The brat in your classroom
(and the power of narrative)
At Providence's Moses Brown School in the 1970s, Michael John Carley didn't fit in. So he took charge of his own story.
“This is only the box. The sheep you asked for is inside.”
— Antoine de St. Exupéry, "The Little Prince"
Part I: The Providence of others
Kathryn had dramatically positioned a piece of mail beside my laptop. It was from the Moses Brown School.
“What would they want with you?” she said with a laugh.
“Uh, how’d they even find my address?”
We stared at the envelope and joked about what could be inside. An apology? A presumptuous invitation to speak? A highly-uninformed fundraising appeal?
The Moses Brown School was, and probably still is, the school for privileged children in my hometown of Providence, and a long time ago I had been a student. The school for privileged girls was the nearby Lincoln School, where my mother taught. The schools having arrangements with one another surrounding free or reduced tuition for the children of faculty, I attended Moses Brown at no cost from 1st grade until just a couple of weeks into my 10th-grade year.
For the entire nine-plus years, it was a disaster.
On top of the economic disparity between me and my classmates, I was also the only child of a single mother — just 20 years my senior. Her husband, my father, further complicated things, as he had been killed in Vietnam, a conflict so divisive that no one felt uncomfortable speaking their angry mind about, even to a child. And in a comic grand finale to illustrate the inappropriateness of my attending a school like that, was undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, a condition that I and my older son not only have, but is also a field that I now reside in professionally. Back in New York City, where I lived happily for 28 years, I was the founding executive director of non-profits, and now I mostly write or speak on a variety of autism-spectrum topics. But I also consult for schools that are struggling to integrate often “bratty” students with non-apparent disabilities. It’s a subject that colleagues and editors will grimly tell you I can talk about for hours.
We opened the letter.
“Dear member of the Moses Brown community, I am writing to share the sad and troubling news that a Moses Brown alumnus recently reported that he was the victim of sexual abuse by two teachers…”
They were asking for anyone with information to contact an investigative firm that Moses Brown had hired to look into the matter.
Spoiler alert: I was never sexually assaulted by a teacher. There had been an attempt when I was a 6th grader, by an older, 8th grade student. But as soon as he tried to put his fingers down the front of my pants, I hit him, yelled at him (so that all could hear), and that same day reported him.
So I figured I’d trash the letter. I’d enjoyed 35-plus years of no contact with Moses Brown … why ruin a good thing? In the context of “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” my experience at that school might have been the best thing for me. Furthermore, life changed very quickly for me after I left. I was instantly saved by an alternative/hippie high school called School One. After that, I got into a good college (Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts), got out in three years only to be recruited and given a partial scholarship to Columbia University for grad school. I then had wild adventures running from cops in Eastern Europe, more months living out of my car as an eighth-rate Jack Kerouac, shot at covering an election in an economically challenged island nation … all before concurrent careers as a New York City playwright and minor-league diplomat at the U.N., before switching over to the autism/Asperger field after my and my son’s diagnosis.
As a person? Well, I’d say I’m actually quite gregarious, and surprisingly low-maintenance … maybe more confrontational than most of my professional peers, and yes, occasionally this has its drawbacks. (Trust me, 99% of the people who brag that they “tell it like it is”?…They don’t.) But a large part of my brand surrounds the trust that has been accrued over the years because, despite my diplomatic training, actor training, and even a poker background, I still suck at lying (it is, after all, a staple of my diagnosis). And to close what are hopefully my only arrogant paragraphs in this essay, what the heck — I also have a wife and two boys that I feel only a fool wouldn’t envy.
So under no circumstance was I willing to ponder those Moses Brown days under an inevitably defensive examination of whether or not “I’m okay” simply because my time there stunk. I took the letter and reached for the trash …
Until a voice reprimanded me firmly:
The evaluations from Moses Brown that you see here are not dramatic revelations that I’m confronting for the first time. Every once in a while when I speak, I’m asked to present in an autobiographical context. When this occurs, I often use these old Moses Brown report cards (and my school-ordered 2nd-grade psychiatric evaluation) as comedic illustrations of undiagnosed Asperger’s/autism. And in our house, Kathryn, Will, Bo and I frequently joke about this period in my life.
However, when I present them, I usually show the whole report card, like so…
And yet herein I am selecting the more critical quotes. So the extract herein…
…then combines with other quotes from other report cards that are thematically linked (in this case, by academic effort). The result is this:
Clearly, the effect is now very different than seeing an entire, singular report card. Classroom imagery, teacher personality (and how I got under their skin) — perhaps even context and critical thinking are blatantly sacrificed.
But that doesn’t mean that the resulting emotionally manipulative wallop inherent in this new form is a lie. When put through the filter of nine years, this narrative, too, contains another indisputable truth.
Click here for more about Moses Brown School today
Shown through today’s knowledge of neurodiversity, my ex-teachers’ potential for humorous self-incrimination knew no limits. And this whole story, when I shape it through comedy, is usually successful. But in this new form, it’s not funny. The message, broken down, is now much more suggestive of emotional damage. The more empowering context of ignorant and somewhat cowardly grownups who are fighting a child — a hero child — who will not let the villains make him feel bad about the fact that his brain works differently … a hero child who during the worst years signed all his papers “Carley the Great” as a bratty means to declare that his value was not as low as they wanted him to believe? … This now resonates not so much.
In fairness, Moses Brown was dealt the bad cards of a kid with a condition that no one knew anything about. But they also played their cards very badly.
I have always owned my own narrative. It allows me a control I desire, if not need, when presented with a world that confuses me. If I’m writing the script, then I can also strive for … artistry, style, or eloquence … in addition to truth. Artistic choice bestows upon us the ability to tell a more complex story; one filled with nuances that the straightforward, dumbed-down telling disallows. The distance of aesthetic — often bereft of courage — is what allows us to be painfully truthful.
Yet what might surprise you is that the story of Moses Brown and me, as I have always constructed it, is simplistic. It is David vs. Goliath. And David wins. In my thinking, David is not only not a victim, he’s not a “survivor,” either. He doesn’t want your pity or your condescension. He got into a fight, and against awful odds, he won. Give him an ovation. That’s it. Now get out of the theater.
But as any drama student also knows, the secret ingredient of all comedy is tragedy.
(These report cards, in either format, are also communications the school had with my mother. What I received day after day was far less polite than what you’re looking at.)
So my hand stayed, and eventually withdrew without releasing the letter into the trash. My very defensiveness told me that the voice was right. Rapists or not, Moses Brown’s culture certainly bestowed teachers with the perceived right to do anything they wanted to you. I could testify with authority as to the permissive atmosphere that may have encouraged the alleged sexual assaults. Finally, I remembered that nothing was done when I reported the older student to my 6th- grade homeroom teacher — that kid was back in school the next day. By conveying this to the firm, T&M Protection Resources, maybe I could help the unidentified alumnus who had suffered at Moses Brown’s hand far more than I.
My issue now was how guarded to be. Yes, they would sound caring and sincere, but Moses Brown was paying their fee. The driving force in our litigious society lies in filing, avoiding, fighting or settling lawsuits … unless the alleged offender gets lucky, and the story blows away over time. I’m clueless sometimes, but rarely stupid.
I called my friend, Jennifer Borman, the current head of School One. As both the head of a school who knows how these things work, and as a Providence insider, Jennifer would know.
“I don’t think you need to be guarded,” she said. “Whatever Moses Brown might be, Matt [Glendinning, Moses Brown’s headmaster] is not an insincere guy.”
The call with the investigative firm
They were beyond respectful.
When the call commenced on Feb. 21, I was introduced to the three or four women in the room who would communicate in tandem, unseen, by speakerphone. I tried to remember their names by voice but faltered quickly.
They began by asking for basic data — the years that I was there (1971-1980), in what capacity (boarding school vs. day program), before moving on to the subject of potentially inappropriate touching by staff with students. Did I see physical contact of any kind happening to other kids, in the halls as well as the classrooms, did I see kids going off into private areas with staff … etc.
I expected the call to require only my professional opinions, and not any private, personal experience. But on the mere hint of my not enjoying my years there, they probed, and I felt dragged away from the safety of my school-consulting, authoritative distance. I lost control of the narrative.
Of that which I could remember, I passed along the memories of:
- My 5th-grade homeroom teacher, who conveyed that he thought my father was a murderer.
- Several teachers telling me that if I didn’t salute the flag with passion, I was a disgrace to my father.
- My 7th-grade homeroom teacher, who sat me down with an older student and told me that if I didn’t stop being such a nuisance that she would instruct the (smiling) older student to beat me up.
- Repeatedly being told that “Nobody likes you,” by the aforementioned 6th-grade homeroom teacher, or “You are a most unlikable boy,” by a 3rd-grade teacher.
- It was consistently relayed to me that my public-school friends were all criminals, and that the friends of color were “apes.” And thus, if any crimes were committed on campus, I was the first one interrogated … and the last one believed. Not once was I ever guilty of any of these accusations. (However, read on.)
- From a very early age, teachers and other students referred to me as a drug user, citing what are now known as my autistic traits: my awkward motor skills, my difficulty at maintaining eye contact, and because I had very long hair when long hair was not popular (I was a big guitar player). When I had a concussion at age 12 from a recess injury, and was brought to the school nurse, the first procedure she put me through was to check my arms for track marks. One science teacher frequently got a laugh out of the rest of the class by making drug references in my direction (unfortunately, he was my science teacher four years in a row).
But it was he that finally caused me to depart for good. While I was scrubbing a microscope slate, this teacher, to the class’ amusement, asked me if I was “cleaning off the resin.” I quietly put the slate down, walked out, and never came back.
When I became a playwright, a diplomat, an executive director of non-profits, a backup on-air classical music host, or God forbid, a school consultant, and was making my way through academia heralded somewhat (erroneously?) as a super-talent, I kept those Moses Brown days quiet. I assumed these stories were not what people wanted to hear in a supposedly cultured, pragmatic and successful adult; especially one with a demonstrated talent for mediation.
Again, we’ve always talked about it in our house — my boys find the stories of their father’s upbringing to be so alien that it’s actually amusing to them. But somewhere I believed (and still do) that my career track would hit the skids were this (and another — keep reading) aspect of my background to surface. Professionally, someone would disbelieve that I could be restrained, refined or capable of resolving conflict if they knew of such a past, especially given a diagnosis — evident whether “labeled” or not — that poses challenges towards emotional regulation. For I hadn’t just been a pain in the butt to easily ridiculed private-school teachers, I had been a street kid. “Carley the Great” not only didn’t apologize to Moses Brown teachers, he made it a point to throw their criticisms back in their faces.
To provide some context — some of which may or may not defend Moses Brown …
- My 5th grade homeroom teacher, who conveyed that he thought my father was a murderer.
- Several teachers telling me that if I didn’t salute the flag with passion that I was a disgrace to my father.
I unfortunately learned not to trust grownups. I was eliciting no sympathy for fatherlessness from either the passionately left or the passionately right. Even loving family members, whom I cherished for that love, did not “get” me. All their well-meaning suggestions just never worked on an undiagnosed spectrum child. (“Just be yourself”? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible advice for a young spectrum kid.)
So I somewhere decided never to trust any of them, either. Love is more important than trust, and I knew I was loved, but contrary to how we instinctively think, the two are not entwined. So until I was 16 (when I discovered that both my grandfathers were “getting” me) I was on my own.
My mother was young. She was still growing up, too. And while she did her protective mothering, she often felt more like an older sister, a paradox that did not dissipate over time; it grew.
Never negligent, I sensed that she didn’t know what she was doing with me whatsoever, and that so many of her strategies — in everything, not just parenting — were a combination of gut instinct and mere pretense; the act of acting authoritative, the impulsive throwing of ideas against a wall to see if they stuck; and until realizing what I was doing, I later followed her lead and also adopted this special technique of social navigation.
She, too, was learning, and rebelling — against those who felt she needed to quickly remarry (so that someone could “smack that kid around”), as well as against the inevitable and unjust accusations that she was a bad parent. She always provided.
And because the world was so open to her, she never demanded I swear allegiance to any values or principles — an obligation most parents consider a basic duty. She therefore left the world open to me too, and we sort of entered it together. The only subtle push lay in her love of noble rebels. The only demand was that I know that (she and) my father loved me unconditionally.
For counsel I looked to the non-fictional heroes I read about in books, like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. or James Connolly. For fictional heroes there were Zorba the Greek, Corporal Plumpick from the movie "King of Hearts," Wagner’s Siegfried, or Hergé’s Tintin, a comic-book character who never second-guessed an instinct, and who passionately pursued his interests without hesitation.
And when I was youngest, there was Bugs Bunny, who relied on only his quick mind for survival — he never asked anyone else for help. And he was always happy to be alone.
I wanted experiences that would translate into escapist adventures, quickly becoming addicted to stories, writing tales that utilized entire notebooks in one sitting. Most of the time I wrote spy stories with pictures.
But sometimes, as a prepubescent grade-schooler (and among many other “unsuitable” things I did), I would draw gory stand-alone illustrations of soldiers dying in combat. And as we all know, creations like these can terrify adults into thinking the child has the potential for awful, awful things.
Yet I remember distinctly wanting to know how my father had felt the moment he’d been killed. And since no one wanted to talk to me about what he might have gone through — clearly communicating that I was asking an inappropriate and distasteful question — I asked myself, through art.
- My 7th-grade homeroom teacher who sat me down with an older student and told me that if I didn’t stop being such a nuisance that she would instruct the (smiling) older student to beat me up.
I felt some threat, but nowhere near what they wanted me to feel … Yes, maybe the older student, being bigger and older (he was the epitome of the douchebag jock), would win the fight. But before a failed 9th-10th-grade experiment with pacifism, I didn’t go down easily. And unknown to both him and that 7th-grade homeroom teacher, I was protected.
Part II: My Providence
"Providence [prov-i-duh-ns]: the foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth."
Unlike the experiences of 99% of undiagnosed autism-spectrum schoolkids, I was never bullied. For to my incredible advantage, some of the most notorious juvenile offenders in the entire city of Providence — at the time a mob-run, economically devastated dump during the Mayor Buddy Cianci days — those kids and their supporters had my back.
As I entered my pubescent years, they saw from afar that the rich kids didn’t like me, and that I was weird. Well, the rich kids and their parents certainly didn’t like them. So despite being one or two years older than me, despite not being crazy about the “weird” part either, they decided that they would look out for me, take me to crazy parties, expose me to experiences, and create serious payback for anyone who tried to hurt me.
It wasn’t an equal relationship — to be clear, I was a mascot, and sometimes we fought each other — but they were a godsend.
One night, years into my friendship with these kids, a Moses Brown student was part of a group that jumped me. But I got away, and alerted friends to watch their backs. That same night, two of those friends hunted the Moses Brown student down, beat him up, and then leaned against their car while the Moses Brown student lay sobbing in the street. And every time one of my friends finished a beer, they would whip the glass bottle at his face.
When I saw him in school two days later, with the bandages over his eye and head, I forgot myself — I was so stunned — and I asked him if he was okay. To this day, I am sure he saw that as rubbing it in.
That older student was a lucky douchebag.
- Repeatedly being told that “Nobody likes you,” by the aforementioned 6th-grade homeroom teacher, or “You are a most unlikable boy,” by a 3rd-grade teacher.
One could add the words … “at Moses Brown” to their accusations and, with a few rare exceptions, it would be somewhat true. But as I’m now relaying, I had company. Those notorious “bad kids” teased me mercilessly, but even amid my pacifism experiment they never pressured me to go against my values. I always had a ride with them.
Once, I sat on a hill, drinking with many of them, but sitting beside a boy who suddenly went quiet. He stared ahead.
“Mike, you’re going to have it better than us.”
If he was upset about that, it didn’t show.
We both knew I would leave them someday. And I did, almost as soon as I left Moses Brown for School One. It began after they’d beaten up that Moses Brown kid. As grateful as I was, I didn’t want that. Without incident, I withdrew to my wonderful new world.
To this day, I know I stabbed my juvie friends in the back. I abandoned those who had felt more maternal toward me than they would likely want to admit. And no, they did not retaliate for the betrayal. They simply disappeared, almost as if knowing their job was done. I pretty much never saw them again.
- From a very early age, teachers and other students referred to me as a drug user.
I did not do drugs. I had tried pot a couple of times, but each time I felt a panic-inducing, burning ring around my neck. So while I drank like the Irish fish that I was, and had friends that did drugs, I stayed away from them. Drugs terrified me.
All this made the question of “Is Mike guilty or not of stealing my car stereo if he has these kids as friends?” … more complicated. If one of the kids I hung out with got busted for breaking and entering somewhere, I did not protest the guilt by association, even if I never joined my protectors in stuff like that.
I also accepted the hard times. One night, two cops gave three of us a horrific beating in an abandoned building. Another time, when I and a friend took on about 10 kids (on his lead, not mine), I was knocked cold and had a tiny piece of a plastic cup shoved almost all the way through the little area beside my mouth. I was proud to have endured these experiences with them. I was happy to have grown closer to them as a result. I owed them at least that.
For I was receiving far more than protection and adventure. They gave me (and my mother, whom they adored) the greater gift of humanitarian access to lives that almost everyone looked down upon, existences that others seemed more than happy to describe in less-than-human terms. Whether tales of insight or woe, these were lived adventures about Cianci’s Providence that to my surprise, later, in grad school, even street-wise New York City peers wouldn’t believe.
You can see where this is going, right? In reading you can hear the melancholic tone that’s starting to generate, the protesting in my voice that absorbs increasing pathos...
We haven’t arrived at self-pity yet, but we’re on the road.
Well, that’s how the phone call started, too. Within that conversation — in an atmosphere authored thoroughly by T&M Protection Resources — I was initially suckered into the wistful romance. And for the first time in my life, I was made to feel like the victim of this story. Later, I hated myself for having reached out.
They had owned the narrative of my experience in that call, not me. I could storytell as the hero if I wanted to try, but for the first time my version of the story fell on disbelieving ears. In their somewhat strategic silence, they clearly communicated the belief that I was in denial over, or was nobly understating, the damage done to me (I remember wondering if they thought I was looking for that lawsuit). In their treatment of me was implied victimhood and the pall of irreparability — condolences sympathetically conjured and conveyed so that they could appear as though they cared … and probably did.
They asked for the rare positive stories of my time at Moses Brown, and there were three, which I relayed. I also, in nine years, had a few positive remarks made on those report cards (and I include them in fairness)…
My mother once confessed that she cried herself to sleep too many times, worrying about what was going to happen to me. What I cannot dispute is that the Moses Brown years were an ugly time, one that I made worse because I refused to show respect for any of the grownups I came across. Back then, perhaps foretelling of why my pacifism experiment would fail, I heard their “I don’t like you”s and couldn’t respond with anything other than an uninformed, yet instinctive, “Well I don’t like you, either.” This simply escalated things to where they could not see simple, excusable explanations for my behavior (and no, I don’t just mean my autism).
Such as maybe his father’s death in Vietnam was getting in the way?
Such as “maybe there’s some playwriting ability?” (It’s what I got recruited to grad school for.)
If you’re wondering why they didn’t just expel me, well, (outside of sadism?) I don’t have an answer. But I see three possibilities.
One, kicking out the “free-tuition kid” might have caused some damage with their relationship at my mother’s Lincoln School. Two, the word “potential” lay in so many report cards because in most aptitude exams I tested off the charts. And three…
Please… Granted, it was the freshman, not the varsity team, but with the exception of what I recall was only four innings, I was standing on the mound the entire season.
The optics of ugliness
The video replay of my Moses Brown days does not compliment me. The visual, were it available, is not Hollywood. It is ugly with a capital “Ug.”
Were someone to watch me in those classrooms, I would feel shame, not pride, and I would not know who the viewer would sympathize with even if the teacher was furiously laying into me. The romance of those who have to “scratch and claw” their way to variable ascension often belies the visible scratch and claw marks we left. We’re called “brats” with gusto for a reason. Brats often have horrible endings, but they do not slip through the cracks.
Yet the very usage of the word “optics” is there to help us distinguish truth from appearance. As I would discover later, most others on the spectrum who experienced similar school difficulties? They apologized — even when they didn’t understand what they were apologizing for — and in doing so made the short term a lot easier.
But their long-term futures, unlike mine, were filled with anxiety, depression, and a distinct absence of confidence; whereas my sense of self was so through the roof that to the sensitive it still resonates as pompous. And to the confident? ... as glorious.
Recently, in researching a book on sexuality, I also came across a revelation that would help me explain my relationship to the sexual-assault allegations … Without that street-punk mentality at Moses Brown? I would have perfectly fit the description of what a sexual predator is looking for in a minor; missing a parent, relatively friendless, vulnerable…
If I’m “okay,” then did Moses Brown really hurt anyone?
Yes. They did.
A few years ago, my older son was trying to figure out some of the dysfunctions of his grandparents’ generation. He had noticed the strange, contradictory attitudes that my mother, stepfather, uncles and aunts have toward me. Their indisputable love for me lies in plain sight, but there is also much that is unresolved, and he was now old enough to sense and ask about the paradoxes.
He had seen that my elders were conditioned to treat any ascendancy from me … almost as if it had all been a giant con. This generation still jokes about how I need to be “taken down a notch” almost as a therapeutic device, and I allow their insulting banter without insult because the questionable humor they inject into the statements provides them with visible relief. And to me this is infinitely preferable to their resentment, or their disbelief that I could have accomplished anything.
Their baby-boomer generation is unique. They are battling their WWII-generation parents’ — my grandparents’ — hardships. But in doing so, they overreached and became selfishness personified. Yes, they gave us the Pill. But they also gave us climate change. And for the boomers in our family, the death of my father in Vietnam, immediately followed by my lousy start, was a violation of entitlement that, a half-century later, they are still not over.
As a result, many cousins and I receive our emotional support from one another — and not from our parents — because our parents’ needs deny them the ability to be truly supportive. I and my cousins have a special bond; one that we need because we have no shortage of love for our parents.
I did not think to tell Will, 21 then, about all the Moses Brown report cards, and how those reports had traumatized them, my parents’ generation, and not me. I wish I had. My elders nobly worked so hard to be the loving relatives of a child who not only wouldn’t have great expectations, he also, frankly, might have a lot of prison time in his future. A turnaround would have been great, but I’d arguably had too much.
It was not an insecurity over their comparative lack of fame, as Will was speculating — that special jealousy that can only come from families. It was, and still is simple disbelief. For how could all those Moses Brown teachers have been wrong? How? These were people my mother spent nine years with. They’d developed relationships with her. She trusted them … and in large part, still does.
Moses Brown did that to my family. And it prevented them from being able to share in what I, perhaps selfishly, like to think was a beautiful ride.
I did, however, tell my son that, as he knows, his father has a reputation for throwing a good (albeit now a mostly figurative) punch. And maybe I do indeed have that talent. But I told him also that no one sees the larger gift — one that I hope he can learn — the ability to take one.
Moses Brown did that to me.
As we exited the diner, I acted as I hope I have since he was born, when fatherhood changed me from externally prodigious to internally whole. I recited for him that great Chinese proverb: “He who seeks revenge digs two graves.”
School One instantly changed me. The cards they were dealt were the same lousy hand dealt to Moses Brown. But unlike Moses Brown, School One played its cards brilliantly.
Overnight, I went from balefuls of D-minuses to the written equivalent of straight “A”s (School One didn’t have grades). It is the epitome of the corny, crunchy-granola, feel-good analogy of the plant. When a child isn’t working out, we try to fix the kid, and get questionable and unreliable rates of success or failure. But when a plant isn’t working out, we change its environment. When I entered my new school — the converted bowling alley on Pine Street, close to where the sex workers hung out — no one knew of my past blunders or reputation.
It was a clean slate, and I was so happy. Instead of rarely raising my hand in class, I had to learn to let others have turns, because I wanted to raise my hand and answer every question. The school did not require you to attend every class, so I wanted to attend every class.
I would still be wayward. But I would drink and carouse with classmates now — fellow students my own age who were LGBTQ, or brilliant, artsy, free, or all of the above. Instead of real fights, we started fake fights downtown, using stage techniques, just to see how bystanders and shoppers would react. With no sports, proms or yearbooks in our school of less than 100 students, we stayed at each other’s houses when there were fights with parents, we played in bands together, and when someone tried to burn down our “hippie, druggie school” (the rep, but not the reality), we were presented with an unwanted week off from classes. So we spent every day back in school, cleaning up the mess.
We were the outcasts with second chances. Rob K, Jay, Libby, Andy, Graham, Rob G, Jodi, David, Lee, Jeff, Shauna, Kendra, Phil, Jesus, Jeff, Chris, Pat, Debby, Crow, Mark, Avram, Doug, Rhonda, Rachel, Mindy, Gerard … no grownup would ever scare us again. More importantly, mitigating our trust issues was now a gratitude not just to a school, but to the awakening of the very concept of the possible.
I’ve lost touch with most of them. I need to be ridiculously close with colleagues, and I am enslaved to my wife and boys, but the “friends” thing I was never that good at. Typical autistic, I’m still not. But I feel more happiness that so many of them are still close to each other than anyone will believe. From afar or on Facebook, it’s a source of incredible comfort to me.
Close or not, we know that we are forever bound to one another.
“Remember them. Not me,” said the voice, long ago.
I always have, and it wasn’t hard.
The brat of today
That “douchebag” older student was still a child. I can’t even hate the kid who tried to jam his hands down my pants — he was a child, too! And he provided me with an experience that I am not traumatized by, I’m proud of it — I welcome the return of that memory because, despite his being much larger than me, I stood up for myself.
Yet that very value has dissipated.
Especially when there’s no weapon involved, many males and some females have the answer of hitting back at their disposal — to deck someone, and see that surprised, “Holy crap!” moment in their assailant’s eyes. If we lose the fight, we at least have some semblance of having tried to stop it.
And if fighting back allows us to escape?
But we don’t teach that. We still think that bullies stop when they’re not stood up to. We also now teach the sickening notion that getting beat up, and physically hurting for a week — even having bones broken — is so much worse than a lifetime of fear or trauma. Well, restorative progress involves our mental health, too.
So … do it my way. Call the bad guys out. Trust me: anti-freedom, commie/socialist sentiments didn’t kill my father; and neither did the imperialist, American military-industrial complex. Complacency did.
And if the hippies will have you? Then go be mentored, if not saved by the hippies. Because hippies love everybody.
May your brat win his fight, too.
T. S. Eliot’s Third Man … and my third narrative
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
"When I count, there are only you and I together
"But when I look ahead up the white road
"There is always another one walking beside you"
—T. S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"
I can’t go back. Whether I like it or not, both the letter from Moses Brown and the phone call with T&M happened. My David vs. Goliath story probably won’t work anymore.
But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the T&M-induced victim/survivorhood, either. I can, and I do, reject such a hypnotic potion, magic spell, the power of populist suggestion itself.
For there’s a third possible version of this narrative …
Let’s now say that whatever bullet points exist on my resume are not mine. Someone else did them — maybe my career was a giant con. Let’s assume that whatever I’ve done in my life may be nothing more than old money, the inheritance bestowed on me by a certain ancestor — a child, an autistic-spectrum street-trash youngster who, while I can’t call him dead, does not exist anymore. Maybe I am simply the egg created by that child. That only now can I admit … I considered him a detriment to my success, when he was the reason for it.
I am calm as I sense that I am nothing by comparison. I only wish I could grab him and apologize. He fought on instinct only, not knowledge, because an urgency in his gut told him something was at stake. And in the end, that child was more accurate than he knew.
He protected me for nine years as he received blow after blow after blow after blow so that I might be happy, and so that both my boys would never need to be in a street fight. He fought off the bad guys and yelled at me to run. He is my savior, who sensed so strongly (how???) that he was going to get out one day, and that he would be okay.
For a fleeting moment I wonder if it is me, not Moses Brown, who owes him so much more than an apology.
But then I hear that sarcastic punk voice again. The aforementioned “Bugs” and/or “Zorba the Greek” is not pleased with me. He is fully intent on destroying my reconciliation fantasy.
“What … Are you gonna wash my feet too? Have some &*^%$ self-respect!”
In addition to being a proud School One grad, Michael John Carley is the founder of GRASP, an organization of adults on the spectrum; a school consultant; and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), the upcoming “Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum … and Beyond!,” and the column Autism Without Fear. For more information, go to michaeljohncarley.com.
Moses Brown today:
Like many schools, Moses Brown has changed the way it deals with students who have learning differences over the last four decades.
Today, Moses Brown says on its website, “we celebrate and cultivate every student’s unique strengths and passions, and support every student’s unique challenges and areas for growth.”
Because “those strengths and weaknesses can be academic, social, or emotional,” the school employs a full-time counselor and psychologist, as well as a math specialist, reading specialist and spiritual counselor.
Each student, the school says, gets individualized support, including “coaching on executive function, time management, and study skills. They learn to plan, prioritize, and advocate for their particular learning style.”
Services also include speech and occupational therapy, tutors, yoga classes and guided meditation.
-- Journal staff
Editor's Note: A brilliant work of memoir
We don’t often get a front-page story that comes in, unsolicited, through our email. Even less often do we get one that turns out to dominate an edition of The Sunday Journal the way Michael John Carley’s piece “The brat in your classroom” does today’s paper.
But I’m glad Michael emailed in April to see if we’d be open to a story about his 1970s experiences at Moses Brown School. The result is an extraordinary piece that sheds an unconventional kind of light on the life of a person on the autism spectrum.
Michael didn’t write again until the end of July, when he sent a behemoth of a manuscript (or as he put it with characteristic panache, a “monster”).
I wrote back and asked him if he could cut it in half, and make it less academic, concentrating on his own experiences. He warned me that half would be hard, but managed to cut it to 61 percent -- yes, he did the math! -- of its original length.
And there we paused as I and other Journal editors considered the piece more closely.
Michael is an accomplished person with a dazzling resume that includes writing three books, as well as a column that ran for four years in the Huffington Post; founding and directing organizations that help adults on the spectrum; and speaking at both the United Nations and congressional hearings. He’s also been a playwright and classical-music host, and worked for various agencies in Cuba, Bosnia and Iraq.
His piece was brilliantly written and executed, and if I had been editing a magazine like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, I would have run it without question.
But was it right for a newspaper?
Its massive length would push out other stories we might carry. And it’s more a memoir than conventional journalism. It doesn’t interview other people; it doesn’t weigh multiple points of view. It‘s not in the world of objectivity.
It also, as a memoir, reflects only a particular time period, decades ago. Would it be fair to Moses Brown -- or to School One, which is also mentioned -- to run a piece that of necessity doesn’t show those schools as they are today?
What Michael’s story does, though, is to convey the reality of a child who attended a school -- prized by many -- where he just didn’t fit in. And it contains lessons from that experience that are worth listening to today, even though times have changed from the days he describes.
With Michael’s blessing, we’ve added a box that explains what Moses Brown does today to help students with different learning styles and abilities. Michael added a line to make it clear that School One’s reputation as a “hippie, druggie school” was never accurate. And -- though we never show stories to subjects in advance -- I was delighted when Matt Glendinning, Moses Brown's current head of school, responded to the story's early online publication. You'll find his statement below.
The result is a package that opens a window into one person’s life -- and by extension, the lives of others who don’t feel comfortable where they are.
That’s a perspective worth hearing.
Alan Rosenberg is The Journal’s executive editor.
On Twitter: AlanRosenbergPJ
Statement from Matt Glendinning, Head of School, Moses Brown School
The cornerstone belief of Quaker schools like Moses Brown is that everyone has an Inner Light. We believe in the dignity and worth of each person. Unfortunately, when Michael Carley was a student at Moses Brown in the 1970s, he was not treated with the respect that every child deserves.
Educators at the time knew far less about Asperger’s Syndrome than they do today. As a result, MB did not provide the kind of support and understanding that Mr. Carley might have benefitted from as a child.
In the decades since, Moses Brown has significantly enhanced its ability to support students with a range of social, emotional, and cognitive needs. We recognize and celebrate the differences among our students as part of our larger commitment to honoring their Inner Light.
While Mr. Carley’s story clearly reflects a different time, we are heartened by the way he has harnessed his inner strength, overcome significant challenges, and achieved personal and professional success. This is truly worth celebrating.
Another pillar of our value system is truth. We stand by everyone’s right to speak their truth, and while Mr. Carley’s memories are painful to read, we are grateful to know about them. At Moses Brown, we hold ourselves to high standards of excellence. When we make mistakes, we address them and learn from the experience.
It is unfortunate that we did not have the opportunity to know about or share our perspective on this story before the Providence Journal published it online on October 25. We are disappointed that the newspaper of record in the state of Rhode Island disregarded basic principles of journalistic integrity and professional courtesy.
Head of School, Moses Brown School