Monday, May 23, 2011

The Island of Misfit Toys

Tonight/this morning, on a popular social-networking site, I was chatting with a friend—to be more precise, the significant other (SO) of a close friend of mine—who happens to have Asperger’s syndrome (if I remember correctly). He had started this conversation with me after seeing a few frustrated posts from me after said social-networking site was giving me grief, not letting me see posts, including the angry ones I had just made. Very sweetly, he’d wanted to make sure I was okay physically, emotionally, etc.

After reassuring him that I was, indeed, okay and just frustrated with the site, we got into a discussion of his anxieties with making small talk and being afraid of what to say, running out of things to say, and the like. As any of you who have known me for long know, I used to be pretty quiet and shy, and still can be (no, really), and I use that past experience to help me better understand people. I learned as a kid that by being quiet and just listening, I heard a lot more things than I would by talking…especially when people forgot I was around. (This will come into play later.) Anyway, as irony would have it, not long after we had discussed his worries, we were joking around, and then he said something. But said problem-causing social-networking site didn’t give me his message. In fact, I stopped hearing anything from him so assumed he had signed off to go to work, no worries. Several minutes later, I got a big block of text from him. He was worried that his last comment had weirded me out, that I had just stopped speaking to him because he said something that I, for whatever reason, might not find appropriate. Having met me only a handful of times, he wasn’t aware, I suppose, that (1) there are very few things I find inappropriate in general conversation and (2) if I had found it inappropriate, I would have said so gently and explained why I felt that way.

By the time his messages came through, he really had logged out to go to work. I felt sorry for him and hoped he wouldn’t worry further about upsetting me in some way. In fact, at the time, I was speaking to another friend, who happens to have Asperger’s syndrome, so I mentioned this incident to him. This led to a conversation in which this friend explained his occasional fear when e-mailing someone about a conversation they’ve had that that person might never speak to him again based on the e-mail and the previous conversation. I sympathized, having occasionally felt such things before. But, I said, then I got over those feelings, figuring that if such people were going to get bent out of shape by who I was, they didn’t deserve me (or just weren’t ready to have me in their lives). You see, I grew up with parents who taught me well my own inherent value and who taught me that I was loved just the way I was.

Growing up a fat, quiet, smart girl wasn't exactly easy. But my poppa told me, about the time I was 8, on the way home from a track meet that I had competed in (and probably many other times besides), that if people didn't like me based on how I looked, that was their problem, not mine, and most of them teased me because they felt insecure and teasing me somehow made them feel more secure. And all while I was growing up, I knew that it was fine to be exactly who I was. I had a grandmother who reiterated that one to me quite often: don’t act not as smart as you are to try to fit in; don’t worry if they don’t like you, plenty of people like you just fine. And then I stood up for others who were quiet, awkward, teased. Even if I didn’t necessarily know them or like them, I stood up for them, because everyone is worthwhile, no matter what the insecure kids on the playground said, and no one deserves to be teased if the teasing isn’t full of love. When people teased me, I just let it roll off my back, usually. I knew if I bit, they’d keep going but if I let it go, it wouldn’t be as fun for them anymore. But I would step in for others. I got angrier about other people being teased than about being teased myself because I could see how much it hurt or confused them. But how was the best way to stand up to someone who teases because he/she was insecure? Pointing fingers and giving like for like never teaches anything. It just passes the buck and makes you another bully.

Only now do I realize that I was like the Island of Misfit Toys, a magnet for the “misfits,” some of the other kids who didn’t necessarily have many friends except each other. I was friends with “weirdoes” and loudmouths and painfully shy and awkward kids. They couldn’t bloom into “normalcy” or quietude or social grace because they were teased and taunted and never given the chance. They were given a hard time by our schoolmates because, well, “kids are cruel.” But kids are cruel because they haven’t learned how to pad their blows with pillows and other soft things to not leave bruises. They use that most basic part of the brain that tells them that same is good and different is bad, making us versus them. But too many kids never learn better from their parents. They aren’t taught to see past all that stupid superficial shit to the beauty that lies beneath in people’s hearts and souls. Even worse, I think, is when kids get teased by their parents for not being “normal.” They end up carrying deep hurt, feeling unloved, and pass on that pain, trying to make themselves feel better by making others feel worse, or simply by acting like their parents, in the way they think they should. The status quo.

So, when I saw other kids teased, I was the one who helped. Once in high school, in our chemistry class, a girl who shared the table with me and another friend told me that she had made fun of me in elementary school because I was quiet and, because of that, she had thought I was stuck up. I told her I had been quiet because I didn’t have much to say and that I didn't talk to her because she teased me. When I asked her then, in high school, years after she had teased me, "Why would I want to talk to you if you teased me without trying to talk to ME first?" it was clear to me she hadn't even considered it before. If people aren’t taught acceptance, they don’t practice it. If we aren’t taught how to look beyond us/them and same/different, we’ll be forever stuck in that loop of cruelty.

As I told my friend of these things and of my fantastic parents, he got quiet. I knew he was reliving some unpleasant memories. Even now, in his 30s, he’s dealing with pain inflicted by “innocent” ignorant teasing from his first decade or so of life. He’s stuck in that loop. He’s healing, and he knows he is, but it’s still there, the scarring. True, his experiences have shaped him into who he is today, and he’s a fantastic person, but imagine how much more fantastic we all could be if we didn’t have to experience such things.

I don’t have any of those dark places in my soul left over from childhood because I had amazing parents and extended family. They made me who I am today. Their example inspires me to be as amazing and warm and welcoming to other people. I was, still am, and forever will be the one who offers shelter from the storm. I give out hugs of comfort. I act like the mother with her rolling pin in hand, chasing off the neighborhood brats while drawing her loved ones to her, hugging and shielding those I love, and those who are beaten, battered, and bruised physically, emotionally. I remind all of you that those terrible moments sucked but they helped make you who you are today. You will be the givers of hope to the next generation, and to the other battered and bruised souls in the world. I welcome you all into my heart and to my island of misfits.

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