A LETTER TO MY HIGH SCHOOL DEPUTY PRINCIPAL.
The year before I started at the school, I read Gordon Korman’s “I Want To Go Home” about a Canadian boy called Rudy Miller, who was a loner, sent to summer camp against his will on the advice of his school guidance counsellor. After a tranquil scene was set of the brightly painted trims on the cabins, freshly mowed sports fields and boats bobbing at the dock (it was set on an island), it moved into a letter written by Rudy’s parents to the camp director, Arthur Warden, whose grandfather, Elias Warden, founded the camp. Arthur Warden was a socially conservative man who could not accept that such a person as Rudy Miller could exist. As such, despite reading the letter warning that the camp counsellors needed to have patience with Rudy, he tossed it in the wastepaper basket and forgot about it.
How misplaced his attitude was to be, with Rudy Miller’s response to things being, “I don’t.” On the first day, Rudy Miller was the first to arrive at Cabin 13, and had the pick of the bunks. What should have been a red flag to the counsellor, Chip, was instead dismissed as Rudy being “a little homesick.” In that cabin, Rudy was to meet Harold Greene, a short boy who was like some of the teenage boys I was to meet at school. What Harold Greene didn’t know, and didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, was, he was at camp because he wanted to be, while Rudy Miller wasn’t.
The magistrate who committed Mark “Boogie” Heke to be a ward of the state at Riverton told him that, “We all didn’t like school as youngsters, young man. We went because we had to,” didn’t understand that it wasn’t that he didn’t like school, rather, he was bullied by other kids. Now, I know, as well as anybody else, that many kids don’t like school (I did) but sorting kids into classes was almost as arbitrary as interning Germans, Italians and Japanese in the Second World War in Australia. Pro and anti-Nazi German Australians were interned at the same camps, and this was to cause some friction. Year Eight was a year where everyone did the same subjects, so you had academically inclined kids in with non-academically inclined kids.
To her credit, my mother came to see the school to ask that I not be put in the same class as a bully, but you did what Arthur Warden did. To my mother’s shame, she did not follow it up. What could have made a difference was, if we’d have been in different classes, and that would have meant not 8K instead of 8L but one in 8B and one in 8L, we could have been at alternative ends of the school, so the bully might have been at the other end of the school at the time of a break, so he might not have even seen me then. As was to happen with kids who had gone to the same primary school, where there could have been two classes, to high school with 12, many of us did not see people we went to primary school that often if we weren’t put into the same classes.
I used to think that he turned the kids against me. I take it back. Many of the kids, once they got to know me, may have decided I wasn’t their cup of tea, but I remember you saying that everyone had the right to walk around the school without fear of abuse. To which I say, some of the conventional theories have been having friends would prevent bullying. For many autistic kids, however, we needed recess and lunch to decompress after spending 80 minutes to two hours in classrooms, and that time needed to be solitary. Most of those kids then needed to be told, “Right, just because someone is sitting alone at lunchtime, does NOT give you the right to think, “Oh, so and so has no friends, so I can bully them.”” Leave them alone!
One of my strategies for dealing with it would be to allow autistic students to have an autistic common room serving as a safe space for autistic students to eat their lunch. I would also say for autistic students that while sport may be a compulsory part of the school curriculum, if there is a teacher willing, maybe allow some autistic students who want to, to do an individual sport rather than a team sport. Or even say, a teacher can take them ten-pin bowling instead. And if other students start asking why, maybe say, “Look, you’ll get your turn.”
The education system has changed, and mainly for the better.
An early autistic student at your high school.