Oddly Normal

I had the opportunity of reading Oddly Normal, a memoir by John Schwartz about his family’s experience.

Oddly Normal

Image source: http://www.npr.org/2012/11/05/164201946/an-oddly-normal-outcome-for-a-singular-child

This was an eye-opening and valuable experience because it helped me to better understand the emotions and struggles of a family and an individual during the difficult, vulnerable years in which I plan on teaching. It is important to be able to see things from the perspective of parents and students. The following include some of my disruptions, connections to classroom discussions, and thoughts about the implications for myself as a future teacher.

  • My points of disruption; places in the book that caused me to to feel uncomfortable, angry, or curious:
  • It was disturbing to realize how much discomfort his parents were in. I am not a parent, but reading about the incredible lengths to which Joseph Schwartz’s parents went in which to help him to be safe, happy, and successful was astounding and humbling. It made me realize that as a parent, I will not have control over who my child is and what they choose to do. It is disturbing to realize that even when a parent may love a child so deeply, sacrifice for them, do their best to teach, help, and guide them, the child may still not be happy or have positive outcomes in life. And it is disturbing that so much of the child’s emotions and experiences are assumed by the parents. At times in this book I almost felt worse for the parents’ struggles than for Joseph’s. It is comforting to tell myself things like “if I just love my child and teach them what’s right, they’ll make good decisions and they’ll be happy.” However, that is not necessarily true.
  • More specifically, building off of the disturbance above, it was disturbing to me how frequently the author (father of Joe) talked about feeling fear everytime the phone rang because it could mean that there was a problem with Joe at school. This just seems like an incredibly anxiety-intense lifestyle that would be exhausting and endlessly-demanding. It makes me tired and stressed out just thinking about it now. And yet, I know parents for whom situations like this are a reality. It is disturbing because I feel like it is unjust for them to not be relieved of this fear and pressure. It is also disturbing to think that if I become a parent I might very likely face a similar situation.
  • It was disturbing to realize just how blatantly immature and careless some of Joe’s teachers were. For example, his fourth grade teacher horrified me because he seemed actually verbally and emotionally abusive of Joe. It hurts me to think about children I know who are different having to deal with a childish and power-hungry teacher. And it makes me angry to realize that such teachers are employed. It disturbs me because I like to imagine that all teachers love their students and care about their jobs and do their best.
  • It made me so frustrated to see how much this family had to struggle WITH THE SCHOOLS and “the system”. Although both the family and the school seemed to genuinely want to help Joseph, the school system was so inhibiting, uncommunicative, and unhelpful at times and it caused a lot of stress and frustration on both ends which is frustrating to me because I feel like the school and the parents should have been able to avoid that if they had just been more cooperative! This is, of course, to say nothing of the unnecessary strain that these unresolved issues likely placed on Joseph. It seemed to me, for at least half of the book, Joe’s parents were trying to find ways to communicate “what worked” with Joseph to his teachers and administrators and the school also tried to help but rarely followed Joe’s parents’ prescriptions. It is disturbing to me from both perspectives: first, that as a parent, it can be so difficult to navigate the school administration system and to get the help for my child that is appropriate and that he or she needs; second, that as a teacher or administrator, that there are so many legal and cultural inhibitors inherent in the school system that make it difficult to provide the support that could benefit students socially, psychologically and academically (for example, in the book when the school was resistant to creating a gay-straight alliance or providing other resources for gay kids because of fear of how other parents might react).
  • It was so surprising and disturbing to me how quick Joe’s teachers were to diagnose him with a multiplicity of syndromes and disorders. Instead of looking to themselves and their own management and teaching practices, most of the teachers blamed Joseph’s behavioral and social issues on often unfounded beliefs that he had some level of autism, asperger’s, a sensory disorder, or ODD. The book described teachers diagnosing him at almost every turn, even before seeking to help him through modifying their methods with him. This was frustrating because it often seemed like Joseph was just so misunderstood and despised and it felt really unfair. It disturbed me that the teachers, who knew little of Joseph (and even less of psychiatry), felt justified in giving him a label instead of trying to learn about him and treat him as a human.
  • It was disturbing and painful to read about how other kids, from elementary school on-up treated Joe and how he was isolated. It made me so sad to think about how accustomed he became to being essentially friendless. I want to feel like everyone has an advocate and I want to feel like I would be the one to stand up for Joe or be his friend (or that I would have a child that would). Reading about how he was bullied and the specific things that kids would do just to get a reaction out of Joe reminded me very vividly of things I saw or experienced in elementary school and how it emotionally affected me, even without being directly involved. I remember instances very similar to when Joe got his sweatshirt hidden, or when he cried in the noisy lunchroom, or when kids called him “lemonhead” while he wore his yellow rain jacket. I remember “weird” kids that other kids would torment because it seemed funny. It was so disturbing to realize that this really happens but also that it is not innocent! Mindless teasing like this really does have an effect, and how could I not see that when I was in elementary school? I read this book asking, “why can none of the kids go sit with Joe at lunch or invite him to play or stop the teasing?” But I realized that I was very likely one of those crowd-following kids myself.
  • This brings me to another, related point of disruption: how can I teach my children to feel empathy and to have courage to stand up for others? How can I get these two things myself as an adult? I’m sure that not all of the badly portrayed kids and adults in this book were actually bad people with evil intentions. I think they were just thoughtless; it disturbed me to realize how frequently I have been very thoughtless about how I treated others and what the affects of that might be.  
  • It was incredibly frustrating to see how little the school responded to what the parents communicated. For example, in elementary school, when Joe struggled immensely with his fourth grade teacher, the school refused to switch him to another class, for little reason more than tradition and convenience. Likewise, they seemed to always be on the side of the teacher and affirmed his teaching while knowing it was less than satisfactory. In this situation it seemed as if the principal cared very little about Joseph and even about the other students in his class and in the school. It is disturbing to think that the principal would be so careless about his students’ experiences and that he would so blindly support teachers over children.
  • It was disturbing and sad that they middle school which Joseph attended seemed to say it was “okay” that Joseph was gay, but required him to not be too overt about it and to not let it disturb other kids. Even though the school was okay to help other students through various difficulties including depression, learning disabilities, eating disorders, etc., the school and the community clearly had underlying homophobia which pervaded its policies. It’s disturbing because I feel like this will likely be a type of school in which I might work. Although it is not overtly anti-gay, I will have to be a vocal advocate for individual students like Joseph and policy changes that may go against what is popular in the district or in the community.
  • At points in the book, it was honestly disturbing that Joe’s parents expected so much of the school. For example, at one point his mom wrote and email that said that Joe had come out as gay and they (Joe’s parents) didn’t know what to do, but the school needed to come up with a solution so that they could all work together. While I liked and agreed with the suggestion that they should all work together, I felt that this was a rather demanding and unfair assignment to give to the school, especially after the parents had been so frustrated by the schools many failed attempts to help Joe in the past. However, it made me realize that there will be parents that will hope that I (or the school) will have answers and solutions for them and that I can help solve serious problems. It is a huge responsibility.  
  • One small thing that was really disturbing and mostly saddening to me was the experience of one of Joe’s gay “uncles” (gay adult mentors). He said that the most encouraging thing he heard from others in all of his experiences of coming out to them was from a professor who told him that being gay was “a gift”. He talked briefly about how this affirmation really encouraged him to have a positive outlook on life and to love himself and appreciate his unique perspective. It was one of the few things that was said to him that didn’t put being gay as an automatic disadvantage. I think this was so disturbing to me because I realized that the way I think about gay people is probably always that they have an incredible disadvantage. I really never consider the benefits, the beauties, and the advantages of being gay. I realized what a prideful and selfish attitude that is for me to have. And I realized how much harm that could do to a person. My soon-to-be brother-in-law is gay and since I had this realization, I have felt bad whenever I have heard his family or others talk about how disadvantaged he is because of who he is. I have had to talk to my fiance about how I feel about this.
  • Places in the book that provide examples of the ideas we have been discussing in class:
  • John Schwartz cites many of the statistics that we examined in class discussions and readings about obstacles and opposition that gay teenagers face. For example, he talked about the statistics of middle schools in supporting and affirming gay students. According to surveys, only one in ten middle schools seem actively supportive of gay students and it is extremely rare for middle schools to have programs and clubs like gay-straight alliance. Because most people assume that few people will come out as early as middle school, society generally feels it is unnecessary to have such overt clubs and programs for students at this age.
  • Joseph was “the other” in pretty much all of his school and social experiences. Because of his gender nonconformity and sometimes his emotional outbursts, he had a difficult time feeling comfortable in very many school situations. Evidence of this is in the way he “acted out”, causing teachers and administrators to label him with autism or an emotional disorder. For example, because he had poor coordination, he would sit or lie on the field during sports, create a disturbance, or fake an injury. Joe therefore developed very few intimate relationships with peers and adults. The adults often saw this as defiance and sought to correct it in ineffective ways. Teachers often contributed to Joe’s being “the other” by actually mocking him in front of the class or using him as a scapegoat.
  • Joe didn’t like being “the other.” (This may seem like an obvious point). Just as we discussed in class that most students with disabilities prefer to be treated as “normally” as possible, Joe resented having to do things differently than others. For example, when he had to have an aide come in to sit with him and help him work, he disliked it because it made him stand out from the other students.
  • The experiences of Joe in interactions with other kids, especially straight males during adolescent years confirm some of what we read and discussed about bullying of gender nonconforming students in their adolescent years. Even before Joe came out as gay, he was called derogatory homosexual-referencing names by boys who were trying to assert their “straightness”, masculinity in power. This relates to the “fag discourse.”
  • Although Joseph’s parents tried their best to be accepting and supportive, the book does discuss some of the challenges for many gay teenagers who have unsupportive parents. It talks about how certain community centers, such as one which Josephs visits in Manhattan, have become refuges for these teens. He also meets many teenagers who have “been kicked out by their families or abused.” Some of his friends told Joseph, “I wish I had your parents.”
  • There is evidence throughout Joe’s experiences in school and with therapists of “deficit-mindset.” Nearly all of the adults Joe interacted with saw him as “missing” some essential piece or pieces, and each tried to diagnose and determined what that was. Because many of them saw him as inherently “lacking”, they less-readily acknowledged his strengths and capabilities. By giving him special treatment (positive or negative), it changed Joe’s view of himself and his capabilities, often inhibiting him further. For example, when his “lunch bunch” counselor moved him into a group of all severely autistic kids, Joe felt that he should not be held to a higher standard than them because he could not control himself either. Joe began to see himself as disabled and incapable of change. Even though Joe himself wasn’t diagnosed then with autism like the other boys, he began to see himself the way he assumed his counselor must have seen him.
  • How stories in the book influence my thinking about my future work as a teacher:

This book encouraged me to think about how I will manage my classroom and interact with students, teachers, and parents in the school system; however, it also helped me to consider how I can “build up” my students through my individual relationships with them. I think this story illustrates the incredible influence which the school environment and the teacher can have upon an individual, and by extension, a family. The effect is quite profound. The times when Joe had a more flexible, committed teacher and the times in which he and the teacher were in constant battle had huge influences for his mental and emotional health, and for the the climate of his family life. It is really humbling to realize how much what I do might in the classroom and school affect others. I realized that I want to be a teacher that can help my students feel the advantages of who they are, like the teacher described above who said that being gay was “a gift.” I cannot see my students with a deficit mindset. The story of Joe emphasizes ways in which love and understanding grow and encourage adolescents (and people in general) far more than shunning, labeling, and criticizing. On a very specific level, I know I cannot be like Joseph’s first and fourth grade teachers who behaved more childishly than their young students. I don’t want to be confrontational and I never can afford to alienate or humiliate a student in front of her or his peers. Instead, I hope I can be affirming, warm, encouraging, and accepting. Even if I have to let “the little things” go, I know that the most important thing I can do for my students (which must be the basis of everything else) is to love, accept, and try sincerely to understand them, as a human being.

Another important practice that this story underscores is the vitality of being willing and able to cooperate and communicate with students and parents. It is so important to have humility as a teacher and to work towards the same goals with the student and his or her parents. It is okay to be wrong, but it is important to do your best to correct your actions and to improve. Parents and students can help me do this. This is only possible through clear and consistent communication.

This story reaffirms the responsibility I have as a teacher to make a stand against practices and policies that inhibit student safety and success, both in my classroom and within the school. I will have to have courage and conviction to voice my opinions even when they may be unpopular. I need to make my students my number one priority and advocate for their rights. I therefore need to be very actively aware of what is going on within the school; I cannot just lay back and casually teach. I need to watch for signs of bullying, discrimination, segregation, etc. and defend the student by advocating for change. I also need to constantly evaluate myself and be aware of my own often subconscious prejudices so that I can correct my tendencies to think and act in ways that can damage my students.

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