Finding My Passion for Teaching

Dear Phoenix,

There is a certain kind of giddy I get when I think about the students I teach.  Every one of them brings to me a renewed sense of the world around me.

When I first started teaching, I worked as an after school music tutor.  After a few sessions, I knew that teaching was misunderstood as a profession in the United States.  This certainly was not a job for “those who can’t.”  Curious on how I could expand my approach, I started the way all of us did before there was google – I asked more experienced teachers for advice.

One afternoon at Waffle House (a cheap diner in Atlanta that was the frequent meeting place before Starbucks arrived) I met with a teacher whom I had respected for many years.  I listened as she complained about difficult students, red tape, problems with parents, and lack of resources.  She had recently retired and was excited about walking away from nearly 30 years of teaching.  At the end of our talk, I asked her if she had any positive advice for me as a new teacher.  She said, “Children are empty water glasses, and you are the water pitcher.  It is your job to fill all the glasses and keep them full until they leave your class.  That is all you can do.”

I thanked her for her input, left Waffle House, and cried all the way home.

How was it that teaching was seen as an exhausting, one way dump of information, and children were seen as empty?  True, I may have over-extended the analogy as it applies to most others, but in this scenario it seemed accurate.  To this teacher, her work was not much more than just an assembly line.  Fill them with facts, most likely by rote, make sure they retain it, and then move them along.

I carried this experience with me for many years, and backed away from teaching.  Being only 16 years of age I had not completed my own education, much less had the experience to know why her water glass analogy bothered me so much.  I knew it didn’t feel right, but I had no way to articulate an alternative approach.

It wasn’t until I re-united with my mentor some years later that I was able to understand what I wanted to do as a teacher.  My mentor, Ms. Stefanie, had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted me to step in as her substitute teacher.  I had been removed raising 2 young children, my first child born when I was 21 years of age, which took up most of my time.  But I did have the occasional student or two that came to my home for lessons.  Despite my withdrawal, Stefanie reached out to me to support her and her students.

We met at a local pasta and pizza place near her home,  Bounding with excitement over getting to visit with my favourite person on earth, I found it difficult to focus on anything.  In fact, I got lost on my way there because I started to daydream instead of following the mapquest directions I had printed out.

The conversation started like we had just seen each other yesterday.  We laughed and reminisced about my early days as a student with her.  We talked about my children which she carefully made segway into a discussion about my isolation.  I told her I missed music, but I have a feeling she already knew.  She made her proposal about teaching for her, and seemed confident that I was the right person for the job.

My mood fell.  I was juggling feelings of inadequacy and questioned her faith in me.  I shared with her the water glass analogy I had heard when I was a teenager and how much it bothered me.  She stayed positive and calm, and gave me the reassuring smile that said everything was about to get better.  Then she said, “Laura.  You think about everything on your own terms, and through your own eyes.  Why should this be any different?”

She gave me a few moments to digest what she had said.  Then, she gave me the most powerful piece of advice in my teaching career.  She placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “You need to come to the city and teach for me.  This way the students can remind you why you love music, just as you did for me.”

In two sentences, my entire perspective on teaching was unbounded.  The water glass analogy had bothered me so much because it was one way and removed of passion.  I saw students as learning partners.  I would be learning as much from them as they would from me and in that exchange, we would both feel a deep love for music. Though Stefanie succumbed to cancer shortly after that conversation, I can relive it in my imagination as though it happened yesterday.

As I enter my 25th year as a teacher, I continue to stay true to Stefanie’s words.  Each lesson is an exciting adventure with the student, sharing our love and passion for music.  I share everything I know and everything I am, placing myself in a state of vulnerability, rather than authority.  In that moment, when the student connects with me, it is then we both realize life has a soundtrack and we are playing along.

Until tomorrow,

Laura (snamuh)

The Story Behind River Oasis

The Story Behind River Oasis

Dear Phoenix,

Did I ever tell you about why I wrote the shadow song, River Oasis?

I struggle with knowing who my friends are.  People say they are my friends, but I sometimes get confused with the term friends. Everyone seems to have their own definition of what a friend is, so I just really never know, until a confirmation event.

Confirmation events are small moments when it is revealed to me what a person means when they call me their friend.  In one instance recently, I learned I had a friend when she told my parents how she felt about me.  Her words to my parents, and watching my parents react (something I am quite familiar with now) confirmed that she and I had an equal meaning of friend.

Back when I was living in Atlanta, I was having trouble with your fire.  I know you love me, Phoenix, but that was just a rough time.  I was spending too much time isolated, which peaked one New Years Eve night as I cried myself to sleep.  This really bad night taught me that I could no longer wait for confirmation events.  I needed to create moments for them to occur.

My love of the outdoors and the amazing shadow songs could set the stage, so long as the places we met didn’t compete with the shadow song of the person I needed to understand.  A system of parks along the Chattahoochee River worked perfectly.  The river was energetic, but soothing, erasing out the intense pressure created by the inharmonious relationships that buzzed around Atlanta.  It was present, but not loud, yet loud enough to cancel out the city noises.

I met a friend there, curious if he really was my friend, at a coffee shop right on the river.  It was warm that day, but the cool water created a refreshing mist that was carried on the back of the breeze.  The river song would swirl around us only filling in the moments of silence, but when he would allow himself to be open, his song was the soloist and the river his orchestra.  It worked, and way better than I had imagined.  Within the first visit, I got my confirmation event – a moment of honesty and vulnerability that showed me I was trusted.

One by one I starting inviting friends there to listen to their songs, and look for those moments of friendship clarity. When I started recording pieces for my album, it seemed only fitting that I should honour the river that brought peace to my friendships.

Thanks and love always to you, dear Phoenix,

Laura (Snamuh)

 

Listen to My Voice

Listen to My Voice

Listen to My Voice

In an interview with NPR’s A Closer Look, my son, Jacob, and I talk about living with autism. During our interview we talk about many aspects of our lives, but one theme is reoccurring – a sense of belonging.  Jacob and I both speak of not having a place to fit into every day society, and how our particular brand of autism keeps us alienated from both the special needs world and the neurotypical world.

 

Not Autistic Enough

Not Autistic Enough

I have given at least 100 presentations on living with autism to crowds of all sizes.  My most requested presentation is entitled Let Me Fall.  I begin with a preview of a documentary made about me called The Shadow Listener, and then introduce myself as being autistic.  

I talk about growing up with autism, undiagnosed, presenting my struggles and my accomplishments.  With a mix of talk, video, and pictures, I show how I couldn’t read until I was 9, and how I couldn’t tie my shoe until I was 14; I talk how I struggled in school and relationships.  The first half of my talk shows all the challenges parents and teachers have learned to recognize as common in autistic people, and they confirm this with nods and verbal confirmations as I present.

Then, the presentation shifts.  I give attendees ideas for supporting autistic people, and helping us reach our fullest potential, and then show my short film Let Me Fall.  As the presentation comes to a conclusion, I focus on the positive aspects of autism, my accomplishments, and how presuming competence was the springboard of my future.

Following my presentations, most people tell me how I have helped them to see autism in a new light, feeling inspired.  I sign books, and answer questions, trying to remain patient with even the most uneducated attendee.  I am not there to make people aware of autism.  I am there to help people learn to accept autism.

Then enter the doubters…

To them, I am not autistic enough because I don’t display stereotypical autistic behaviours.  Many expect to see a mostly non-functional adult, living on government funds or welfare, and who is happily working a minimum wage job doing some repetitive task.  They expect me to say inappropriate things, lack empathy and compassion, move with oddities with my body.  But I am not that person.  

IMG_0129.png

I get frustrated when people see a child having a tantrum or meltdown, and they assume that person must be autistic.  Somehow our society has inexplicably linked behaviour and appearance with competence, believing that one understands if they “appear” to understand by behaving in such a manner as to fit a predefined model of intelligence. The underestimation of the abilities of autistic people is a deep rooted issue, marginalizing a group of people who cannot always get the space and time needed to speak for themselves.  

IMG_0128

Autistic people whose autistic traits are not outwardly obvious are unfairly diminished from all fronts.  We face having our accomplishments overlooked, our autism minimized, and our experiences ignored as we fail to play out a sensationalistic narrative of overcoming.  We are just not autistic enough to have struggled, and not neurotypical enough to be included.

My experience with autism is just as valid as the next, even if I do not experience autism the way society has temporarily defined it.  

Not Autistic Enough (links will become live as posts are made)

The Tiny Rowboat

Coexisting with my neurological roommate, autism.

While traveling with friends this past week, I got to visit a lakeside park in Toronto.  We walked down a gravel path and onto a small beach that was nestled into a sheer rock cliff. The clean, crisp strength of the rock gently draws the eyes around the cove, until they are lifted by the trees to the bristly skyline balanced on the edge of the horizon.  Drawn by the sounds of the lake slapping the coastline, I stopped at the edge of a rock jetty, faced the wind, extended my arms, and opened my soul to its song.

The energy of the wind was excited and quick, like a herd of wild horses galloping atop the water.  The lake’s surface was reaching up to tickle the wind in playful contrast to the deep, sombre lake bed that rested below.  Though my feet felt as if they were slowly sinking into the rock, the crown of my head was lifted towards the sky by the dusty, warm colours of the sunset.  It was a wonderful moment, not metered by the impending sunset, but by the rhythm of the shadows.

rowboat-756934_1920My autism is my strength, and a powerful piece in my life, that allows me to view the world as an acoustic tapestry.  Yet, I cannot escape the fact that my autism is also a tiny rowboat, traveling the sea alone amidst a world of ocean liners and yachts.  To overcome the elements and travel the waterways by rowing alone, is a way of life that requires tenacity and boundless energy.  But when I tie up my little row boat in the harbour, most people would rather I go elsewhere.  I would imagine this is the way the homeless must feel.

Only a handful of times in my life has anyone wanted to join me in my rowboat.  At first, the boat feels crowded and heavy, but the warmth of company quickly overcomes the challenges.  Over time I slowly let my guard down, and suddenly the tiny rowboat seems like ample space for others to join.  Sometimes, they even help me row.  Perhaps my connection of friendship is expressed in highly unusual ways, but it always feels as if the connection is deep, and understood.  Riding in my rowboat quickly fills with laughter, intellectualism, and an ever deepening human connection.  A simple beauty.

Inevitably, just before I completely let my guard down, others grow weary of my tiny rowboat.  The reasons tend to vary, but usually follow conclusions built on a partial truth.  The most frustrating part of coexisting with autism is the pure fact that inside does not always equal outside, intent does not always equal action.  Fighting my body’s constant mistranslation of my mind is exhausting, and often means I have to explain my intent after fielding the emotional reaction of the other person.  I am sure it is also exhausting for those who try to love me, as a friend or otherwise.

Very few understand that I am a vibrant individual who happens to coexist with autism.

Translating myself is the most difficult aspect of my autism, at least internally, but there is something that is worse; fighting other’s misinterpretations of me.  Very few understand that I am a vibrant individual who happens to coexist with autism.  Without the complication autism brings me, I am an extrovert, social being, who loves adventure and meeting new people.  I am neurologically conjoined with autism, who is an introvert, introspective being, who prefers routine and observing people from a distance.  Since autism is a neurological roommate, the battle between traits that are diametrically opposed to one another requires internal negotiations for peace on a daily basis.  I cannot simply ignore what I do not like.

However, autism is not defined this way to the general public.  People learn autism is a diagnosis, a disease, and a creature that somehow devours a personality.  I am often greeted with expressions of shock and disbelief when others hear me state that I love people.  If I have autism, must it mean I do not like people?  Must it mean I prefer to be alone?  No.  It simply means I have trouble predicting human social behaviour and reacting to it in context, in a socially appropriate way.

Autism does not make me a static individual who remains defined by the rigid diagnostic criteria.

Even people I consider close to me, who are often on cue about my intentions and conclusions, can be dead wrong about me.  One part of me that even my closest friends have difficulty comprehending is that I do break patterns – I dothe-fog-warning change.  Autism does not make me a static individual who remains defined by the rigid diagnostic criteria.

I am forever conjoined with autism.  The prospect of a cure, or any act that would permanently sever me from autism, means that a part of me dies.  As with any conflict, internal or otherwise, euthanizing the opposition is not the answer.  I wish to make peace with my autism so that I can benefit from the myriad of positive traits autism brings to my life.  As my needs change, as my life evolves, my peace negotiations move to different areas.  I believe that it also means I work to change my brain, much like Rudiger Gamm reallocated areas of his brain to do math.

To the outside observer, the most shocking thing I can do as a person with autism is change, and that should not be the case.

To the outside observer, the most shocking thing I can do as a person with autism is change, and that should not be the case.  My personal evolution is exciting, and my conclusions can be fluid.  Though I know the concise way of communicating this is often lost in translation, I can only be responsible to a point.

The rigidity of the observer often constricted by the diagnostic criteria is part of the issue, but more often it is the binary concept of normal and abnormal that gets in the way; If I am not autistic, I must be normal, or if I am not normal, I must be abnormal.  As a society, we often fail to see the complex scale between normality and abnormality.  This becomes most frustrating as my growth is masked by this conclusion. Small gains in my peace negotiations between autism and the person also known as me are misinterpreted, misunderstood, or remain completely unobserved since they are neither autistic nor typical.  It is as if I am the modern day Chang and Eng.

The lack of this specific type of recognition is painful for me.  This has nothing to do with seeking approval, nor is it set in my expectations of others. Toronto_peace Recognition is part of the system built by society as being the marker for progress and success.  But instead of recognition, my growth is often bookended by long periods of rowing alone.

So today, I am back to negotiating peace.  My rowboat is filled only with the shadows of music, gently laid over my lap to keep me warm, as I continue searching for adventure.  Next time you see a rickety little rowboat, seemingly out of place, docked in the quay, perhaps you will think of my story.  Just remember, the strength of the rower is never reflected in the construction of the rowboat.

 

Struggling to Understand an Over-Politicized Nation

Struggling to Understand an Over-Politicized Nation

Image
My grandfather holding the flag at the very first Flag Day. An Italian immigrant, he loved being an American.

I do not usually talk about politics, but I find myself in a precarious position today. Many issues we face as humans have somehow become political, when they are ethical, personal, or simply in regard to human survival. I believe these issues are; the arts, the environment, education, and health. We as a society seem to have lost the ability to discuss these particular topics, without a party slogan, and without thinking that there are only two sides to every issue – Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat. My feelings on human issues that have been politicized deepened today when an article dropped in my news box about the new open carry law in Georgia.  Though I am a pacifist, I have remained respectful that others do not see the world the same way I do, understanding that guns to some are essential to their way of life. I do not understand why the freedom to own was not enough and that we must have the freedom to be battle-ready at all times, in any place.  I feel this new law leaves the political arena, and imposes itself on the health and well-being of others (health being one of the issues I feel is a human issue).  My fear of co-existing in a state I have called home for 37 years has increased exponentially with this law, filling me with anxiety.  After a 10 year hiatus, I even experienced a night terror this week.

This feeling about the new gun law poked at my thoughts and feelings on the other issues that have been politicized.  Issues that have been tortured in the political arena, to the point that the issue itself is obscured by a party stance. It made me think about how politicization has perhaps suffocated the arts (especially in education), turned schools into testing labs, allowed us to blatantly pollute our world, and further restricted healthcare to poor Americans just to express ones opposition of the Affordable Healthcare Act. While many people are stepping onto the shores of anarchy, I ask: What is it you wish to accomplish? Are we really fighting to defend a way of life that allows all citizens to be created equal? Are we making history of which future generations will be proud?  Are we loving our neighbor?

It is in this moment that my autism stands like a stark, cold edifice in the center of my mind.  I get overrun with feelings that conflict with my logic – How is it I can love humanity so deeply while simultaneously being highly annoyed by people?  I cannot understand why society spends millions upon millions of dollars searching for a way to cure me, labeling me as lacking empathy, while they who cast this upon the ASD population are drowning in their own opposition to anything that does not benefit only them.  Is that not the very definition of apathy?

The world whispers to me in beautiful waves of sound.  The music of the human soul, and the music of the earth’s soul in harmonious counterpoint, express an amazing love for one another.  But people are growing increasingly deaf to this musical dance in exchange for the cacophony of human discord.  And to what end?  What we create here on earth we cannot take with us beyond the grave, so why only serve ourselves?  Besides, the only thing we can really do for ourselves is create memories of us in the minds of others.  We cannot control our death.  All else we do is for others – for humans, for animals, for trees, all life in and beyond our immediate scope – doing for them by way of generosity, love, and the types of innovation that leave a better world than was left by our ancestors. Perhaps I am being over analytical, and I do realize that my honesty here has made me a target for a lashing by those who oppose what I value.  I suppose I will have to just accept that.

I will keep my autism and carry it with me forever, as I would rather live this life misunderstood and tyrannized, than to waste my life pursuing an illusory need to be justified.  I will sing.  I will dance.  I will love others.  I just won’t be so quiet about it anymore.

Music Saved My Life

Music Saved My Life

I have had some time to look over what this group is doing for the arts. The Creative Coalition understands the value of the arts in society and in education.

Many of you know I had a private violin teacher whom I adored, but I was also trained in the public school orchestra program under a group of very talented and dedicated teachers.  Funding was always an issue.  It was the collective efforts of the teachers and the parents that brought in funds to allow us to delve into our art.  The Friends of the Orchestra, as it came to be called, brought in the funds to allow us to form chamber groups, bring in additional professionals, purchase new scores, and to have us professionally recorded.  We also got to travel, accepting an invitation to perform as the opening act for the televised Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

This was our group – a group of kids in grades 8th-12th.  With the exception of a lucky few, these students were taught to play in the middle and high school orchestra program.  We weren’t perfect, but we loved what we did.

Growing up with autism (but undiagnosed until age 27), school was a torture chamber I was forced to visit daily.  It was the orchestra that provided solace, direction, and kept me breathing on till the next sunrise.

Music, quite literally, saved my life.

A great tragedy today is that we see little value in the arts, especially when it comes to public education.  This group benefitted from a strong community, which overcame the shortcomings of the school system.  Will we ever see this again?

At least the people with The Creative Coalition  (http://thecreativecoalition.org) are trying, and you can too.  Don’t let the arts die in education.  Save the arts, and you just might save a life.

 

Happy New Year!

Snowflakes 2014

IMG_0942

All that could have gone wrong with this film, did. My mic stopped working, forcing me to replace the violin with a midi instrument on the soundtrack. Then, my camera failed, so I had to film the entire thing with my iPhone. Finally, my aging laptop caused iMovie to crash 16 times, and made the exporting take 2 hours. I hope to afford new equipment this year.

Nevertheless, here is my latest message.

Happy New Year!

 

The Shadow Song of an Autism Christmas

Guest blog post for Awe in Autism

childhood16I loved Christmas as a kid. The excitement of gifts was a small part of it, but what I really liked was the music, the yummy family cookies, and the Christmas tree. There are so many fond memories of Christmas with family. My dad would string the hundreds of glistening, white lights and then we would decorate the tree together. Once we finished, or at least once we grew tired of the activity, we would retire to the kitchen with my grandmother, Bobbymom, to eat her yummy sugar cookies we called sandtarts. It really is a time of year filled with great memories.

As a child with a unique perspective on life, a perspective later named autism, I had my own quirks and issues to deal with at the holidays. Most everyone knows that I have music going on in my head all the time; songs that hear in everything I see which I call Shadow Songs. You can imagine that a phenomenon inside me that is triggered by what I see would be extra stimulated during the holiday season. It was much like having 10 radios on 10 different stations playing in my head at the same time.

To cope, I would play non-stop Christmas records like Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas Album, or the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer story I had on record. I even remember a part in Rudloph where a helicopter would land at the North Pole, which was a sound that scared me, so I would hide under my table until that part was over. My mother also had a fantastic collection of Christmas records that we enjoyed listening together. My favorite all time Christmas song from her collection was It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas by Johnny Mathis.

There were a few songs that frightened me, or really made me worry. I had difficulty understanding that the words to the songs were made up. If a song about Christmas was made, I assumed someone heard it like I hear music, and that they only spoke the truth. The first year I heard I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, I recall being very angry at Santa. That year, the visit to see a department store Santa was stirring up mixed feelings inside me. I know it took Santa a few minutes to get me to cough up a Christmas list that year. All I could think was, “You crummy weird man who kisses mommies!”

Though Santa wasn’t my only issue at Christmas. I couldn’t understand why some stuffy headed kid wanted a Hippopotamus. Was this the same kid that only wanted two front teeth last year? Furthermore, why was some guy named Jack biting your nose while you roasted chestnuts? Or why on earth would anyone want to put fleece on the dog (Feliz Navidad)? How was I supposed to know they were singing in Spanish?

Like every kid, I was driven crazy wondering what was in each gift wrapped box, even if it wasn’t for me. That curiosity was usually followed by the anxiety that there could be something awful in that box. What if I got itchy socks, or another one of those weird woven sweaters that I would have to try on and parade around the living room while everyone touched the arms of the sweater saying, “it’s so soft”? My grandfather, whom I called Bobbydad, was always ready with the perfect gift – cash. He would call us up one by one, and hand us one-dollar bills that equaled our current age, plus one to grow on. You always knew what you were getting from him, and exactly how much. It was the best part of the family gift exchange.

Christmas morning always brought the best feelings. I’d open my eyes, still unable to think or feel anything. Then, a feeling of exhilaration would build in the following 30 seconds between waking, and realizing it was Christmas morning. It was all under control now. I knew everyone would be tired from the festivities the night before, so they would be quiet and calm. I also knew exactly what to expect. We would get oranges in our stockings, open our gifts, and then spend the day in our fleece pajamas watching Christmas movies and playing with our new toys. But that wasn’t even my favorite part yet. Among the gentle clatter of ripping paper, and gasps of excitement, there would be a calm. In that calm, in that single moment of silence, while everyone pondered with smiles on their faces, a beautiful sound would play. Like a whisper from the warm glow of joy, I would get to hear the Christmas shadow song.

Even though I know there is the chaos that surrounds the holiday season, I surf through it on the wave of holiday music. I remain calm, and I smile, because I know I will be given a gift so pure and honest, made up of the collective energy of kindness and generosity. That moment that rises from the calm; the shadow song of an autism Christmas.