March 24, 1982: my 21st birthday party, and everyone else was having a better time than I appeared to be having.
Fifteen years and approximately 4000 students into my career as a music teacher, I've met and taught students from across the spectrum, from those so high functioning their autism presents as only a mild quirkiness to nonverbal children who express themselves through screams. In that time, I've rarely met any child who more than superficially reminded me of myself.
Occasionally, there's an exception. There's a fifth grade boy at my current school whose single-minded enthusiasm for Harry Potter comes across as slightly obsessive, and who becomes deeply upset with his misbehaving classmates. I feel a real kinship with this well-meaning, nerdy kid, and imagine I probably came across the same way to my teachers when I was his age. However disturbed he feels at his peers' disrespectful attitude, he mostly presents the same face: serious, sincere, and, for the most part, serene.
I wrote recently about my flat affect, and the ways in which it leads other adults to misunderstand me and misinterpret my feelings about any given situation. To experience my enthusiasm, you have to engage me in conversation, which I'm unlikely to initiate on my own, fearful you'll find my interests quaint, quirky, or, worst of all, annoying. (Apart from being hard to read, I'm practically illiterate when it comes to reading my fellow adults.) With the help of a therapist I'm seeing now whose specialty is autistic children, I'm in a season of epiphanies, becoming brutally aware of how my resting stoic face has held me back in both my careers and, very likely, my personal life as well.
Human beings dislike vacuums, silences, and blank canvases. We tend to project our own thoughts and feelings on and into them, not stopping to think that what appears to be blank may, in fact, be a living, feeling person with profound thoughts and emotions.
I had an experience of this last night. Amy and I played in a ComedySportz show (she was on stage, I was in the sound booth at the keyboard) and a long-form improv show called "Mystery Science Tribute Show." There was a strange vibe to both shows, but I had fun for three solid hours. Afterward, a group was going out for drinks at a nearby bar. I yawned mightily (I hadn't slept well the night before), and Amy asked if I just wanted to go home and to bed. "No," I replied, "I need this."
And I did. I had more fun hanging out with these improvisers. I didn't say much--remember, I don't often initiate conversations, and when a group of extraverted improvisers get together, there's rarely room for someone as cautious about talking in large groups as I am to get a word in edgewise (though I did, of course, show off pictures of my grandchild at the first opportunity). One of the topics that came up was me--or, rather, couples like Amy and me, improvisers with quiet partners; more specifically, introverts.
There was a lot of irony in where that conversation went, especially in the fact that I didn't verbally participate in it--again, there really wasn't any space for me to insert myself into it--but I didn't take offense. In fact, I actually had an epiphany, which I shared with Amy as we were walking back to our car through the rain.
It's actually two interconnected things I realized about myself. The first is that, while I'm not now, and probably never will be (though never is a very long time, so don't count me out yet), a performer who does well playing drama games on stage with others, that doesn't mean I'm not an improviser. Much to the contrary: I've been improvising with words since 1986, when I first stepped in front of a congregation to preach without a manuscript. I wrote out my sermons for the entirety of my full-time preaching career, but only on a handful of occasions did I take any notes in the pulpit with me, and by the time I left my last pastoral appointment in 2000, I was quite capable of preaching coherent, passionate sermons with an elegant throughline extemporaneously; in fact, that's what I did for the eight or nine years after that whenever I was called on to preach at Metanoia or the Church of the Good Shepherd. I'd read the appointed text for the service, and take off from there.
As a teacher, I've put those skills to use as storytelling has become an essential part of my classroom tool box. I've honed and enhanced this talent throughout my career until it's become one of the most powerful things I do with my students, something I know can engage even the most difficult of classes. It's a full-on improv performance when I do it: I'm constantly reading my audience, tweaking details of the story, adjusting its tempo, throwing in new subplots, pulling out parts that I know won't work. Weirdly, I can only really do this with children: adults are so hard for me to read, I know my storytelling for them, while artful, is never as deftly interactive as it is with children.
So the first epiphany I had last night was that, despite my not appearing on the CSz stage except as a musician, I'm just as much a professional improviser as any of my funny friends. The second, which will come as a surprise to a lot of people, is that I'm not an introvert.
This is something I've known at a deep level as long as I've been aware of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy. I've allowed myself to be grouped with introverts because it's easier on adults who need to categorize the people around them. Like an introvert, I'm often quiet in conversation, can be hard to engage with in a noisy environment, and am skilled at entertaining myself when alone. But notice my choice of words: "like," not "as." Because unlike the classic definition of an introvert, I don't find my energy drained by social gatherings; in fact, depending on the noise level, I often come away from them energized. Remember how I started this discussion of the trip to the bar: I told Amy I needed this. I needed to be with people whose company I enjoy, to help me get my mind away from the frustrations and humiliations of my exit from a job I have loved, but which has not loved me back. I needed to be with adults who valued me as a human being, in the same way my students (even some of the most obnoxious ones) do, but the administration of my building and school district does not: people who accept me for who I am, even if they don't really understand who that is.
This has always been the case for me, as it is, I see every day at school, for high-social-functioning spectrum kids: we need friends who don't judge us for being different. Until I hit puberty, I always had friends like this. From sixth grade on, though, it became far more difficult for me, as I've seen happen to children I've taught: impending adulthood brings with it prejudice and even bigotry toward people who don't easily fit into the categories expected of them.
Miraculously and wonderfully, in college I managed to find a diverse group of friends who accepted each other's quirks and disabilities and just loved each other. Graduation day was one of the saddest of my life up to that point, and my roommate had to walk me out of our room to my parents' car as I sobbed uncontrollably when it was time to leave Willamette and embark on life as an alumnus. One of the things that draws me back to ComedySportz, again and again, is that these are people who accept me as I am, even if they do occasionally project thoughts and feelings on my blankness rather than asking me what I'm really thinking or feeling.
To come back around to this epiphany: I feel things deeply, and I enjoy being with people. When I'm not around others for extended periods of time, I feel myself shriveling up, and I can become intensely lonely, as I was for much of my adolescence. My quietness at parties is not shyness, and I'm not being tired out by having lots of people around me, or counting the minutes until I can escape back to my quiet home. True, it's hard for me to be part of a conversation in which loquacious people don't pause long enough for me to speak up--though ask me a leading question, and I'll speak eloquently and at length. One thing that will cause me to sink into the cushions is noise levels: my hearing impairment makes it very difficult for me to follow conversation threads when many people are talking simultaneously. I can tune my hearing aids to focus on the person I'm looking at, but that's hard to do in a busy party environment. When that's the case, I may seek out a room with fewer talkers, and I may become frustrated and decide to leave early after a time. But it's not an energy thing: I'm not drained by the presence of others (for God's sake, I spend my work days in the company of hundreds of children), and while I can enjoy myself, by myself, for a day or two of exploring a new city (Brussels and Amsterdam were awesome), I'd rather do it with a companion.
I wish I could have shared these epiphanies with the group last night; but then, I was just starting to have them, and not yet ready to articulate them in the moment. If someone had taken the time, and made the space, for me to think out loud, I could have enlightened both them and myself. As my therapist is helping me realize, though, I can't expect other adults to make that kind of allowance for me, which means it's up to me to learn how to insert myself into a moment, rather than (as I've done for much of my life) resenting them for not extending me what I've interpreted as courtesy. In a world of extroverts, I've either got to assert my right to be heard, or go on being interpreted as silently judgmental, shy, or an introvert who can't wait to escape their company. None of those things is true. I want to be around them, and a part of their conversation, just as much as they want me to step up and be heard.