Words Fail Me

It's been awhile.

My last post to this blog was in August. I was in professional limbo then, still interviewing for jobs, thinking I'd landed a couple of them, then learning that some other factor had altered my chances. Finally I found a principal willing to take a chance on me, but by now, I was counting on anything. I did get that job, very late in the summer, and I'm in it now. It's a challenging position, pushing me into areas I've never explored before. It's also forcing me to be more intentional than I've ever previously been about classroom management, and I think it's working. With as many disappointments as I've had over the years, I'm no longer willing to make predictions. My hope is that this will be the last job of my life, but check back with me in three years to see if I can finally call myself a contract, rather than probationary, teacher, counting down my last four years until retirement.

Keeping abreast of this work has devoured much of the creative energy I used to pour into writing. My last year of teaching in my previous position was fraught with efforts to keep that job, a losing battle when my supervisor's mind had already been made up. That triggered a cascade of emotions and memories from my divorces and the end of my ministry career. It was all I could do to exit that position with some modicum of grace, and I know I wasn't always successful at it. Fortunately, I was blessed with colleagues, friends, and family who patiently listened as I churned through the process--not to mention a counselor who challenged me to let go of the pain, however unjust it might be, because it was doing me no good at all in finding a better place for me to be.

I went to that counselor because I was coming to believe myself to be on the autism spectrum, and I wanted to leverage that condition to keep my job. He talked me out of that, confronting me with the ways in which it simply was not the right place for me to be and, more importantly, that clinging to my anger over losing it was interfering with my self-presentation at interviews.

I didn't get a diagnosis from him. I may never get one. It wouldn't make any difference to who I am, and what I need to do to live the rest of my life successfully and happily. The simple truth is that I have challenges when it comes to social interaction that lead many people to believe I'm introverted and withdrawn, when in fact I enjoy being with people, but have conversational challenges that lead me mostly to listen rather than speak. In a noisy setting, with multiple interactions going on around me, my hearing impairment makes it hard for me to follow any one conversation, and the temptation is just to back off and surf the waves of sound. Engaging in conversations at such times takes added effort, but it's worth it. And sometimes it means backtracking to make sure I finish a story that's been interrupted, or make a point on a topic that's already been left behind.

All this is perfectly normal for me. Those last two words are the epiphany I've been gradually coming into: it's all right for me to roll a conversation or discussion back to a point where I had something to contribute, but didn't get the words out quickly enough because I'm just not that nimble. It's all right for me to be quiet, too, if I find the environment too hectic for me to be able to focus. It's all right for me to be who and what I am.

I haven't always known this; in fact, not knowing it, or knowing it but not accepting it, has been a source of considerable grief over the course of my life. At times I've resented the fact that the social world is dominated by people with conversational gifts I lack, and I've wanted them to make room and time for me, to ask me leading questions that make it easier for me to participate. I've spun my wheels on the injustice of feeling left out, interpreting it as a snub of myself.

Worse than the resentment has been the self-loathing that following from it: why am I so awkward? What's wrong with me? Maybe I don't have anything worth saying. Maybe they're all judging me for being quiet. Maybe I should just retreat into my dorm room or apartment, lose myself in my books, and shed some tears over how lonely I'm feeling.

The truth is different from both of these reactions. The world is a busy, noisy place. Conversation is how humans think together, and yes, it is worth taking the effort to be part of that social thought process. Yes, it's hard for me at times. So is teaching, and I'm not walking away from that until I've got my 25 years in (and maybe not even then: subbing is a great way to pay for retirement travel). And while some people may, in fact, judge me for being awkward or quiet in hectic social settings, that's their problem, not mine.

One more thing about being who I am: I'm really good at making the most of my alone time. I can take long solo treks through the wilderness, explore fascinating new places, dive deep into creative projects, or just lose myself in a book, a movie, a symphony. Time with my wife, my children, my grandchild is precious, but so is time alone--time like I'm spending now, writing this essay in the dark hours between waking up and having breakfast.

I began writing this piece because of some unfinished business: I learned several weeks ago of the death of a college friend. I tried writing about him then, but couldn't finish the project. As I chewed on it, I became aware of how deeply what I was feeling was tied up in the sense that he had been the first person in my life to see me for who I am, and be my friend not despite that, but in large part because of it. I was going to write that piece this morning, but it'll have to wait. Today's project, it turns out, was about doing that same work myself. Which means I'm finally ready to write about Scott--after breakfast.

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