Rose Shetler is passionate about the students she serves in her work for Goshen (Ind.) Community Schools. She and her husband Clay have two children and three grandchildren.
Being over 60, I had no point of reference nor any desire to learn about the game, but my curiosity was piqued. What made for Alex’s intense fascination with the characters and storyline that typically appeal to little girls? I knew Alex’s reputation and diagnosis, knew he was on the autism spectrum and dealt with ADHD. I was keenly aware that he saw life through a different lens than myself.
That particular day, having time for conversation, I asked Alex what he liked about My Little Pony. What he said left me teary eyed with much for my mind to chew on! As Alex talked about the characters and their particular gifts such as generosity, honesty, etc., his face became animated, alive with delight. When he started assigning characters and their gifts to the teaching staff, I was no longer a casual listener.
“Take for instance Tara, she is Pinkie Pie, the gift of laughter. She’s a great storyteller.”
“Who am I, Alex?” I asked.
“Oh you’re Fluttershy, kindness.” He proceeded with astonishing insight to assign characteristics to each staff person. I left the teacher’s lounge to begin our assigned duties, my mind churning, trying hard to digest what I had just witnessed. My preconceived ideas about autism spectrum limitations were disintegrating.
Alex and I did our job, working together. As we were leaving the cafeteria, one of the staff casually muttered to me under her breath, “That guy really has an attitude!” It was an innocent observation, no malice intended, but I wanted to scream, to plead, “No, stop! If you only knew!” I couldn't explain; confidentiality prohibited it.
Toward the end of that same day, another staff person approached me, complaining about Alex. The portrait painted was not flattering. I found myself getting angry, wanting to shout, “But you don’t understand!” Instead, I just listened, feeling desperate and sad.
On another day, Alex and I were working together on academics. I watched him work out math problems, using a convoluted approach to my way of thinking, yet always arriving at the correct answer. In the moment, I followed an inner prompting to apologize for all the times we “neurotypicals” had misunderstood him. He looked me directly in the eye, saying nothing, just smiling. I knew we had made a connection at that moment: a chink in his protective armor, a crack in my wall of judgmental misunderstanding.
Another day found us again in the teacher’s lounge eating lunch and preparing for our cafeteria duties. As we were waiting for classes to leave and tables to empty, a little girl shyly approached me, “That guy,” she said, pointing to Alex, “He’s cool! He can wipe tables really fast!”
“How about telling him that yourself?” I replied. I took her by the hand, leading her over to Alex. As she spoke to Alex, I watched him. I saw a smile form and then a grin. I saw his body visibly relax; his hands stilled their constant movement. His half grin and focused, controlled movements remained for a long time as we resumed working. I saw again that day the impact of simple words. The girl’s compliment, stated with much sincerity, had power, power to widen the chink in Alex’s protective armor, power to deepen the crack in my wall of misunderstanding.
I am forever changed because I have chosen to immerse myself in the lives of the students I serve. I have chosen to allow them to change who I am, my attitudes, my prejudices, my arrogance. They have challenged much of my belief system, and shown me a different way, a kinder, more accepting way to walk.
I would challenge us all, wherever we find ourselves, to a take a “journey of immersion.” Walk with those who differ from you. Hear their stories. Tell your own. For it is in the walking, telling, and listening that we find commonality, nonjudgmental understanding and grace. It is in that space, if we remain open, that change happens, that walls begin crumbling, and that love and respect show up. It did for me, in an unlikely place and I am grateful.