I like to call this part of my life Season 2. Like on all those TV Shows. Only the first season ran a really long 32 years. 5 months ago I’d say it had all the boring trappings of a classic soap opera. Ask again today and I think those were some really awesome war […]
I like to call this part of my life Season 2. Like on all those TV Shows. Only the first season ran a really long 32 years. 5 months ago I’d say it had all the boring trappings of a classic soap opera. Ask again today and I think those were some really awesome war stories. I fancy myself a superhero now. So like most superheroes I have this (not so secret) dark past that led me to this place I am today. And the things I was once ashamed of, today I am more than a little proud of having lived through & survived because most people I know wouldn’t last a day of it.
Had somebody told me even 5 months ago that I’d be living the life I am right now, I’d probably have laughed in their face and responded with “hilarious” or some such thing. I’ve always believed I’ve been short on luck. But looking back I realise life reserved all my luck for the things that I needed the most rather than waste it on stuff like finding a dress I liked in my size or making a bus or train I needed to get home just to laze. After carefully analyzing (and discarding) all other theories, I am now convinced, that my life, starting somewhere after the age of seven, was a result of a prayer I said on a particularly boring afternoon when there were no playmates or a book to read.
So I prayed, hard, that I never want my life to be like that ever again. Just to be safe I added, “Make my life like a roller coaster. Let it always be exciting.” Big words for a 7 year old. (You can imagine the level of boredom!) And what a ride it has been! I was so busy fighting to stay afloat amidst the wreckage that it didn’t strike me until much later that all of this was actually life’s way of turning me into all that it knew I could be. (I’ll spare you the boring gory details).
I found myself alone in the most trying times that by the time I was 16 I knew one thing for sure – if anyone else had to live the life I had, I would, at the very least not let them live through it alone. I’d hoped to study psychology and then social work, not knowing that on the next turn, my roller coaster had a really steep drop that was to last 14 years. Through all of it, the one thing that remained constant was my love for reading. That’s how I found my best lesson. Can’t remember who said it or even the exact words for that matter. But my mantra was… If you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; just keep moving forward. And so I did. Some days the lost years feel wasted but in hind sight, nothing beats first-hand experience.
Until about two years ago I only knew I wanted to help others in the same boat I’d been sailing in. I just didn’t know how. Didn’t help at all to be as shy as I was. Then I read a book that changed my life in more ways than one. It’s called ‘Not Stupid’, written by Anna Kennedy, a woman with two autistic children. She went on to set up a school for children with special needs when she couldn’t find any that would accept hers. What she wrote about people with autism suddenly gave me answers for behaviour patterns & habits of my own that I’d been wondering about all my life. By the time I was finished reading, I knew, Autistic or not, these were the people I want to spend my time around. I suppose it wasn’t my time yet coz I found myself grappling with the possibility of being autistic in the midst of a period of severe depression. It didn’t help that two of the people I leaned on, were whole continents away from me and at a point in their own lives where they didn’t need my drama added to their overflowing plates. But luck was at work just then. And my oldest friends, words, found me and saved my sanity. It took 6 months of walking around wearing a mask but I found myself finally healing. Though I still haven’t found the nerve to get a diagnosis for Autism (I suppose the finality is a little overwhelming in the midst of finding my footing).
Moments of soul shattering pain can make or break you. Those are the times you are forced to abandon your illusions, accept the truth and move on. That’s how, after years of working my life around that of people I love, I found myself finally taking stock and putting one toe out of my comfort zone. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. Had to be all or nothing. It was a decision made in a split second. I usually reserve that for retail therapy sessions and junk food binges and always regret them! For once, I have no regrets. I felt like if I didn’t do it now, I’d never work the nerve to reclaim my life.
So, just like that, one day I picked my life and turned it inside out. I applied to two schools for a Diploma in Special Education, put in my resignation (but as a safety measure, requested that I be allowed to keep my job in case I wasn’t accepted), put an ad to rent my house out and started the clock without a clue of what would happen next. And that was when all the luck I had on reserve showed up. What followed was four weeks of living more than I ever had in the 32 years before. (My life is like a movie so 3 weeks out of those were spent in only building up suspense). All the pieces fell in place only in the last week! I found myself doing all the things I thought I couldn’t, learning things I thought I never would if I had the option of outsourcing it. I discovered friendship & support in unexpected places and found friends I counted on, failing the test but thankfully there wasn’t any time to lick my wounds and indulge in self-pity. There were days when it looked like it would all amount to nothing and I felt like I should quit but then a very wise friend gave me the best advice, “So what if it was all for nothing? So what if it doesn’t work out? You still have yourself. And that is enough. You can start over.”
Thankfully it all DID work out. The details are not exactly as romantic as I’d hoped they’d be but I remind myself they could be a lot worse. I find myself transported into my definition of wonderland for a quarter of each day. To go from almost giving up hope on doing what you want to actually living the life you want is a privilege only so many of us are lucky to have. I am forced to face all my shortcomings and work on improving them as best I can. Viewers of Season 1 can testify, I was an expert escape artist. I ran, I hid, I avoided facing my flaws every chance I could. Not an option if I want to live the dream. I can’t give a decent lesson to save my life & my teachers are constantly amused because it is, after all, a teacher training course! But making a fool of myself in public twice a month is a small price to pay for the amazing experiences I have each day.
Some days it is overwhelming. I find my eyes tearing up because it is all so beautiful, I can’t contain myself. To those who haven’t been around children with intellectual disabilities it can be quite frightening. Won’t deny that I was scared too at first – you don’t know what you can & cannot, should & should not do or say. I suppose we have all been conditioned to look at it as a lack of something rather than an alternative way of being. Not to mention the fear of the unknown that is instilled rather early on & reinforced all our lives.
To borrow a line on Autism…If you have seen one child with an Intellectual Disability, you have seen ONE child with an Intellectual Disability.
Each of them have their own unique personalities and like everyone else, all they want is that you love and accept them. Be patient & and you will see some of the most amazing little people. Good children don’t just happen, it’s true. It takes a lot of work. But the results are worth all the effort. My favorite stories ironically revolve around taking lessons. I was with the oldest kids in the school – 16 – 18 year olds who had come to see me more as a friend than teacher and who were fully aware of my gross inability to speak to them in a formal set up just as much as I could work well with them otherwise. So I found them on their best behavior on the day of the lesson. Even the kid who is always sleeping was wide awake & he actually learned the concept! But at the end of the day it was undoubtedly one of the worst sessions in the history of formal education where even some of the academically smartest peas in the pod didn’t get it right. My disappointment at myself was clearly evident on my face and that’s when the loner in me saw what all the fuss about having a tribe of your own was. I had a couple of girls tell me it was an awesome lesson and when I reminded them that they didn’t learn anything from it they said it was fabulous just the same! One of them hugged me and said I was amazing. And one guy did what none of my friends could. He knew where I come from being all bindass (badass in Hindi) right until it’s time to address a crowd. I found him repeating what I’d told him while rehearsing for the skit he was anchoring on Independence Day. He asked me why I was so nervous, saying, “Hum he tho the; kaunsa baahar ka koi tha? Itna nervous nahin honeka.” (It was just me, there wasn’t anyone else from out. Don’t be so nervous)
So this is my definition of normal. Maybe some of them can’t eat or dress themselves or communicate like the rest of the world. But what’s outside is so small as compared to what’s inside. What’s the big deal about the accepted definition of normal anyway? These days normal is, going through life like the undead – feeling nothing, doing nothing special and rushing to chew the brains out of and convert any ‘human’ walking past. So from Zombie to Human in two months is a very big deal for me. A very special education indeed.
When you are truly happy, it shows. From barely wanting to get out of bed to go to work 5 min from where I lived, I actually look forward to the 2 hour commute that takes me to school. They teach me to find joy in the smallest of things like spotting a butterfly in the garden or just eating all the food on the plate. Ordinary acts look extraordinary when I see the ones written off as misfits & not good enough actually be way more than most ‘normal’ kids I know. It could be someone picking up a friend who refuses to get off the floor after singing lessons or a little one adjusting another’s uniform to set it straight or the entire class cheering their friend on the one day we hear her answer the roll call loud and clear. When a kid finally says the word ‘heritage’ (as she should on her Independence Day speech) instead of ‘courage’ as she had been for weeks (and we still haven’t figured out why), you know you did something right. The way they just grow to accept you as one of their own and even love you, when they are more than you would expect of them, the privilege of being a part of their rather difficult journey to become all they can be, you know all that led you down this road was totally worth it.