Friday, February 1, 2013

Before Autism Was An Epidemic

      Corey had beautiful eyes....well, I thought they were beautiful. They were the most charming, warm, brown eyes I had ever seen in a child. You had to look him in the eyes; they just drew you in. But Corey could not maintain eye contact for any length of time. He was a savant; an artistic savant; a savant with autism.
      He echoed what you said, but was unable to construct an answer for any question he was asked, like "What did Corey have for breakfast?" He would just smile and reply, "Corey have for breakfast?"
      He rocked. His arms would flail in mid-air at times of excitement or confusion. When he stood still and was not asked any questions, he appeared to be pretty normal; a handsome, tall, well-built, African-American sixteen year old. His single mother was a hotel maid in Minneapolis. Corey adored her. He very seldom was unhappy. He smiled when spoken to and tried dutifully to follow directions. His mother had raised him to be a gentleman; he opened doors for me and would try to relieve me of any large loads he might see me carrying. I still wish I could have relieved Corey of his burden; and freed him to fully express his monumental talent. Autism doesn't work like that.
       (In case you don't know me, let me tell you that I have a grandson with autism. He is also a savant, being hyperlexic, an expert on exotic animals, and also a calendar savant. His art, sense of humor, and creativity are impressive.)
      Corey was my first contact with autism, back in 1974. Educators certainly did not know everything we know now about it. There was very little known. Corey was in my classroom of mentally challenged, mentally ill, higher-functioning high school students. He fit right in. Except for that art thing.
       In those days, copies were made on mimeograph machines. Purple ink, damp stinky paper... the kind of smell we used to pretend to get "high" on. Pretty toxic stuff. There were no Xerox machines or copy machines as we know them today, even though we lived in the Twin Cities, home of IBM. There was certainly no way to enlarge or reduce pictures; unless you had Corey in your room! Corey could draw them exactly like they were printed, any size I needed. He had multiple fancy fonts, also. Flawlessly executed.
      How to channel that talent? Or was it OK to just let him use it for his own amusement? He had no friends, so Corey had never been invited to a sleepover, or a birthday party, or gone on a date. He wasn't going to get his driver's license or go to a football game or the prom. His entire source of  'fun' was his drawing. Maybe we should just leave the kid alone and let him draw. Don't try to turn him into 'something'.
      I was a young, enthusiastic teacher. I had to try.....try something. I entered him in the University of Minnesota "World Law Day" poster competition. He would be competing with twenty extremely talented high school artists from all over the state. I sat him down with a box of markers, showed him the promotional materials from the event, and he began drawing. His first drawing was a beautiful rendition of the globe, with tall white columns all around it, and a collection of multi-cultural faces. He added some of his magazine-ready script, and he had the winning entry done in about twenty minutes.
      Corey was not really public appearance material, so his mother would not allow him to go accept his award. Disappointed, but understanding, I accepted a shiny plaque and the $100.00 prize for him.
      His mother and I, with our school's art teacher, brainstormed ways to spend the money on Corey. Art books? A day at Valley Fair, local amusement mega-park? New clothes? Markers and art paper?
      We chose an exquisite calligraphy set. Corey's mother felt he might be able to help them earn some extra money if he could create handmade monogrammed card sets. He loved to make ornate script letters, but they would be more marketable if they were not done with markers. She bought some high-quality plain cards from a stationery supplier and intended to have him make sets of cards. She would market them in packages of six or eight cards in boutiques around the city. It seemed like a good plan; entrepreneurial, but simple. Almost all the staff at the school bought some. They were really beautiful, but there was a serious problem. Corey started to balk at making them. He was, of course, unable to explain himself, but he made it quite clear; "No." "All done." These were bold self-assertions for an echolalic; his own brief opinions about this repetitive and uninspired task. He had done some to humor us, but this was not the way he wanted to express his art.
      In what seemed to be a dramatic protest, Corey drastically changed his style of drawing. He drew fewer small pictures and almost no script. He began drawing poster-sized illustrations of wild animals, which were subjects he had never done before. When my classroom moved temporarily to the basement of one of the high schools, the principal there insisted on purchasing a drawing of a cougar that Corey had done. He had it professionally framed, and placed it on the wall behind his desk. It looked like it had come from an expensive wildlife gallery. After we encouraged Corey to do a few more similar drawings of other wild animals, he caught on, and switched to pictures of farm animals and Native Americans.
      His mother realized what was going on with his efforts to undermine our joint efforts to commercialize his creativity, and she wisely put a stop to it all. She knew Corey better than anyone else. She realized that despite her (and our) well-intentioned efforts to help her only son find a way that would allow him to generate an income as an adult, Corey wanted no part of it. He just wanted to draw. He wanted to draw what he wanted, when he wanted, and he wanted everyone to stop taking it away from him and selling it.
      Lesson learned.
      Oh, did I mention the name of the school where I taught? The name of the school where Corey taught me this lesson?  The name is Emerson School, just east of Loring Park in Minneapolis.
     This school was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, that feisty mid-19th century champion of individualism and being true to your "nature".  That's all Corey really wanted to do. His caretaker and teachers wanted to make him into something special. He already was something special; he was Corey.
      Perhaps no one said it better than old Ralph Waldo Emerson himself, "It is easy to live for others, everyone does. I call on you to live for yourself."
      Over all the years I have been a teacher, and as a mother of five children, this lesson has perhaps been one of the most valuable. Kids are all different. A teacher cannot make a student into another student. Sure, you wish all your students could be bright, curious, enthusiastic, and, well, perfect. Guess what? Each student, each child; they are themselves. Our calling is to guide them to be the best "self" they can be. That's what we should be, and that's what we should encourage them to be. Well taught, Corey.