“Perfect”…Or, What I Wish I Said To The Mother Who Commented On My Son

A number of years ago, while my SPD son was in the midst of his therapy and regaining his hearing, I took him to an amusement park wearing a “child leash” attached to his backpack. I was always against child leashes, but I relented for his safety, so he wouldn’t get lost because if he did, he had no skills to help himself be located. A mother looked down at him and whispered a comment to her daughter regarding my son just loud enough for me and my daughter to hear……Here is what I wish I said to her……

I’d never put your brother on a leash!”

I hear you judge my parental decisions

And attempts to keep my son safe.

 

How lucky for you

That your child is perfect.

Perfect hearing.

Perfect behavior.

Perfect neuro-chemistry.

 

How fortunate

That your child was born

Without imperfection.

Without disability.

Without anything to cause you concern

Or the need to provide extra security

To keep him safe.

 

How nice for you

That you will never know

The fear that your child

Will not be able to help himself

Cannot communicate his need

Cannot hear you call his name.

 

It must be comforting for you

To judge other people

To believe your way

Is the only way.

To offer advice

Unsolicited

Passively

Aggressively

Because your child has been raised

Perfectly.

 

Does it give you confidence?

Joy?

To know that I envy you

Not needing to secure your child to keep him safe

Not needing special passes to avoid crowds

Or quiet areas to de-escalate

Or devices and sign language to communicate

Not having to tell ride operators to look for your signal to stop the ride if needed

Not enduring the stares and judgements of others.

Being able to enjoy your perfect child

Without fear or complication?

 

Have you calmed a sensory meltdown?

Explained your child to a group of children?

Taught yourself sign language?

Applied for handicap access?

Been up all night providing deep pressure to muscle joints?

Counted seizures?

How good for you

That you have not.

 

I guess that makes you the perfect person

To comment

Stare

And judge

My non-perfect

Son.

 

 

 

 

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The Day I Met An Angel

I’m not the type of person to trumpet my spiritual beliefs from the highest mountaintop, flood social media with memes and online requests for declarations of others beliefs, or even argue religious and spiritual issues in the presences of others. I have researched and studied many religious belief systems, from Wicca to Buddhism to Tao to UU to just general New Age, and one thing I have discovered is that there is a “higher power,” a connection to the Universe, a mystical and unexplained energy that brings things to us. Call it God, call it fate, call it Karma, but it’s there.

I encountered it the day I met an angel.

A real angel.

Laugh if you will, but she was an angel.

It was 4 years ago today. My son was sick and had been for several months. His pediatrician, however, claimed she could find no illness. He exhibited the symptoms of an ear infection – runny nose, holding his ears, low grade temp, irritability – since he was just under a year old, but, with the exception of one round of antibiotics 6 months prior, she said my son’s ears were clear. When he started not responding to sounds, ceased his language growth, and started making strange guttural sounds we knew something was wrong, but we got no support from his doctor. Four days prior, just days before his 2nd birthday, I took him in once again with the same array of symptoms, and once again, I was told his ears were clear. When I asked about his behaviors, she referred me to Early Intervention, stating he probably had a delay or a disability and that they would help. The fact he had delays was obvious, but once again, I left the office feeling I wasted my time. Frustrated and angry, I tried to grapple with the impending knowledge that something was truly wrong with my son.

I spent the next few days crying. I trusted his doctor, although my gutt was telling me something wasn’t adding up. I began to believe maybe she was right, that my son’s problems wasn’t physical but more cognitive. For any parent, this realization is overwhelming, but given the months of going back and forth to the doctors with no answers I was completely drowning in pain and confusion. What was wrong with my son?

I was in a completely desperate state. I had no clue how to proceed. Looking back, I should have pressed it with his doctor, should have sought additional opinions, should have gone with my gutt, but I was so upset that I couldn’t rationalize anything. I didn’t know where to turn……

I don’t know how I ended up there, but I ended up at the church down the street from my house. To this day, I don’t recall why I went, how I got there, or what I was doing prior to my visit. I know it was 4 days after that doctor’s visit, I know my daughter was with me, and I know I was crying constantly. I remember my daughter asking me why we were there, and I just told her I had to talk to God.

It was dark out, although I cannot recall how late. My daughter and I went into the lower church where people went to pray. I knelt down, and prayed for guidance, for insight, for help for my son. I prayed for answers. I was crying, not quite sobbing, but definitely upset. My eyes were raw from days of tearful emotion, my color was pale, my nose was red. I must have looked a mess to any bystander.

It was then a woman approached me in the pew.

“You look like you need a shoulder,” she said.

I looked at her and couldn’t hold back. I cried, sobbed, on this strangers shoulder. She stroked my hair and gave words of comfort that it was going to be ok. I just cried.

When I lifted my head up, she asked me if I wanted to share what was wrong, and all I could say is, “My son.” I told her nothing more. Not his age, not his situation. Not that I knew he was sick – that something was wrong – and his doctor can’t seem to identify it. Not that he didn’t seem to be able to respond to sound, that he had stopped talking, that he seemed in pain.

“God is telling me to tell you that he will fix what is broken,” she said. “He will make your son whole.”

These words brought such comfort to me that I sobbed again, this time out of happiness. Sure, it sounded very vague, very much like what you might hear in a fortune cookie, but it was just what I needed to hear at that time. I had some hope, a renewed faith, that my son would be healed.

We spoke a bit more – I don’t recall the topic or what was said – and she soon resumed her original seat. My daughter and I left the church.

“Who was that, Mommy?” my daughter asked as we walked to the car.

“An angel,” I replied. “God sends them sometimes when we need them most.”

“Where were her wings?” my 4 year old asked.

“No, He sends them in different ways. Sometimes as ordinary people, sometimes as a whisper in your ear that you barely hear, sometimes as a sign, but he sends them.” I wasn’t making it up. It was always my belief that we get the answers we need when we need them most. How the message is delivered varies, but it’s always there. Call it fate if you will, but it happens. And this, I felt, was one of those moments.

That night, my son was in extreme pain, holding his ears, crying inconsolably, hanging his head upside down. As he was rolling on the floor screaming, I called his pedi, but instead got the on-call doctor. She heard my son in the background and told me to bring him in right away. It was nearly 9 at night, but she said she’d open her office for use. “He needs help right away,” I recall her saying.

It took her one look in his ears to have our answers – not only were his ears infected, but they were full of thick fluid (known as ear glue). The ears were so full that she could not see his eardrum. She theorized the ears were infected for a number of months and that he has had diminished hearing for that time. He was probably so used to the pain, she believed, that he didn’t react to it until it got so intense that it was unbearable. The ear glue was thickened infected fluid that didn’t drain from his ears and he probably was hearing “like he was underwater.”

She put it plainly to me, “He can’t hear.”

Again, I cried, this time out of relief, and out of anger for the pain he had been feeling for months that went untreated.

She gave him strong antibiotics, referred him to an ENT, and gave me more advice on how to make him comfortable.

Another angel.

I switched to her as my son’s pedi and never saw the other one again. My anger over her negligence, and my own guilt over not going with my instinct and pressing the issues are emotions I’m still dealing with 4 years later, but his road to recovery did begin on that day, with those angels.

My son has had three ear surgeries, had tubes placed in his ears, has seen multiple specialists, and has his hearing tested twice a year. We will never know how impaired his hearing was prior to his treatment, but we know now his hearing is 100% normal. That year, however, damaged his development. He is delayed in many areas, and still struggles to learn to learn to speak. He had to learn language all over again, and now deals with sensory issues from that year of sensory deprivation. He’s in special programs in school to help him regulate his sensory input, and to help him develop his speech and social skills. Our world changed that day, and we began a journey to give our son back his voice.

But it was an angel that harkened to me the message that he would be saved and “made whole.” And an angel that showed us the answers we needed in order to begin his recovery.

God never told us how long his recovery would be, nor how long it would be before he was made whole again, but I am confident he will be. We are on that road now and though I wish it were quicker, I also realize sometimes our plans are not how God intends them to be. But it is hard to remember a day like that day and not see a greater power’s hand in it. Yes, you can chock it up to coincidence or fate, but I feel a greater pull in the events than that. Whatever you want to call it, it was a day when we got the answers we needed when we needed it most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Very Special Easter Bunny and A Very Special Santa For Very Special Kids

It’s quite ironic that the two characters most aimed towards the imagination of young children, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, also contain the most stress for kids when they go to visit them.

Picture it – lines of young children at the mall. Shoppers crowding around them, lights blaring, music echoing over the load speakers, uncomfortable fancy clothes, crowding in the lines. A domino effect of screaming kids begin: first one kid, then the next, then a few more kids, then a line of children, crying, wringing in their parents arms, contorting themselves in odd positions as they attempt to escape their mother’s grasp and dart from the space in line they have occupied for the last 20 minutes. By the time they meet the old man with the white beard, or the person in the giant bunny suit, they are overwhelmed, over tired, and over stimulated.

And probably scared to death…..

For kids with challenges and disabilities, this experience, which is stressful enough for all children,  is a nightmare. Whatever their challenge, waiting in line with so much sensory stimulation is too overwhelming and can cause meltdowns. By the time they reach the big guy in red or bunny, there’s no way the photographer can get any sort of descent shot in the three takes allowed. That is, if they can even get the child to sit on Santa’s lap or even come near the guy in the big headed huge eyed bunny suit.

And let’s not forget the discomfort of those with physical disabilities, like those in wheelchairs, who cannot navigate the “holding areas,” wait in lines, or even approach their holiday characters.

My son has sensory integration processing disorder (SPD) which in its simplest form means he has difficulty processing and dealing with sensory input. Certain sights, sounds, and situations cause sensory overload, producing a “fight or flight” response from him. This disorder, acquired during sensory deprivation when he lost his hearing for a year, has made it challenging for him to visit Santa Claus or Easter Bunny each year. We’ve made it to their laps, but rarely if ever got a photo of him in which he didn’t look stressed or distracted. At least he was able to sit on their laps, I rationalized. Some kids can’t even do that. Many parents of special needs children have given up trying to give their kid the seasonal experience enjoyed by other children, meeting Santa or the Easter Bunny.

Thanks to a program in the Simon Malls, that has changed. “A Caring Santa” and “A Caring Bunny” provides a stress free environment for students with special needs to meet their holiday character. The program started in my area five years ago with “A Caring Santa” and they added an Easter Bunny visit this year. We stumbled upon the program in December, which happened to be held on my son’s 5th birthday. I had no idea what to expect. I thought, at most, that they would allow the photographer to take multiple shots, or perhaps more understanding staff when a meltdown in line occurred, or ideally providing kids with disabilities to move to the front of the lines.

What we got was so much more….

It didn’t occur to me at first that the times of the event were before the mall’s hours of operations. Allowing these kids to visit Santa prior to the mall opening means they avoid the crowds of holiday shoppers. This automatically eliminates one of obstacles they face with sensory stimulation. A very wise idea.

Then came the complete outpouring of support, and the realization that these staff members were trained to handle kids with all challenges. We were stopped when entering the area directly in front of Santa’s seating and asked if we were here for the “special event.” When we replied in the affirmative, we were ushered to a reception area with chairs and tables decorated in simple holiday decor, told to “grab a snack and art project” and then given a number. My mother, who attended with us, stayed back, thinking it was just for the kids, but she was told to join us because “this is for the families as well.” The “snacks” was a full breakfast spread  provided by Au Bon Pain- bagels, scones, fresh fruit, large muffins, coffee, juice, danishes. The arts and crafts ranged from “Santa kits” to simple coloring.

I watched as the staff gave each family a “count down” of their appointment: “You’re number 24, correct?” they’d whisper. “Number 20 is up now, so you have about 10 minutes if you want to prepare your child.”

Anyone with a special needs child knows forewarning is paramount to comfort.

I noticed the escalators were all turned off – another stimuli that scares and overwhelms some children – and the Christmas music, usually blaring through the mall, was off. To our left, the lines began to form of parents and screaming general population kids waiting for the mall to officially open so they could have their chance to see Santa as well.

My daughter, a general ed student, looked at the line and said, “Do we have to get in THAT line?”

“No,” I said. “We get to wait right here, eat our breakfast, and wait for our number to be called.”

“Cool!” she replied.

I explained to her the reason we get to do this: because Santa and nice people who know about her brother’s difficulties have set this up so he and kids with other challenges won’t be scared.

“This helps them meet Santa,” I added. “And we should be very thankful to them for helping.”

And how nice it was that Santa set it up on his birthday.

My son, in the meantime, sat happily eating his bagel, looking around, and smiling as if he believed they really did set this up just for him. He was stress free, comfortable, relaxed, and very very happy. We took him to see Santa from a distance a few times as we waited, and he smiled.

When our number was called, it was a relaxed experience. My daughter approached him as she always does, but this time my son ran right up to him as well. He hugged Santa, he laughed, he smiled, he sat right next to him and snuggled close and – this was the most amazing thing – he looked at the camera and smiled. No distractions, looking around at everyone else in line, covering his ears, or trying to shield his eyes. He was relaxed, focused, and smiling. The photographer took multiple photos – 5 or 6 – but he got the shot on the  second take. The result – the best Christmas picture we’ve ever had of him with Santa.

After our visit, we hung around some more, ate some more, and observed the caring staff help each child individually. One child was too afraid to enter Santa’s seating area, so he and the photographer met the family at their table. Another time, a wheelchair bound child couldn’t navigate the photo area, so once again the photo area came to him.

As the scheduled mall opening time grew near, I heard staff talking.

“We still have three more families….” one staffer asked.

“OK, don’t open the general line until those people have had their turn,” the manager replied.

Then the manager came over to me. “Do you mind if we turn the escalator on now?” she asked. “Will it bother him?”

I replied he was fine with the escalator, and thanked her for the program. She told me they had partnered with Autism Speaks and a council for parents of children with special needs to put it together. Last year, she said, only about 20 families took advantage of the program, but this year, it doubled to 40+ families. In fact she was wondering if they needed to open the program up even earlier, allowing for 3 hours of visiting time instead of the 2 hours they scheduled for today. And, she added, for the first time the Easter Bunny would be participating in the spring.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude that these people understood my son and his challenges and that they were able to provide such a safe environment for him and our family. No people staring at us in line, no stress for him or me as I try to calm him down, no worrying about whether or not they will “catch him” looking at the camera. Just a peaceful and fun environment for him and us to be like other families. I cried walking out of the mall as I stared at the his happy and relaxed picture.

I uploaded the photo to Facebook and was bombarded by comments, both on and off line, that my son looked so content and at ease. Everyone agreed it was his best photo with Santa yet.

Last week, on Palm Sunday, the Easter Bunny did come as promised, and once again we participated in the relaxed atmosphere before the mall opened. I told my son how we were going to see the bunny just like we saw Santa, and he smiled. He was so happy when we walked in that once again it was like he thought they did this all for him. His photo was once again the best he’s ever taken with the bunny, and the photography snapped many shots of him hugging the bunny, kissing the bunny, and even kissing his sister. We continue to be amazed at how well trained and compassionate the staff is and grateful that such a program exist. I only wish more parents knew about it and participated as the more their child experiences it, the more it helps their child be more comfortable even in non-ideal situation.

My kid did see Santa and the Easter Bunny, and he did enjoy it, thanks to Simon Malls.

A Message from Hawthorne

Last week, I met Nathaniel Hawthorne.

OK, so he’s been dead since 1864, but still, last week I met him.

Sort of.

My students and fellow teachers all laugh at me. While others want to meet celebrities like Mark Walberg or athletes like Tom Brady, I want to meet a man whose been dead for over 150 years. But my connections with Mr. Hawthorne is more tangible than any with a living celebrity.

Hawthorne is the reason I became a teacher. Back in 11th grade, my class read The Scarlet Letter and I was captivated by the rich story of unrequited love. Yes, that’s all my 16 year old hormone driven mind could get out of the text – well, that and a few bits of symbolism (A = adultery, I get it….) – but the story of Hester and her ill fated lover was intriguing to me. Add to it the background of Salem and stories of witchcraft, some family guilt, and the fact that this town was right down the road a bit from us, and I was hooked.

Of course, we took a field trip to Salem, and my love affair with Hawthorne and the city he loved to hate and hated to love had begun. Even though the witch trials really didn’t take place in that town, I felt it was magical all the same. A city full of myth, of history, and of literature. Historical houses. Maritime history. The bizarre. Witch stores. Psychic readings. Lantern light walking tours. All this, and Hawthorne had walked these streets.

Our school bus drove by the high school, and I proudly said to my partner on the torn green bus bench, “I’m going to work there some day.”

13 years later, I did.

During that time, my love for Hawthorne grew. I reread The Scarlet Letter multiple times, as well as his other words, analyzing it, dissecting it, and teaching it to another generation even more detached from its archaic language than I was. The themes, the symbolism, the imagery, the language became rich and tangible to me. I aimed to make it the same for my students. I ignored other teachers who complained that I was teaching “dead white males” with themes too detached from our students’ present day experiences. Here was a story about a woman shunned from her  peers because she got pregnant. Her baby daddy won’t take responsibility, causes her to be a single parent, raise the child herself, and deal with those who would brand her. How is this not relevent to teenagers today? Add to it rich beautiful language, the theme of redemption, and a timeless love story and its a masterpiece equivalent to a painting by Renoir or a symphony by Beethoven.

Every so often, I visit Hawthorne’s grave, which is in Sleepy Hollow Cementary in Concord MA about 40 minutes from me. I get so emotional standing by the headstone of the man whose words have traveled across time and touched me so much. “Young Goodman Brown,” “Minister’s Black Viel,” The House of the Seven Gables – all stories which I read and reread and find deeper meaning in them each time. I touch the ground to feel closer to the man. Beneath all that earth is him. It is the closest I can get to him beyond reading the words he put on paper.

But last week, I had the opportunity to get even closer when his descendent, his great great granddaughter, also a writer, made an appearance in my area to speak about her latest book.

Alison Hawthorne-Deming is the granddaughter of Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel and the only one of his children to produce heirs. She is a professor at the University of Arizona but grew up in New England. Her latest book, Zoologies, is a collection of essays and memoirs about animals and their importance in the circle of life. She traveled to Salem, the birthplace of her ancestor, as part of a book tour. When a fellow teacher brought me a local article on her appearance, there was no doubt that I must attend.

I must admit, I fangirled. I was so excited over the prospect of meeting her, that you’d think I was going to see Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead fame. In many ways, this event was even more special to me. Here is a connection to a legend, someone I have studied and taught for more than half my life. It’s not him, but it’s a living monument to him.

I walking into the small lecture room so excited I could hardly breath. When an employee pointed her out to me, I felt I would faint. I could see Deming only from the back, long greying blond hair, and a black jacket with oriental designs, but I could feel her energy. I teared up watching her talk with the sponsors of the event. I sat down and tried to take stock of my emotions. I knew meeting her would be a physical connection to Hawthorne, but I never expected I’d feel a spiritual one as well.

She spoke, reading from her book. She had a style completely different from her famous ancestor, but the talent for painting pictures with words was there. Like her great great grandfather, she was able to capture the soul on the page, but these souls were of animals – elephants, dogs, wolves, even clams. She was able to do the one thing Nathaniel struggled to do, connect the human soul to nature and express the beauty of all souls, animal, plant or man. Nathaniel studied  the darkness of souls, while she captured its light.

After her reading, I followed her and spoke briefly to her, expressing how much of an influence her ancestor had been in my life, a tale she probably has heard many times before. She sincerely thanked me for the kind words, and exalted the work I do with kids. She spoke some more but that all got lost in my overwhelming feeling in her presences.  I felt him in her. Her energy was his energy. It transcended time and generations as I stood there. He was with us.

We adjoined to the other room for a book signing. Of course, I purchased a book and waited in line with her other followers, most of whom knew her for her work with animals and conservation. I handed her the book and told her my name so she could address it to me. But, suddenly, she stopped, pen in hand, looking at the blank page. We spoke no words as she remained frozen, her eyes and ben hovering over the book for what seemed like several hours, and then she began scribbling feverishly. I read the words as she wrote them and it took all my strength not to cry. I saw this on the page:

IMG_4434

The message was from Hawthrone.

I felt certain it was Hawthrone’s hand that wrote it. A message to me, that what I’m doing is purposeful and that he, the brother in law to Horace Mann, father of public education, and Elizabeth Peabody, founder of the first public kindergarten in Boston, approved. He was thanking me for keeping his literature alive and fighting the good fight in the face of state exams, data collection, and the belief that teaching is more about “how-to’s” than heart. It was my message. My approval. My reaffirmation that what I do is good.

A message from the beyond, transcending time, to his “biggest fan.”

Not a bad way to spend a weeknight. Meeting my mentor, my inspiration, a legend, and receiving his message from beyond the grave.

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Lady Luck and Chance Encounters

The red convertible sped through the barren highway that weaved through the red and tan landscape of the dessert. I was young, perhaps too young to take such a trip on my own. A 27 year old girl far from the rocky coastline of New England, exploring a land that she was enchanted by.

It was my first time traveling totally on my own. I had been here briefly for a conference a few months earlier, but workshops prevented me from seeing all the state had to offer. And so, much against the wishes of my parents, I booked a flight, rented a car, and returned, wanting to fully enjoy the sights and take in the energy this land promised me.

New Mexico.

I drove though the deserts outside of Santa Fe and was awe struck by the beauty of the mesa that sprung up above the flat landscape. Every now and then, I pulled over, got out of the car, and just took in the view, breathing in the air, the sand, the heat, and the incredible energy they produced. “If I die today, I will die in complete happiness,” I whispered within my head.

Despite my being enthralled with the land, I was very much aware and cautious of the fact that I was in fact a single young female traveling alone across the country. I had only a map to guide me in the days before GPS, and the archaic cell phones worked on reception that was limited at best. It was probably very foolish of me to venture out on my own so far from home, and looking back, I’m probably very lucky no harm befell me. The speeds of cars on the desert highways scared me as they wizzed by at what seemed like the speed of light, and as night fell and no street lights to illuminate my way, I became more and more timid behind the wheel.

It was when a torrential downpour hit that I became too frightened to continue my drive. The monsoon blinded me and my windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. Cars sped my me so fast that my car shook as I crept through the sheets of rain. Snow I could handle, sleet I could trudge through, but this diluge of water was more than I could handle. Fortunately, I soon saw my destination, a casino located in the middle of the desert. When I first saw the advertisements for the place and found it on the map, I had no idea it was so far in the middle of nowhere, stuck there as if it had fallen from the sky and landed there. My approaching the tiny building in the middle of the vast expanse reminded me of when Janet Leigh first saw the sign for the Bates Motel through the rain pounding her windshield in Psycho. In my mind, the memory of my driving into the parking lot is even in black and white.

I’m not a gambler, but the casino seemed as good an excuse as any to ride through the desert. At least I could say I had a destination. Now, however, it was also a shelter from the storm.

The casino was amazingly small and crowded with slot machines and table games. It was a single room, a warehouse really, and I later found out that many of these types of casinos were all over the state. It was far different than the Vegas style casinos we have on the east coast, like in Atlantic City or Foxwoods. It was like trying to compare a university to a single room school house. The machines were jammed together with little breathing room between and people sat so close they often knocked elbows as they pulled down the levers of their slots.

And so I sat down at a machine with a theme that appealed to me, and dug into my cup of coins. After a few momentary glimmers of success, my luck began to run dry as the machine ate my coins and was miserly with returns. As I was playing with the last of my silver pieces in the bottom of my cup, the man seated next me cheered in triumph as his machine once again clanged, whistled, and lit up.

“You are my good luck charm!” he proclaimed to me. “I wasn’t winning until you sat down. Please, don’t move!”

“Glad someone is lucky,” I said.

The young man was about my age, donning a worn tan baseball cap. He wore tattered tan pants and an old beige tee shirt with its sleeves cut off. The design on the front of the tee was faded and unrecognizable. His long blonde thin hair continued to his neck when his cap ended.

As I began to get up, he implored me to stay seated. “Sorry,” I said. “But after this I’m out.” I showed him the last two tokens in my cup.

His response was to put more quarters into my cup, again begging me to stay as his “lucky charm.”

A smarter girl may have been very suspicious of a stranger who puts money into her hand, and to be certain I did question his intentions, but something in his voice convinced me that he was just a man looking for company on his travels. I protested and attempted to give him back the bribe he gave me to stay next to him, but he insisted, saying he was “doing very well” and giving me all the credit for his good fortune.

So, I sat there, although I didn’t play the coins.

He continued to hit, the machine continued to sing and spit out shiny new quarters. We cheered his good luck as if each hit were a home run, and we lamented the loss of each coin that died within the belly of the metal beast, yielding no profit.  After a while, he got bored of the slots. I saw he was a thin man, and just a shade taller than me as he stood up and began directing me to the tables in the center of the room.

“Ever play roulette?” he asked me, hands deep in his pockets and his winning tucked beneath his arm. When I responded I had not, he said he’d teach me.

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Oh come on,” he urged me. “I need you to sit next to me. You’re my good luck charm.”

I took a seat next to him and soon my resolve faded. He handed me some chips and instructed me how to play, walking me through it step by step. I placed a chip on  the board and soon was caught in the excitement as the wheel spun. His winnings continued for several more hours, and with each victory he handed me more chips and asked me to pick my numbers. I cheered, we laughed, we won, we lost. We watched the spinning. It was like a scene from any Vegas or mob movie you could name, a guy with his lady luck on his arm, handing her over some of his winnings to better their fortune and thank her for good mojo. My “mobster” was wearing a baseball hat rather than a fedora, and lady luck was wearing a tank top instead of a feather boa, but the feel of the scene was exact.

It may have been 2 hours, it may have been 8, I don’t recall. Eventually, however, his luck began to run, and once he felt the tide turning against him, he cashed in his chips and walked away from the table.

When we walked out of the clambering casino into the quiet warm damp desert night, I commented that the rain had stopped, although it was obvious to both of us that it had. The parking lot pavement was shiny and wet with the remains of the shower. Once again he walked with his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders slumped, his head down. We spoke, although I cannot recall what we said, but I imagine it was small talk. Whether it was because we were “talked out” or because we noticed the late night hours were turning into early morning, it was apparent that the time had come for us to part ways. For a moment, there was awkward silence, like the anticipation a new couple feels as their first date comes to an end. I wondered what would happen next. How would this wonderous night end? Two strangers, meeting as we did, in a desert – this is the stuff great stories are made of. Would we share a magical kiss? Would a romance bloom? Or  was he really Norman Bates to my Marion Crane? I was awaiting the end of our story tonight….

“Have a nice night,” he said, extending his hand for a handshake. “Thanks for sitting next to me.”

We shook hands, and I watched as he got into his truck and drove off.

As I climbed into my rented convertible, I exhaled as if I had been holding my breathe all night long. Driving back out toward Albuquerque, I replayed the night in my mind, trying to remember every detail until I could get back to my hotel and record it in my journal. It was a classic tale of strangers who met one night, shared a moment, and then unceremonially parted ways.

I never did get his name, nor did I give him mine, yet I can remember every feeling from that night, even if some of the menial details are lost in the fog of time. And on occasions life finds me in a casino, I always make sure I play the roulette wheel, and I think of that rainy night in the desert of New Mexico and the stranger in tan who made me Lady Luck for a night.

“Fitting In”: What TWD Taught Me Last Night (Forget)

Last night was the first time I’d watched my favorite TV show in nearly two weeks. And I learned something very important in the episode Forget: I’m like Daryl, and I’m like Carol.

I “don’t fit in” and I am “invisible”

But those are good things……

For the past two years, I’d been watching the show while blogging about it and interacting with like-minded fans on fan and spoiler sites. One site I connected with even gave me my own board, Teaching the Dead, in which I analyzed episodes and themes in the series. A few months later, they made me a moderator, giving me the responsibility of ensuring the site ran smoothly and without conflict.  My episode analysis were picked up by other entertainment outlets and even  (apparently) read by cast members and I spent countless hours behind the scenes making sure debates in the threads ran smoothly.  I was thriving, doing what I’m good at doing, and loving what I’m doing…..

Then last week, I was demoted. I was stripped of my mod duties.

The reasons for my fall were two-fold: because my work was so proactive it appeared on paper as if I was “on the sidelines” concerning my duties, and also apparently I didn’t “fit in” with the rest of the staff.

As silly as it sounds, these reasons, especially the later, hit me to the core. I was transported into the movie “Mean Girls” or my high school years as the class nerd. Not “fit in?” Well, that’s something I’ve been told my entire life. When I was in high school, it was the reason I got nasty notes in locker or messages written on my desk or was cornered in the girls’ locker room. In work, it was the reason that after three attempts over six years, I still couldn’t elevate myself to head of a department. In my personal life, it was why I couldn’t feel comfortable having conversations about simple things like child rearing or wedding planning.

I just didn’t fit in.

That’s not to say I’m not friendly, or outgoing. It’s just to say that my experiences, my thoughts, my beliefs, whatever, made it hard for others to see me as one of them. Eventually, I came to the point that I stopped trying to make people like me, and I just did my best to be a hard worker, a kind person, and non combative. If they accepted me, or listened to me, great, if not, I was comfortable in my own skin, even if it made me “different” from the herd.

But, last week, the face of conformity once again reared it’s ugly head. I didn’t “fit in.” And I lost something that meant a lot to me – an outlet for intellectual discourse, a hobby, something I was good at – my “fan board.” I couldn’t talk about the show for a week, and I refused to watch it. Students were shocked when Monday morning I didn’t start class with “Did you see the Walking Dead last night?!” Kids stopped me in the hallways and asked what I thought of the episode, and I was unable to respond. Even my husband tried to encourage me: “Don’t let them take away something you love.” But it felt dead to me. I was the walking dead.

Finally, my husband in fact convinced me to watch the show again last night. It was hard for me. Very hard. I teared up as the theme music played. But I sat, and I watched.

And suddenly, the words of comfort came not from my husband, or my mother, or my students, but from Aaron, as he hunted with Daryl outside the walls of the Safe Zone. Aaron, the homosexual character who just made his appearance a few episodes before, was able to pinpoint Daryl’s avoidance of the community and the source of his pain:

“You feel like you don’t fit in. People are afraid of you. They are afraid of me too, but for different reasons…..”

Aaron went on to discuss how Daryl and the rest of the Grimes family are having difficulties in the new community – they don’t fit in. They have been “out there” for so long that they have different views, feelings, and experiences that the residence of Alexandria, a community that has been in a bubble for most of the outbreak, cannot possibly understand. Exchanging recipes and target practice on a chained walker are required for “fitting in” but after what the crew has lived through, they are more focused on survival, strengthening the walls, and creating a schedule of surveillance. Residence try to help them fit in, but it’s not possible when the experiences they have encountered are so vastly different.

However, that is exactly the reason that Rick’s group was sought out to join the community. The reasons they don’t fit in are exactly the reasons they are unique and can provide new knowledge, skills, and insight into the stagnant bubble of a community. Their uniqueness is needed, sought, and necessary in order for the town to survive. They don’t fit in because no one can understand what they’ve been through, but it’s what they have been through that makes them essential to the community.

It then occurred to me – I’m like Daryl, and everyone in Rick’s group. I don’t “fit in” but perhaps the reason I don’t fit in is because I stand out.

My experiences, my talents, and my beliefs make me unique, and it is that uniqueness that makes me special. My lessons are  sought after by other teachers, my episode analysis inspire other entertain blogs, and I can say I did my wedding completely on my own. My experiences are unique, and that uniqueness makes people utilize me, quote me, or be inspired by me. I am valuable.

Aaron helped Daryl see he was special, too. He saw that Daryl had keen tracking skills and great insight into the difference between “good and bad” people. Those are what made Daryl valuable to the community and prompted Aaron to offer him a job as a recruiter. Daryl and the rest of Rick’s group offer unique insight into the community that can make it safer and more functional, even if right now they feel like outsiders and are misunderstood by well-meaning townspeople.

I guess it’s OK to be misunderstood, because it means something about that person is “great” (with apologies to Mr. Emerson). Perhaps even greater than what others can see now. And maybe, just maybe, for me it means I’m meant for greater things, or as Rick said, to “take over” the place. It may “scare” them, but it can inspire them as well.

Just as Aaron showed me I’m like Daryl, Carol showed me in a more subtle way that I am like her.

“Invisible.”

Carol make heavy work behind the scenes, slipping away because she felt she wouldn’t be noticed to secretly retrieve weapons for the group. She is working her magic to look like everyone else so she work covertly to help Rick plan a take over. In many ways, I do invisible work as well. I work behind the scenes, covertly, whether it is to help students find their own potential, to help other teachers refine their lessons, to help administration plan PDD activities, or to help a fan board run smoothly. These are supports that cannot be measured by state exams, or activity logs. They are quiet, but deliberate, and yield results that cannot be quantified. To help a student uncover their potential, or to stop an argument in a post before it becomes a problem is silent work, invisible work, that is rarely traced back to the originator. Even the invisible, however, are eventually noticed, because once their presence is not longer felt, there is an absence, almost like no longer being able to feel the wind. Carol’s absence was noticed because her cookies were such a stand out and so her invisibility was seen after all. Greatness cannot be totally hidden, even when someone is trying to work behind the scenes.

I prefer to work behind the scenes, letting my skills be used to support others. I don’t shout, “lookie what I did,” I don’t seek praise, I don’t brag. I just hope, like Carol, my invisibility will be noticed as the author of the script.

And so I owe the writers of TWD a great deal of gratitude for creating situations and characters that I can relate to, and I owe fate for playing an episode with a message I needed on a day that I needed it.

I am “great.” I am “unique” and I am bound for more, even if, right now, I appear to not fit in, or I look invisible.

See me. I’m here. And I’m OK with not fitting in if that means I conform, or I don’t stand out, or I’m not unique or valuable. If it’s OK with Daryl, or Carol, or Rick’s family, then it’s OK with me.

“To be great is to be misunderstood.” – Emerson