and learn to BE in this life. We also dined at Puebla Tacos #2, a homey little spot for hungry LA ex-pats and local yokels like me. The punctuation of the years fell away as we laughed it up, my mom's words preserved in parentheses.

Too, I credit Facebook for my invitation yesterday to a memorial at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. My long-ago student, now a mother of 3 and my cyber-pal, invited me to her dad's service. She's an ordained minister. As she delivered her remarks about her pop, I realized, this isn't your 17-year old yearbook staffer anymore; this is a polished divinity grad who knows how to structure the story of a life and imbue it with meaning in a way that all of us can grasp. At the reception, I found yet another student, herself a teacher these last 15 years, and her mom, whom I had met at many a parent function as her three kids grew up in our school. It was a delightful funeral, if that is not too oxymoronic, and it was my privilege to connect with these people once again.

Puebla Tacos #2
1819 E. Villa
Pasadena 91104

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Different, Not Less"

HBO's current special, TEMPLE GRANDIN, stars Claire Danes as the noted author, animal husbandry expert, and unlikely heroine for many families affected by autism. I found the film spellbinding on several levels. (You can catch it on HBO by demand.)

As a teacher, I love any uplifting portrayal of the educator who never gives up, one who sees potential in even the most truculent student. Temple was an academic misfit whose love of science was stoked by her boarding school instructor, played by David Strathairn. As a parent, I somehow feel ennobled by a film mom who can follow her instincts and try her best to guide a difficult child to independence. Check: that element is present. As a viewer, I eat up transformation stories, starting with the erasure of a starlet and the utterly persuasive replacement with an indelible character. Claire Danes becomes Temple Grandin down to the very way her teeth bite her words. But the way Temple learns to find her place in our chaotic world is the most moving transformation of all.

Temple was born in 1947. In the 1950s, her now-classic symptoms of autism were attributed to "infantile schizophrenia" or bad maternal bonding. Fortunately, Temple's mother chucked much of the medical advice she was given, such as institutionalizing her child. Instead, I suspect this mother worked powerfully but self-effacingly. Her mother coined the phrase, "different, not less," to influence Temple. Once Temple acquired language, her mother insisted on schooling and engagement. As Temple said, "Mother pounded me with manners and rules." This very pounding helped to equip Temple to function out in the world.

I see so many criss-crosses with the story of Temple Grandin in my own life. Certainly when you work in a continuation school, there is a constant need for pounding manners and rules. Manners begin to instill a sense of dignity among those who've been downtrodden. Manners reduce classroom beefs and prevent fistfights. Furthermore, when I volunteer at Club 21, I'm noticing the steady emphasis of learning rules of civility and engagement, of what constitutes normal social behavior. If you are a teen with Down syndrome, you need to learn that you don't hug everyone you meet; you hug your family. Or if you want to join the social group, we sit up in chairs. We don't sprawl all over the floor during conversations. Most of all, I recall my own mom saying, "Just wait 'til you have a child who's different." Sure enough, I did have a child who has endured many learning challenges through life. How often our family has faced dilemmas and decisions, frustrations and missteps. Not as profound as what Temple and her mother experienced, but enough that I can identify with their story.

When you have a child who is different, your job as a parent becomes even more complex. Average can become your aspiration. As one of the moms at Club 21 beamed not long ago, "The teacher told me my daughter got a normal passing score on her spelling test! Normal!!" We all reveled in laughter at the compliment.

Parents who recognize their children may be different, but not less, become searchers. We don't look for grand-scale miracles, but we are always open to the smaller ones that may come our way. A kind, persistent speech therapist;a classroom teacher willing to adapt; the group leader who teaches social cues--as searching parents, we treasure these finds. Only last year did a friend recommend a great resource new to me: Fuller Seminary's Psychology Department. Dr. Stacy Amano and her team conduct thorough, in-depth studies for children, adolescents, and adults with learning and socialization issues, including Autism Spectrum concerns. Appointments need to be made six or more months in advance and the cost is dear. But the interpretation of results, the comprehensive report, and the valuable referrals that follow make it worthwhile. For us it made all the difference.

Stacy Amano, Ph.D
Fuller Psychological and Family Services
180 N. Oakland Avenue
Pasadena 91101