A Place Where All is Forgiven
Earlier this month I traveled to Iceland with a group of differently wired teens from my son D’s school. Iceland is an extraordinary place: traversing its starkly magnificent terrain, you have a vivid sense that you’re standing on planetary crust, its transformations unfolding before your eyes. D’s school—I’ll call it A3—is an extraordinary place too.
A3 is advertised as a school for kids who learn differently, but in reality it’s not just about learning differently, but about thinking differently, acting differently, being differently. Or just being different. Some of the students are on the autism spectrum, some have attention challenges, some have sensory issues or social anxiety or gender dysphoria or learning disabilities of various types. Some have no diagnosable condition but are there because it’s the first place they’ve found where they feel comfortable and welcome.
I’ve seen lots of schools for special needs kids, and many have an air of desperation about them. There’s a feeling that their core purpose is to remediate weakness, tamp down difference and make these kids more like everyone else. A3, on the other hand, celebrates its students’ strengths as much as it helps navigate their challenges. The chance to travel internationally is just one example of the trust placed in these kids and the opportunities they’re given to grow into themselves as independent, engaged citizens of the world.
There’s another element there, too, that I became conscious of during our week spent exploring one of earth’s most spectacular landscapes: forgiveness.
By the time they get to A3, most of these kids are used to trouble. In addition to being bullied by peers, many have been subjected to extensive discipline by teachers and administrators. They may have been suspended multiple times or for lengthy periods, or have switched schools so many times they’ve lost count. Some have struck out physically when they felt overwhelmed or had frequent public meltdowns.
So these kids understand some things. They understand what it is to lose control and to behave in ways you’re not proud of. And they understand how hard it can be to live down those episodes in the eyes of those around you.
Given all that, things could go a number of ways. Kids who’ve been victimized, much like adults who’ve been victimized, can easily turn around and victimize others. That’s why it’s critical to create a climate of kindness and understanding, so that the students’ traumatic memories are channeled into empathy rather than anger.
That climate is what A3 works so hard to create. At the beginning of each year they spend a week learning about a range of neurological and physical differences, from dyslexia to autism to hearing and visual impairments. They have speakers and stations and first person testimonials from the students themselves to help all the kids develop understanding and compassion for themselves and those around them. Throughout the year, when behavioral issues and interpersonal conflicts arise, the adult response centers on discussion and understanding. There’s a counselor on staff who’s always around to talk with kids who are struggling for as long as it takes to bring them back to equilibrium. They might take a break from the classroom or from a particular person for a while, but once the cooling off time has passed they’re back in the mix. They aren’t labeled or judged for their mistakes. There’s a deep understanding among students and staff alike that everyone messes up sometimes, and the important thing is to learn from the experience and move on.
A couple of weeks ago, our motley crew of eleven kids and six adults flew out of Detroit at six pm Michigan time and arrived at midnight, which was five am Iceland time.
On the hour-long bus ride from the airport to our hostel in downtown Reykjavik, the kids were both overtired and wildly hyped up, always a dicey combo.
D, who’s fifteen, is very outgoing. He likes to ask questions, and if not reined in, he can keep going for hours on end. He’s used to being asked to stop, though, and if asked politely, he’ll comply without rancor, at least until he forgets and starts asking again. Of course, it’s a lot easier for adults to ask politely than it is for other kids.
D sat up front on the bus with a gaggle of other boys, firing one question after another at them. I was pleased to see him interacting so much, particularly since, on the school’s trip to Italy the previous year, he’d stuck tightly by me and engaged very little with the other students. Although there was some teasing within the exchange on the bus to Reykjavik, it was mostly good-natured, and I felt encouraged.
It wasn’t till later that day when we were wandering around town that one of the other kids—an older student I’ll call L—became extremely irritated with D’s questioning, and started yelling at him with escalating vitriol. I pulled D away, and we steered clear of L for the rest of the day.
The next morning D, chipper as ever, approached L and began his questioning afresh. L answered the first question calmly, but on the second one, his jaw tightened and his fists clenched. “FUCK OFF!” he shouted ferociously.
A wave of heat shot through me.
“You do not talk to my son that way,” I said furiously, my finger jabbing the air between us, pointed straight at his heart.
“He keeps asking me question after question. It’s been a year!” he yelled.
“Then you say, ‘Please stop asking questions.’”
“I’ve tried that! He keeps doing it!”
“He has autism,” I said, my eyes boring into his.
“I have it too!” He wailed.
“You are eighteen years old,” I said, my voice shaking with anger. “You are supposed to behave like an adult. Speaking that way is unacceptable, and I do not want to hear it again. Do you understand me?”
“Okay, okay!” he yelled.
“Good,” said I, and turned away.
Gradually the heat within me subsided. I advised D to give L space, and for the rest of that day—a day spent among erupting geysers, crashing waterfalls, moss-covered lava rock and deeply hewn clefts in the earth’s crust—the vivid drama of our planet’s upheavals and reshapings blessedly replaced the interpersonal drama of the morning.
The next day, equipped with hard hats, we made our way through The Cave Víðgelmir. Volcanic caves like this one form when layers of cooling lava harden into a crust through which molten lava continues to flow, leaving behind an opening. As I ogled the cave’s rippled walls, marveling at this frozen testament to earth’s metamorphoses, I kept hearing L’s plaintive voice in my head saying “I have it too!” Watching his lanky figure slouch through the cave ahead of me with downcast eyes, I felt his vulnerability keenly. So many spectrum kids, while intellectually precocious, are emotionally younger than their chronological ages. Even for neurotypical kids, it’s not like there’s some magic wand that taps them on the head and renders them Adults the moment they turn eighteen. Will D be fully in control of himself in three years’ time? Was I at eighteen? What if L were my child?
And truth be told, D’s questioning can be maddening even for me. Given that, how much can I expect from L, who struggles with many of the same issues? Perhaps my reaction to L was so intense because it reflected my own frustration level on a bad day and embodying my fears about how others may respond to my child.
So yes, these kids have known trouble. And they’ve been lucky enough to find their way to A3, a place where the trouble in their past does not define their future, where they have the opportunity to grow and evolve each day. Isn’t that what every child deserves*, what every one of us, in fact, craves? After all, the earth has been continuously remaking itself for over four billion years. Why shouldn’t we be permitted to do the same?
I approached L at a quiet moment, as he sat in the lobby of our hostel, doodling around on his phone.
“L,” I said, touching him lightly on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry I was so hard on you yesterday.”
He glanced up at me with a small shrug and the barest hint of a smile, then quickly returned to his phone.
And that was the end of that.
*I believe every child deserves an educational setting that embraces them in their entirety. This quality of acceptance is not unique to any one school or any particular kind of school, public or private. I do however want to acknowledge that this particular school is private, and although many families receive aid, it does require a certain level of economic privilege to attend. While this reflects a system of injustice far beyond the scope of this blog post, I did not want to leave it unnamed.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” wrote Joan Didion. I feel the same way. Putting words on a page is always a process of discovery, helping me to make sense of my experience and uncovering unexpected connections between different parts of my life. What about you? If you’re curious to explore your experience through writing, my off-leash writing workshops are designed to help you do it. New sessions start soon! Learn more about the process or go straight here to register.