Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Motherhood on Stage

Last Sunday afternoon, I had the privilege to go here...

...and do this...

...in front of these people...

...with these amazing women.

It was quite an experience.

There were 14 of us who spoke last Sunday in the DC version of Listen to Your Mother. In that photo above, from left to right, you will see: me!, Elena Sonnino, Lindsay Felix, Nicole Crowley, Lis Fogt, Cindy Green, Sue Wagner (at the podium), Stephanie Stearns Dulli (also the director), Sarah Braesch, Chrissy Boylan, Anna Whiston-Donaldson, Monica Sakala, Kate Coveny Hood (also the producer), and Devra Gordon.

It was an incredible experience. Based on what I've heard from people in the audience, it was for them as well. The stories we told ranged from hysterically funny to tragically heartbreaking, and sometimes both within the same reading. It was an emotional couple of hours, that is for sure. It was an honor to share the stage with those 13 other women.

It was also a hell of a lot of fun. I haven't been on a stage like that for years. I will not tell you how many years, because it makes me sad that I could change the "years" in the previous sentence to "decades."

Special thanks have to go out to Stephanie and Kate, who worked so, so hard to put together such an incredible show. I can't even imagine how much work it was. For me, all I had to do was to go on a hard-target search for jewelry featuring squares instead of circles. It was surprisingly difficult, especially when you consider that the square is one of the, like, three main shapes.

Why squares, you ask? Because I read an edited version of my post Not Even Wrong, in which I wrote about square pegs trying to live in a round hole world and I wanted to show solidarity with the square pegs.

The video version will be available on YouTube eventually and I will be sure to post it here. Until then, here is what I said when I stepped to the podium:

I am always apprehensive about parent-teacher conferences. See, my 8-year-old son, Jack, is autistic. He goes to school in a mainstream inclusion third grade classroom and even though I always hear at these conferences that he is very smart, that he is "making sufficient progress to meet goal(s)," I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I never really hear anything that surprises me, but I still feel angst walking in to those meetings.

Last fall’s conference was different. I've noticed Jack struggling more and more this year. I've started to wonder if an inclusion classroom is the best setting for him. I've started to see his autism-specific deficits bumping up against the curriculum. I’ve started to see the social divide between Jack and his peers widening.

Third grade is where it starts getting harder for Jack to slide by just because he's bright, his teacher told me.

Then she blew my mind. She showed me some examples of his work and went through his answers. She showed me one worksheet and said, "I didn't know how to grade this. It's not even wrong, but it's not right."

I gasped when she said those words, when she said, “not even wrong,” See, that is the name of one of my favorite books on autism by author Paul Collins.

That phrase—Not Even Wrong—refers to what was originally a derogatory way of dismissing someone's answer to a problem. It's not right, it's not wrong, but the solver's frame of reference is so far off base that it is not even wrong. It perfectly describes autism and it perfectly describes Jack.

It also perfectly encapsulates what I want for my kid—a place, an existence, where it is okay for him to be not even wrong. Because I love the way Jack's brain works. I love the way autism has given him this unique perspective that lets him come up with some of the most amazing things. I adore his not even wrongness.

I want him to find a way of life where starting from a fundamentally different point of view is an asset to him and where he can be valued for that.

In his book, Collins wrote, "Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It's that you're destroying the peg."

I want to help find more square holes and I am trying to get to the round holes and make them at least trapezoidal before my kids and your kids get hammered into them. I want to spread awareness of both autistic kids and autistic adults. I want this to be a world where it is okay to be a square peg without having to pretend to be round.

I don't want to change Jack. I want to change the world.

A few weeks before my conference, I started trying to change the world by changing Jack's class. I went in, armed with nine pages of notes, and I told Jack's classmates about autism.

I told them how each one of them is different and how they can be a friend to Jack and other kids with autism. I told them to go forth and be different themselves, and to show other kids that is okay to be different. I listened to them at the end of my talk when they told me, "There is a kid on my soccer team with autism," and "I have an uncle who doesn't talk," and I knew that some of them were getting it.

Not all of those kids are going to make it. They will not all stand up for the different kids and adults that they run across in their lives. But some of them will. And some of them, even if they don't act on it now, just might remember about Jack and difference later in life when they come across someone who acts differently. And they might help that square peg find a hole that isn't round.

At Jack’s conference, his teacher told me the story of a short passage that Jack had to write, which would get a grade of 0 to 3 points. His original sentence earned him a zero. After a long process of reading his passage to the class, being prompted for more, and adding information, Jack finally earned his three.

The teacher has a Hall of Fame wall where passages that are really, really good and earn threes get hung up. Jack's passage was undoubtedly not up to the standards of what was already posted there. But you know what Jack did? He went and got some tape and he put his paper, on which he'd crossed out "0" and written "3," and he put it up there all by himself. He knew that he had worked hard and that, for him, his work was Hall of Fame worthy. And the teacher made a square hole for him and let it stay.

The world is slow to change. We have been hammering square pegs into round holes for so long that it takes a huge leap to put down the hammers. I'm hopeful that I got to some of those kids before they even pick up the hammers. And I hope that some of those kids told their parents. And I hope that some of you hear this and tell your kids. And I hope that we, all of us together, CAN change the world.


Thank you, Kate and Stephanie, for letting me send this message out to more people. Thank you for hearing what I wrote and finding it worthwhile. Thank you for putting me in your show, which was so precious to you. Thank you.

Plus! Links!

Last week I forgot to send you over to the Wheaton Patch for my White Knuckle Parenting column, which I called The Magic Number. In it, I share the exact moment I knew I was done having kids.

This week, I wrote a thank you note to all the mothers out there.

Also, has anyone else noticed how hard it is to type the word "knuckle"? I almost misspell it every single damn week.


  1. I loved this post the first time around and still love it! Congrats for getting the message out.

  2. cheairs frank gravesMay 8, 2012 at 8:30 PM

    So proud of you!!!!! I am like Elaine....I loved this post the first time too!!!! Can't wait to see it on facebook!!! Again just so proud of you!!!!

  3. it was an honor to be part of this w/you!

  4. I loved the original post, too. Thank you for sharing it again...What an amazing group of women with whom you shared the stage. Wow...can't wait to see the Youtube videos!

  5. What an awesome experience! The passage you read is beautiful. I'm sure you were amazing delivering it!

  6. I was right! Such a fantastic piece of writing deserves such an audience. I couldn't possibly stand up in front of so many people and do what you did. Thank you for being brave enough to do it on behalf of so many parents. Spectacular!

  7. And also, my square peg got hammered in art class yesterday and ended up crying. It broke my heart.

  8. Sounds like it was a wonderful experience for everyone.  Congratulations!

    I can't wait to see some of these productions when they go to YouTube.

  9. I just love your blog and your perspective on things. I am so sorry I missed the performance. I had long standing prior engagements. But I hear there will be video this summer and another production next year!

  10. Your kids are just so lucky to have you on their side.

  11. You are amazing, Jean.  I am so proud to be your friend.

  12. i can't wait to see you on youtube.


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