By Guest Blogger: Jesse A. Saperstein
We were the last generation to enjoy primitive video games where we could function without the constant bombardment of relentless, and addictive, game play found with Angry Birds as well as its brethren. We experienced the lushness of economic prosperity in the eight years of Bill Clinton. Recession and Depression were merely buzz words from years before we were born. There were definitely realities we should forget, but it is my choice to hold on for dear life. I have never been able to let go and this perseveration may be attributed to some of my life's biggest successes. It is why I completed the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail and published a book back in 2010. I choose to hold onto the bad stuff. This is partially why I returned to the yin-yang symbol of beauty and ugliness.
On the date of Thursday, October 18. 2012 I had the privilege of delivering a speech to the Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA) of the Arlington Central School District. Back in 1996 - 2000 there was no such organization in existence. There was also no IMPACT program, which thrives in the middle and high school. The IMPACT program caters to mostly students on the mildest end of the autism spectrum. It exists to provide a haven while letting them experience the rest of the school community. Most important, it always reinforces the notion there is something to fight for and everybody has something profound to offer those who give them a chance. There was plenty of bullying during the days without an Anti-Bullying Movement. There were
also teachers who failed to understand that my uniqueness was something to be nurtured and not a flaw that needed correction. But somehow, with the absence of our modern understanding, I was still able to thrive within the halls of Arlington High School. The mercy not delegated from my peers in class was obtained in many of the extra-curricular
activities that I tried over those four years. Life was marred by traumatic bumps like an intense, six-month case of cyber bullying back in 1999, but it is not hard to find nostalgia.
On that Thursday evening I had the gift of giving a semblance of hope and realistic advice to parents with kids in the Arlington School District. They are worried about the present and future. Like my mother and father, they may want to instill in their kids a sense of normalcy and help tone down their eccentric behavior. They are hurt by their child’s isolation and want them to be embraced with the rituals of dates to the school prom...tasting victory in a sports game…and all the rituals that are supposed to speckle the high school experience. My mother and father frequently told me, “You can be as weird as you wish. But keep in mind there are going to be consequences.
The social isolation would be far less intense if we could accept one inalienable truth. We are all a little weird in our own wonderful ways. Wonderfully weird, if you will. I brought out a cup-and-ball toy and started playing with it. Then I invited an audience member on stage and she got into it. This silly, “inappropriate” toy became addictive and fun. It was important to remind the audience that when they learn their child is affected by a lifelong disability…they experience a whirlwind montage of milestones that may not come to fruition, such as those corsages at the prom, standing ovations, nights out with friends at the movies and other venues of teenage euphoria. These moments in my childhood have been few and far in between, but they have definitely thrived just a little. And the greatest way to help their children is by focusing on continuous and relentless compromise. No matter how ridiculous or age-inappropriate a problem may seem…it is important to first focus on the compromise before trying to force a determined child to “just let it go.” I have come to accept and embrace this characteristic a long time ago. I cannot and will not let go or move on. I have instead learned how to compromise, put something on a backburner, and the most effective quality of all…move forward.
There was an unusual amount of passion in my words that night despite the fact that I was still fighting off the aftermath of a horrific cold that brought me to my knees for a solid week. The passion was also very personal because of the lessons and contrition that the Arlington Central School District infused in my life long after I had left the classroom. When I graduated college and completed the Appalachian Trail…I decided to take a small step backwards before moving forward with my life.
My college education had been devoted to taking English and Educational courses because it was my career path to be a teacher. Every test pointed to this career and I was also aware of my power to make a contribution. My immaturity coupled with the Asperger’s syndrome ruined these prospects. Six years ago in 2006, I attempted to substitute teach within the Arlington Central School District and was met with disastrous results. As I explained to the audience, my outbursts in the classroom were not involuntary like Tourette’s syndrome, but they were as close as possible! It was not an uncommon occurrence for me to pull a stunt like answering my cell phone in the middle of class or make a reference to the overpowering sexiness of Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives. This was the first time in my life when I realized there would be brutal and long-term consequences for behavior exacerbated by the demons of Asperger’s syndrome. And there have been consequences that have haunted my life for six years.
The Arlington Central School District was the only school that was fair in terminating my employment during those days of pain and harsh lessons. Other schools made up reasons such as, “You accidentally told a student your name is Jesse instead of Mr. Saperstein” and “We did not feel you related well to children.” Returning to advocate for the abilities of the current students and myself was both powerful and cathartic.
The past six years have been spent building my life back and proving that I am not going to be a liability in future, employment venues. I have taken on jobs that were initially not for me and I certainly did not belong. But they worked out when they should have failed. And with that said, one of the most important qualities that will lead to success for those on the autism spectrum is this same tenacity.
I am never going to stop fighting for myself as well as those students struggling to build back their life after a rough start. It was clear the audience was ready to join me! Every day there is a little more to fight for as well as the hope that I may someday return to the familiar halls as a Human Sequel and become more of a consistent voice for my peers…