Think of this as Volume 12, Number 21 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
When we got our current cats, back in 2006, we decided they would be indoor meows.
They have no problems. Their needs are all taken care of. They eat, they play, they sit by the windows or lie on our beds.
Their placidity is in stark contrast to the neighbors' cats, both of whom are allowed outside. Those cats eye the world warily, and attack one another with ferocity. They know a truth our cats do not, that there is trouble in life, and you need to pay attention.
What's true for cats is true for people.
Most kids today are raised with a minimum of trouble in their lives. Their playmates and playdates are chosen by their parents. They are hustled from karate to soccer to dance. They are protected and nurtured like flowers, usually in suburbs where the problems of real life are kept as distant as possible.
People aren't cats. A lot of these suburban kids become teens and seek out trouble of one kind or another. They get cars and crash them. They feel hormones and act on them. They play at hurting one another. The best of them do as they're told, they cause no trouble for anyone, they graduate with honors, and they go on now to big-time colleges where they will experiment with sex, drugs, music, thought, and each other before settling down to lives of quiet desperation.
I didn't intend it to be like this, but there's another way to go.
My son John did not choose his path. It was chosen for him, by my own ADD, by my wife's brilliant and introspective mind, and by our choice to raise him in a city rather than a suburb.
He has never had it easy. In middle school he was the only white boy in his class. He was also frustrated by the lack of academic rigor he found there. But he did take on the school's chief lesson, the need for self-discipline and fierce pride. He believes in the rules, he wants to spend his life enforcing them. He believes that rules protect us, define us, and make civilization possible. He's right.
When given an opportunity to learn, he grasped it with both hands. What languages have you got, he asked a counselor from his new high school. Chinese? I'll take that. What else? Arabic? Deal me in.
In America the International Baccalaureate program operates like a march up a mountain. It steepens constantly. Each year is more challenging. At John's high school about half the kids dropped out halfway, and proceeded with what the school called an "international business" curriculum. Others played at the IB curriculum, labeling themselves as "IB diploma candidates" on their college applications, then jogged the rest of the way in, knowing that colleges would have chosen them long before they would have to ascend the summit.
My son isn't like that. John sought out the tough classes. After knocking off the IB math test in 11th grade, he went for AP Calculus, a full-bore college calculus course. When he flunked the first semester he insisted on staying, knowing he was risking not just the IB but his high school diploma. He expected his teachers to take the curriculum as seriously as he did, to work as hard as he did, to perform and to always be right.
Teachers aren't like that. Not public high school teachers. They have lives outside the classroom. They each teach a half-dozen classes, each class filled with kids of varying abilities, varying levels of interest. Teachers are human. John's uncle Carl is a high school teacher, so I know.
John's ADD couldn't accept this, and his genius was a continuing challenge. Every year he had problems, some argument leading to a suspension until, after the police were called, he was finally offered the protection of the IDEA Act. He was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which sits conveniently at the bottom of the autism scale and the top of the ADD scale.
This paragraph is important. If you have a public kid with dyslexia, or ADD, or Asperger's, don't just tell the teachers and administrators you meet. Go to the district level, go to the school board, bring a letter from their therapist and demand your child be tested. If they refuse threaten a lawsuit. My son wasn't identified for nearly five years, and by then it was too late for him to get the protection he deserved.
That's because teachers are human. They didn't see a kid succeeding in the classroom despite autism. They didn't see the kid who brought a book to lunch, who always made a point of befriending the exchange students, and who tutored young kids most of his high school career. They didn't see a kid who was so obsessed with the need to follow the rules that he kept all his books in a backpack, never taking a locker, lugging this 40-pound weight back-and-forth across the campus, to home and back again, because there were only four minutes between periods and he didn't think that was enough time to get to a locker and into the next class before the bell rang.
Instead his teachers saw a troublemaker. They saw a kid who talked back, who smart-mouthed them. They saw his diagnosis as a "technicality" that kept him from what he deserved, a jail cell and expulsion. And when it came time to make college recommendations, they said so. His disciplinary record also said no. The Asperger's diagnosis was kept private.
So it was with shock that we opened the letters from colleges. No, no, no, no, no. Seven times no. Even my own alma mater said no, absolutely not. They sent us a personal letter to apologize. "We consider everything," they wrote.
My son has overcome what is called autism without drugs. He doesn't drink, smoke, drive, date, or get into any other trouble outside the classroom. He attends church services, on his own. He takes long walks. He reads avidly, both online and offline. If we are calm toward him, he is calm toward us.
He still has problems. He can be oppositional like any teenager. He can't always tell the difference between intellectual debate and an emotional assault. He's high maintenance.
But for all his problems he is better positioned to excel in his life than your kid. Really because of his problems. Asperger's doesn't happen to idiots. Einstein probably had it. And Isaac Newton. So, it is said, did Michelangelo, Jane Austen, and Socrates.
I'm still not certain whether what my son has is really Asperger's. Aspergers.com lists 173 clinicians qualified to make the diagnosis, and the nice lady who identified my son is not among them. It could just be ADD, something I have myself, and something we've known he has had since second grade.
Anyway, I know my son deserves to be heading for Rice in the fall. Or Harvard, or Yale. He does not deserve to be sitting at home with no college available. I saved my whole life to give him his chance, he worked like stink to earn that chance, and it was taken away by the rank discrimination of people who can only see challenge as a problem, never an opportunity.
By people whose instincts are those of my house cats, in other words, not the neighbor cats that live outside.
So posting here will be sporadic for a while. We fly to China on Saturday, to spend some time with my son's former Chinese teacher, who was shocked anyone could see anything wrong with him. Then to Taipei, where he has applied for a scholarship and where I have some reporting to do. Then on to Japan, where I have friends.
We plan on celebrating our troubles, and not succumb to them.
We go with eyes wide open, and hearts as well. If my son's social skills can catch up with his academic skills he's going to be dangerous. Dangerous to all the problems of the world. Make him an outdoor cat, and let him hunt down any trouble he sees.
Then let him excel someplace that doesn't require teacher recommendations, that will identify him on entry, and see where life takes him.
You do the same. If someone tells you no, you ignore them. You keep moving forward and let rejection make you stronger.