04 August 2008

The Particles of Oppression

This post is in response to this post by ballastexistenz.

I don't remember the specific moment when I realized the pattern of what was going on. It's mostly consisting of a lot of little realizations, which have been incrementally coalescing into a broader understanding of discrimination, how it applies to me and to others.

One thing I remember real clearly, though, was when I was in grade 7, unsuccessfully pleading to the counselor to let me write an incident report or to discipline the bullies for yet another assault, after all this time of it being blamed on my "odd" appearance, resulting from everything from autism to seizures to lacking designer jeans. And as she started lecturing me on the importance of attending class, I saw in the adjacent room that a girl, one of the very social, non-disabled, girls, was entering the office and asking for an incident report, and handed one right away. Being given the not-so-subtle threat of institutionalization, I saw very clearly that I was fighting in the ring with my hands tied behind my back.

Also that year, around the same time, I was in the office while the counselor talked to a teacher about a student they suspected to be autistic. I had been shading the windows of a building on newsprint, and they talked about his main interest and how they were hesitant of how to approach the parents (they also used his name, though I don't remember and wouldn't breach confidence anyway, unlike the counselor), and I remember stopping what I was doing, and saying "Autistic - that's like what I am" and they continued talking, as if I weren't there or neither of us mattered. I suspected it was the latter.

That year I got the distinct impression, that to them I was naught but a test score, a number whose value had suddenly dropped. It shook me to realize, how they were concerned far more about the financial impact of my absence from school, yet were perfectly content to have me warehoused in offices, and when in class or outside, to be constantly attacked physically and emotionally, and then blamed me for my behavior, both what was naturally my behavior and that which was induced by the circumstances, and say that this was justification enough to exclude me not only from school, but potentially permanently from society.

My parents got calls, day in, day out, about my "bizarre" behavior - mostly autistic behavior and catatonic-type stuff, with sporadic seizures, and talk of medication and institutions pulling on my mind and leading me to pace the floor more vigorously and at later advancing hours with each passing day.

I don't think I told anybody yet about how often I was just sitting in this office or that room the whole school day, or most of it. It wasn't a place for me to "calm down" or anything, and basically had a consistently elevated level of stress, which would spike at particular points, such as pending assault or the talk of the counselor.

At that point, I had little insight as to what exactly about me constituted something "autistic", but I had a definite sense that I was being treated unfairly for these things, even if I couldn't pinpoint them with words, and thus couldn't communicate well about them.

That is something that has been highly deceptive about me - my use of large vocabulary, writing skills, and the fact that I didn't have significant speech delay, hides the fact that I do often have difficulty finding the words and being able to describe important things, even when these fall under the category of what is usually considered simple. "I need a pencil", for instance, at age 10 was a phrase I needed a lot of time to be able to get out, but at another moment I could recite a 10-minute rant about things that happened during the school day, because I had spent the time during the school day to come up with and memorize the words to make this rant.

This is what I think has to do with the decreased reliability of speech for me over the last 10 years, even though communication is much better for me now. When I was 7, or 9, for instance, I knew most of the academic material being taught in class, so for one thing I could afford to "zone out" while constructing scripts and mapping out potential replies and replies to replies and replies to replies to replies, but not only that, I could also come up with the words and then memorize them.

One thing very different between 10 years ago and now: then - rote memory was good, maybe even excellent; now - rote memory is very unreliable.

That, and being in high school and college classes, even for classes I considered relatively easy and familiar in terms of the material taught, rarely was I so familiar with the content that I could afford to not pay attention to four hours of instruction (really, in first grade I really couldn't afford it either, but at that time I didn't care about my grades).

In fact, the only time that I had the luxury to "zone out" to the degree that I did in elementary school, was in high school chemistry, which for me was a review, as 2 years earlier I had studied AP Chemistry books and learned the material for the whole year in 2 weeks - though unfortunately the chemistry class did not cover thermodynamics much at all, which was a topic that I hadn't studied on my own).

In that year I took chemistry, I had been absent a lot (as with most years of public school), and when I got back to school (after weeks, almost a month being absent), there was a chemistry test. We had a substitute that day, so as he handed out the tests, I used my alphasmart to type that I had been absent for the whole chapter (which, while all the material up to that point had been stuff I'd already covered, I didn't know that for sure as I hadn't been in class to know what the test was about).

The substitute said, "Take it anyway".

Now this was quite the predicament. While I could theoretically take it anyway, and had a fair chance of doing well on it, what if it was all stuff I'd never covered before? Then, the teacher would have to make up an entirely new test for me to make up. I started typing on the alphasmart, to clarify this point, and also the fact that I had been absent the whole duration that the chapter was being taught, and the other students (as well as my absence record on the attendance sheet) verified this.

He told took the test back and told me to  write an e-mail to the teacher. So I started writing it. He told me to stop typing, and I froze for a minute, then started typing an explanation of why I was typing.

After a couple minutes he called me to his desk (which I didn't notice he was talking to me until some students around me pointed it out, as he hadn't used my name).

I went up and showed him what I typed. He asked me to spell my name. I did. Then I did some typing, and asked why.

He said it was a detention slip for disrespecting a teacher. I typed "If I may ask, in what way did I disrespect you?" and he said "you didn't listen." I typed about how I am autistic and often don't respond when my name is called, much less when my name isn't used, and that sometimes I need to type things, or I can't get words out, and that when I typed after he told me not to that it was to type this explanation of why it's necessary for me to type.

(Also keep in mind that this was my first year having an alphasmart, so I was not used to defending my right to communicate, whereas most times before this I had had no choice but to remain silent.)

Then at lunch I started writing my frustration about this, and asked a friend in AP European History about the iternerary for the day, and she said that we had a unit test, and a substitute, but she named the substitute she'd had, who was a lady most agreed to be nice.

I walked into AP European History next and guess who was sitting at the desk with the pile of tests?

You guessed it. The same guy as from chemistry.

There are lots of forms that oppression can take, and to those who are so accustomed to it that it is sewed into the daily fabric of their lives it can, at its mildest forms, be taken as annoyance, at its serverer forms, be taken as a "bad day".

The most important lesson to be taken away from the observation of these particles of oppression, though, is that each of them, regardless of size or impact, constitutes an increment of oppression coalescing with the other particles of injustice, however major or minor.


scotia3 said...

eloquent and moving. i hope your situation improves and that people learn to understand your autism. I admire your writing skill.

geosaru said...