Category: Social Issues

Dear  Pauline Hanson: Autistic children are not the flaw in our education system.

Dear Pauline Hanson: Autistic children are not the flaw in our education system.

Dear Pauline Hanson,

When I first heard you proposed that autistic (and other disabled) children be removed from mainstream classes, I was angry. You asked Australia to go back and review exactly what you said in context. So I did.

I’m no longer angry. I’m frustrated and disappointed.

You argue that teachers are too preoccupied with children who have special needs to adequately attend to the rest of their class–and you are correct. You are absolutely correct.

But this preoccupation isn’t due to children with autism or disabilities being present. And children with different abilities are not placed in “mainstream” classes to make them “feel included” or “less hurt”.

Allow me to explain.

  1. ALL children in the classroom have special needs.

    All of them. No exceptions. The way that we teach children is fundamentally flawed, it accounts for only the tiniest percentage of people who learn effectively in a traditional classroom environment.

    This environment is only just beginning to acknowledge students who learn best by methods outside of lecture and repetition. It is only just beginning to recognise that there are intelligences outside of being able to recite times tables.

    In a classroom the variation of ability is not as simple as disabled and non-disabled. No two kids are at exactly the same level in every aspect of their education, and teachers are charged with understanding each individual child to help develop their weaknesses and provide pathways to excel in their strengths.

    Teaching to a range of learner types, at very different stages of learning, is an enormous challenge. Especially in the primary system where one teacher is responsible for the general education of an entire class.

    Our system doesn’t allow for the attention that every child should get. It just doesn’t. Teachers are pretty marvellous beings, but even so, a single teacher can only be in so many places at once. The issue isn’t too many children with special needs, it’s too many children competing for the attention of one. It’s a classroom system that doesn’t cater for the different ways in which children learn.

  2. Autism is not always a negative in the classroom.

    Children with autism are often especially gifted in a particular area, “leaps and bounds” ahead of the others as you put it. They aren’t holding anyone back. Teachers could–and should!–encourage autistic (or any) children with a particular gift to work with their classmates who may be struggling in that area.

    Why? Learning to help others is a lesson in patience. It’s a lesson in truly understanding what you’re teaching. It’s a lesson in cooperation. It’s a lesson in communicating. Learning to work with others is knowledge you can’t just get off Google–and this is what we need to be preparing our kids for more and more. Information is great, but social and communication skills are far more important.

  3. Mixed-ability classrooms develop social skills and tolerance in all.

    School isn’t about learning facts anymore. It’s learning how to exist in the world, and how to be a good person. When you rob a classroom of its diversity, you create a false world where differences are abnormal. Children are then not socialised with those outside of what they know, and rather than viewing each other as peers they see aliens. People they don’t feel they can understand.

    The best way to teach children how diverse and wonderful humans can be is to have that representation in the classroom.

    For children with aspects of autism, socialising may not come naturally. Having examples of their peers on which to model and test their behaviour is one of the most effective interventions you can get. I act as “normally” as I do almost entirely due to my observation of others my age—an opportunity I would not have had if I were segregated out of a mainstream class.

  4. Autistic children are not all the same.

    Not even close. If you imagine the range of life and academic skills as a bar graph, the level of the bars for an average person doesn’t vary very much from skill to skill. They have strengths and weaknesses, but overall it’s pretty level.

    In a person diagnosed with autism, these bars are all over the place. Language abilities may be a huge tower, but mathematical skills is almost 0. Psychologists call it a ‘spiky profile’ of abilities. Autism is an intense variation in strengths and weaknesses. My social skills (very low in early childhood) might render me “disabled” but my language abilities (very high) say the opposite. What would happen to children like me in a special school? Would my gifts be forgotten in a room designed to rectify weaknesses?

    You can’t solve the issue of teacher attention by taking out all the kids who are classed “autistic”. You actually make it worse. What you have there is that same mix of different abilities as you find in a regular classroom… on steroids. A single teacher, however superhuman, will not be able to provide that group with the learning support they need.

  5. A child needing intensive teacher support should not be relying on the main classroom teacher for it.

    What you seem to be referring to are children who are so challenged by their autistic traits that they require extensive teacher support. That does indeed drain the teacher’s time.

    These children should have aides. Someone dedicated to providing the learning support they require so that it doesn’t impact the teacher’s ability to teach the rest of the class.

In short, segregating a subset of children from classrooms will not work. You simply recreate the same issue in two different classrooms. A teacher with no “disabled” children still needs to cater for an incredible range of intelligences and learning types. It robs children of their ability to learn from each other, actively and passively. It robs them of the chance to understand someone different to who they are.

The system is the fault, not the children in it. A system that expects teachers to effectively manage and balance their time between so many variables. A system that requires schools and parents to jump through fiery rings of paperwork just to provide one child with the support they need. A system that devalues the complex work our teachers do, while asking more and more of them every day.

Our schools need help. Our teachers need help. If we truly want to create an education system we’re proud of, we need to invest in it. Get aides beside those children who need them. Let our children learn from each other. Bring down classroom sizes and let our teachers bring out the best in all of their students. Let them teach rather than tying their hands with paperwork and ineffective testing standards.

This isn’t about avoiding the “hurt feelings” of children with autism. This is about ensuring that all our kids get a well-rounded education.

And we need to all be in it. Together.

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‘I better talk to one of the boys.’ — The maddening daily sexism I face from customers.

‘I better talk to one of the boys.’ — The maddening daily sexism I face from customers.

I don’t normally get up-in-arms over matters of sexism. I should, but I don’t. I’m more concerned with the over-arching rejection of anyone mildly different from ‘normal’ than I am with gender-based discrimination. I don’t really understand the concept of gender, either… it seems very arbitrary to assign people a stereotype of traits based upon their biological construction.

Who I am, and how I am, is entirely separate to my reproductive functions.

That said, I encounter casual sexism almost every day I work. Since I began working in a shop that sells electrical components, AV equipment, computer supplies and other marvellous gadgetry, I experience it all the more.

Here’s a conversation I have at least once, if not twice, a shift:

Me: Hey! How can I help?
Customer: Oh–I don’t think you can. It’s okay, I’ll wait for one of the boys.

I have to smother the urge to roll my eyes, bash my head against the counter, and shake people by the shoulders. No matter how many times I hear those words, it never gets less maddening.

A few days ago, I approached a customer in my usual, bright way. Here’s what he said to me:

Customer: You won’t be able to help me. I need someone who knows electronics. You don’t look like you know electronics. If you know what I mean.

Sigh. If I know what he means? Honestly—I wish I didn’t. I wish there was actually some visible presentation for ‘electronics specialist’ that I clearly don’t have, because otherwise his judgement was entirely based on the fact that I am a 5’6″ petite female.

He was right. I’m not an electronics specialist, I wouldn’t have been able to confidently answer his question. But being right about what I don’t know doesn’t make it right for anyone to assume I couldn’t know it–not without asking me.

Fun fact, the staff member who did help him ended up using Google to find what they needed to know. Pretty much what I would have done.

Then there was this fun moment from Friday night:

Me: Hey! Anything I can help you with?
Customer: Probably not, I’m okay waiting for one of the boys to free up.
Me: Are you sure? He might be a while yet.
Customer: Yes… I’m sure. It’s a computers question, I think a boy is best to ask.

Anyone who knows me will here applaud my restraint in not screaming.  I explained that I do have extensive computer experience, including certifications, and that I was well qualified to answer any questions.

I am. Computers is what I know. I’m no genius, and there are certainly those out there with more knowledge than me, but I could safely say that I have a greater amount of computer knowledge than the average person. Including the ability to spot a missing molex power cable from a fuzzy photograph and recommend it as the required component for the machine.

I shouldn’t have to justify my right to serve a customer by flaunting my certifications. I shouldn’t have to begin sales by explaining why I am able to make the recommendations I do.

What I don’t understand is what must go through people’s minds when they see me in the store. Is there some assumption that I was hired as an ornament? Like a vase of flowers to pretty up the place, or do they assume that I am there as some nod to gender equality?

While the company does love that this particular branch is finally not an all-male store, that’s not why I was hired. I was hired because I’m a nerd.

I was hired for my love of computers. I was hired because I knew the difference between a HDMI and a USB cable. More importantly, I was hired because I was eager to learn about the wide range of interesting items that the shop stocks.

And I have learned, let me tell you! From someone who thought that all power adapters were essentially the same, to being able to select the right replacement based on required voltage and amperage. I’ve learned the names of, and can identify, most common connectors. I know that the backup battery in your NBN box is a 12v 7.2Ah. I can  talk you through the pros and cons of a wired or wireless security surveillance system.

None of this knowledge came harder to me because I’m female. Nor do my managers expect me to know less than my male colleagues. I have sales targets based on the exact same metrics as they do. I am held to the same standards. So why is it so hard for people to accept that I am exactly as capable as the others hired beside me?

There are two especially annoying points to the computer knowledge example. One is that the male staff member I was working with has no clue when it comes to computer components. He has other areas of special interest, but computers confuse him. Nothing wrong with that! Except when people assume he knows because of his male appearance.

The other is that the customer who assumed my lack of knowledge was also a woman.

It’s far more common than you think. In my experience, women are far worse for assuming my capabilities than men are. Perhaps they assume because they don’t know, I shouldn’t either? I don’t know, but it’s disheartening.

I ended up talking to her (and her son) for a while about the problem they were trying to solve, and I think I well and truly proved my point—I know what I’m talking about. But again, I shouldn’t have to do that.

People should just assume that I’m talking shit because I’m trying to sell them things. You know… how you treat every other salesperson out there.

Oh well. One day at a time, one customer at a time… slowly proving them wrong and bringing a little more belief in girl nerd power? I guess that’s what I’m here for!

Did we just assume that icon’s gender?

Did we just assume that icon’s gender?

In a mind-boggling bid to reduce subconscious gender-bias in Victoria, lobby group Committee for Melbourne announced plans to pursue a 1:1 ratio of male and female icons at pedestrian crossings. A trial has been approved by VicRoads and the first lights have been changed in Melbourne already.  So far the costs of changing fittings have been absorbed by a local electrical company. Meaning, thankfully, the tax payer isn’t funding this madness.

Yes, I think it’s utterly mad. Not because I am against gender equality–far from it. In addition to being a rather pointless exercise that will likely have no effect on the public whatsoever, I feel that this is a step backward for gender equality.

Firstly, the icon presents as a woman because it wears a skirt. Forget for a moment that some poor person had to try (and failed) to design a skirt-wearing icon that didn’t look like it had broken legs. Just… try to forget that while your brain screams about how the leg shouldn’t be going that way–ohgod it looks painful! Forget it. Forget!

This isn’t some back-water conservative town–this is Melbourne, so why do we have to put a skirt on it to call the icon a woman?

Because that’s what we’ve always used to denote a woman?

Sure, but that doesn’t make it right to perpetuate the skirt-wearing female icon in a state that considers itself to be progressive, in 2017.

Women wear pants too, it’s one of the wonderful things about being liberated and equal to men. We probably already have a 1:1 ratio of male to female pedestrian crossing icons. Did anyone ask them? Did we just assume the gender of all those icons?

It’s a step backwards for complete gender equality, too. Adding a skirt to an icon represents nothing more than a clothing choice in a progressive society where gender barriers and bias are truly broken down.

There are more gender expressions than ‘male’ and ‘female’, there are more ways to physically represent those genders than there are stars in the sky–is every Victorian going to get their own pedestrian icon carefully designed to represent their gender?

I would argue that the addition of a skirt only adds more gender bias, not less. It reinforces the idea of a binary gender system in a very destructive way. It reinforces the concept of a woman as some skirt-wearing broken-legged being, a particular presentation of a woman that we have tried to get away from!

A pedestrian crossing icon is just that. If it means so much to reduce subconscious gender-bias by changing the street fixtures, take away the icon altogether. Make it a pair of genderless legs! It doesn’t actually matter.

What matters is that we approach equality for all, not just for the traditionally accepted models of gender.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

Photo: Twitter / Nine News

External vs Internal: moving away from gendered profiles in autism.

External vs Internal: moving away from gendered profiles in autism.

There are problems inherent in the way that ‘female autism’ is being researched. Curiously, they appear to be the same problems that occurred in the initial research and diagnosis of aspergers. The same language and biased research issues that led to the missed diagnoses of so many autistic women looks set to repeat unless we become aware of the implications of gendering a condition.

Understanding that females can also be autistic is an understanding long overdue. The misconception that autism and aspergers were conditions that ‘belonged’ to males was caused by a focus on males as research participants, and lack of understanding in how autism presents in different individuals.

As researchers and diagnosticians continue to build a ‘female profile’ of autism, we should be cautious of the suggestion that this presentation only occurs in females. It doesn’t. Just as some autistic women have a textbook ‘male’ presentation, so too do autistic males display symptoms that are currently considered ‘female’.

Therein lies the danger. By qualifying a set of symptoms as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, we encourage diagnosticians to disregard a potential diagnoses because it does not fit the assigned sex of a person. Those who research their particular presentation before seeing a therapist may feel there is something extra ‘broken’ about their brain if the ‘gender’ of their symptoms does not match their own gender expression.

Instead, I propose an alternative way of classifying the two autistic profiles that escapes gendered language.

Through my research and personal experience, I believe in every person (autistic or otherwise) there is a particular factor that describes how that person will react to most situations. As autistic people frequently find themselves in situations that are at ‘odds’ with ‘normal’ culture, how that person views their place in relation to the world is highly important.

It comes down to this: external versus internal.

External autism is how I would describe the textbook ‘male’ presentation. When the individual discovers a difference between how they operate and how the world operates, that individual is likely to come to the conclusion that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. This leads to a more open and authentic presentation of their autistic symptoms. They display more obvious social disconnect, are more likely to act in appropriately, less likely to bow to social convention, and often have a level of self-assurance in all that they do.

Internal autism (or the basis of the ‘female profile’) is the opposite. An individual of this presentation, when faced with a disconnect, believes the world is right and they are wrong. They are more likely to ‘learn’ social rules as a means of becoming ‘right’, to be crippled with self-doubt, to mask behaviours in a way that complies with social conventions, and are often misdiagnosed or missed completely due to their ability to play the part.

Both sides of the autistic coin are weighted with their own pros and cons, and through this lens of internal and external we can see how typical autistic behaviours manifest differently.

An externally autistic person, upon being caught in a conversation they find utterly boring, may well just say “You’re boring me now” and end the conversation with little understanding (or desire) of how to politely exit a conversation. An internally autistic person caught in the same situation may instead ‘play along’, nodding as they feel appropriate.

The externally autistic person takes charge of the situation as they believe they are correct, while the internally autistic person lets majority rule.

I would love to hear your thoughts regarding this classification of autism. On the mark, or miles away? How else would you classify autistic types?

Reconciling evolution and intelligent design.

Reconciling evolution and intelligent design.

Fair warning, this post is about religion. I’m not a religious person–but I’m fascinated by the structure and influence it has. I admire those who have the strength of faith to believe in what cannot be proven, and those who take these ancient teachings and utilise them to be generous and kind. I hope that my thoughts below carry my respect for others’ belief. However, if you find religious discussion confronting or uncomfortable, you may wish to skip reading this blog.

If you are religious and find your way through my thoughts–I would love to know your view.

Why is a twit like me thinking about religion so much?

I was raised to believe in what I chose to believe in, so for the most part that was the hidden magic of the universe that you see in books and movies. I hoped every day desperately that I would catch my toys interacting in the dead of night, a tiny world that nested within my own. I attended a church with my grandparents and siblings on the weekend, their way of giving my parents some much-needed peace, but the miracles of the Bible just never grabbed me in the way it does others.

I liked the stories, and I loved the massive lunch they held once a month. I got enough familiarity with the routine and structure of church that I eventually decided it wasn’t for me, and I would have to find another activity with free food.

Simply put, I couldn’t suspend my belief enough to accept the Bible as a historical source. I still can’t, and I think it’s downright amazing for those who can.

I do think about it a lot, though, especially with the influence that religion has on society. Trying to reconcile happenings in the world with oft-quoted Bible verses keeps me occupied.

Genesis vs The Big Bang

One thing I never really ‘got’ about Genesis was the concept of the world being created in seven days. This makes very little sense if you consider that prior to there being light, there was likely no way to measure day and night. But then, who are we to assume that a God’s concept of day and night is the same length as our own?

The magic-wand approach of ‘intelligent design’ just doesn’t seem right. Why magic a universe from the depths of nowhere, when you could grow one? Why go for instant gratification when you could pull cosmic forces from hither and thither, smashing them all into one ‘big bang’ and forming the beginnings of a baby universe?

I don’t see how the Bible and scientific theories of universe creation are incompatible.

Remember too, that when these tales were initially formed, society didn’t have the deep scientific understanding that we do now. You could assume we were told a story we would understand, one of magic and wonder. Much like a child’s fairy tale before the child is old enough to comprehend that these things (allegedly) don’t exist.

God as a scientist.

So if we assume then that God is the instigator of the ‘big bang’ and our universe is His pet project, we then begin to see God not as an almighty magician, but as something better. A scientist!

This does mean putting aside the idea that God’s way always is and always was perfect. Perhaps in days of Eden it might have been, but whether you believe that sin and corruption changed the course of the world–or that God allowed nature to grow as it would–you can’t deny that the world has been evolving and adapting.

A close friend advised me that God gave man free will, that man could choose to love Him independently. The concept of the unknown element, ‘free will’ ties in nicely with the idea of us as an ongoing project. Another teaching claims that after the original sin, man was given the freedom to seek his own salvation in goodness and worship. In other words–God let us loose upon the earth to see what we would do.

Choose him? Better ourselves? Tear the world apart? In giving that free will, God himself was unable to know the outcome of the universe. Sounds like a pretty awesome project to me!

Evolution vs Intelligent design

With me so far? This one can be tricky. Once again, we’re going to assume that Genesis is a story told to man based upon how they understood themselves at the time. That is, a race that could stand, walk, and communicate.

Evolution suggests we weren’t always like that. Evolution suggests that we evolved, like all other organisms, from the smallest building blocks in the universe. The Bible states that we were made in God’s image. The fight over what view is correct has been raging since the theory of evolution first arose.

They’re not incompatible. We assume that the Bible means our current shape and form, because that is what we know. We don’t know what God’s image is. God, as is commonly accepted, is an all-knowing presence with no corporeal form. There’s no evidence that contradicts the idea that God Himself is able to change forms, and plenty of evidence that humans have evolved over time.

We were created in his image, and molded further to suit the changing planet, perhaps?

The universe as an ongoing project.

I’ve said a bit about this already, but the idea of our universe being seven day’s work and then sitting back to see what happens? Doesn’t sound much fun for God. I think evolution tells us that if He is the driving force behind all creation, he is still creating.

The world is changing and reacting in ways that He may not have predicted. Adjustments are needed, punishments are delivered and rewards are given. Over centuries organisms grow or lose tails, shed or grow fur to suit new climates, breed and diversify into the complex kingdom we live in.

What if we’re not just discovering new species of animals, but he is creating them for us to find?

Could you imagine the pure joy that God must feel as we explore and discover these creations? Pride when we broke our world down into building blocks, atoms and cells. Excitement at our discoveries, like a parent for a child. This is why I especially can’t get behind the Religion vs Science idea. God is science, and science is God’s magic.

On developments since the time of writing.

I can accept that the Bible may (in places) suggest that homosexual relationships are not acceptable. But remember, in this time and age, there was a great need for people to populate the earth. If men lay with men, and women with women, the progress of man would have been hobbled. We were not in the fortunate position we are now, where so many brilliant minds carry society forward.

We no longer need the reproductive power we did in Biblical times. ‘Go forth and multiply’ is no longer feasible when the world is bowing under the strain of overpopulation.

There’s a study done with rats by John Calhoun (1962) that I think illustrates this nicely. A number of rats put in an enclosure of a certain size will grow the population to a point–and then it plateaus. Put those same rats in a larger enclosure and the population will grow again, until the optimum population is reached and once again the numbers plateau. For any size ‘world’, there is an ideal number of inhabitants.

The rats controlled their own population by becoming bisexual, homosexual or asexual. As the rats were unable to flee the situation, the end result in most cases was a pretty scary dystopia–and there are plenty of counters to Calhoun’s research that suggest human society is less likely to follow that exact path.

However. If God works in mysterious was, and we must assume He does, how is homosexuality not a perfect solution to overpopulation? He’s not taken away the ability to love, but broadened the acceptance of other options and the idea that not all relationships must create children. We no longer need to multiply, but we do need to love and care for each other. There are children without families and families that cannot have children–it may be a literal match made in Heaven.

There are many verses in the Bible that speak to social contexts that no longer apply. Clinging to the words on the page may be inhibiting society’s ability to move forward with His grander plan.

The vast difference between Old and New Testaments illustrate how God adapts from guiding man with lessons built on fear, to the gentler acceptance and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Society changed, and God’s method of guidance did as well. Not everything that was acceptable before is acceptable now–not everything that was unacceptable then is still unacceptable now.

Basically? The truth is bigger than the Bible.

If I had the faith, that is what I would believe. The Bible was a guide book for centuries ago, one that can inform us of where we came from–but has limited use in our current social context. In accepting that the world is changing around us, and that this is by God’s doing, it also needs to be recognised that Gods plan is also changing.

Therefore, a thick volume of preserved words can only tell us so much. For the rest we need to take the spirit of God’s message (be kind, be generous, and love one another) and ask ourselves how it applies to the world as it is today. And from then, trust that if we act with that message and with God in our hearts, that we are acting in accordance with his plan.

I may not have God in my heart, but I do wholly believe in the message–insofar as it teaches love and acceptance. I see churches turning closer to this, and it makes me happy. Religion is a very powerful tool in society, and it should be used to bring people together–not tear them apart.

Especially not over ancient, difficult-to-translate text.

Eye Spy

Eye Spy

I’ve got some questions, especially for people who know me relatively well. Also for those of you who are bizarrely not adverse to eye contact.

First: do I make eye contact when I’m speaking to people?

I’m honestly not sure. It came up in a text conversation with a friend overseas. Thinking about how to answer that made me extremely curious and aware of the things I do when holding a conversation.

I don’t like eye contact. Making eye contact requires a super-human level of effort that I’m not prepared to put in when the result makes me feel uncomfortable. When you’re making eye contact, are you supposed to look someone directly in the eyes? Is that where your focus is supposed to be?

joey-s-eye-contact-o

It’s possible that I am making eye contact in a normal and comfortable way, maybe I’m interpreting the idea of eye contact as a focused stare. It feels like a stare. No matter how many times I blink, the weirdness of it doesn’t go away.

Eye contact makes it harder to focus on other aspects of the conversation, too. Like–the actual conversation. If I’m making (what I think is?) proper eye contact, the rest of the world seems to fade out and all I can see is just eyes. Goodbye mouth, nose, and eyebrows… you are just a pair of eyes at the end of a big black tunnel. Feels like it’s almost physically sucking me in. It’s creepy.

I’ve never been told one way or the either that I make too much or too little eye contact. I’ve experimented with forcing it (all the guides on being successful mention eye contact) for the duration of a conversation, or letting myself be more comfortable and allowing my eyes to wander where they will.

No one has ever commented. That’s probably a politeness thing.

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When I force eye contact, I seem to be less aware of my surroundings. Is that the creation of interpersonal intimacy? If so, I really don’t enjoy that. Partly because I miss chunks of what’s being said. You know, the words–the point of having a conversation. Experts say that the eyes can communicate a lot, but I think all mine have to say when making eye contact is ‘GET ME OUTTA HERE!’

I’ve noticed that I watch lips a lot. I like the way they move. I like the way faces move in general. I like seeing where the light falls on the different planes of the face and how it shifts with different expressions.

Thanks to GIFs animated with subtitles, I’ve begun to decode lips as an information source. In GIFs that contain a person speaking, even without the dialogue subtitled, I can usually guess most of the words spoken and even the tone. I know, because I go back to find the same clip with sound. I sure can’t read someone’s lips across a room, but I can read the odd word or mood. I think that’s pretty cool.

So I guess it makes sense that if I don’t make much eye contact, it’s because lips are way more useful. I’m also still looking in the general area of the face, which could be mistaken for eye contact. Or maybe the flicker of my gaze up to the eyes and back to the lips is eye contact. Seriously, I want to know: is eye contact something you’re supposed hold for more than half a second?

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Still, I prefer conversations where there’s no expectation to look at the other person at all. Talking in the car is my favourite. I prefer to sit beside people rather than opposite them, or to be in a situation where it’s acceptable (or even expected) to pay visual attention to something outside of the conversation partner. Dates where I’m sat across the table from someone are incredibly uncomfortable and I generally end up fidgeting with the salt shaker and staring at my hands.

As a kid, I remember being told by my peers that I needed to ‘open my eyes’ more. They made me practice sitting with my eyes as open as I could possibly force them as practice. Subtle bullying or a genuine attempt to help, who knows? I like to think that it was genuine. There were a lot of things they tried to ‘fix’ about me. Perhaps it started with pity, a genuine desire to rehabilitate my poor friendless self, and somewhere along the line it just went bad.

mean-girls-ms-norbury-awkward

I’ve wandered from my point… again. I don’t remember precisely where the half-open eyes thing came from, but I do remember it was a conscious decision on my part. I saw a lot of things on TV, or things my siblings did that I tried to imitate for the same effect. Things I felt would make me more sympathetic, more appealing to others. Things I thought would endear me to new friends that I could then keep for a happy lifetime.

It probably came from an advert. Some elegant supermodel. I remember one other facial expression I practiced, a positioning of mouth and tongue that made a baby on the TV look so cute I wanted to snatch him up for myself. It made me look moronic. In fairness, I was eight.

As far as I know, I now open my eyes properly. Or at least, it’s a strain to hold them open further. Sometimes I do that to try and make them look bigger and more round.

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For those of you who do make prolonged eye contact, I’ve been told it feels very rewarding. Like a long-distance hug. I have questions for you.

  1. Do you experience that same fade-out of the rest of the world?
  2. How long do you maintain contact before breaking away?
  3. When you break away, do you resume it almost immediately, or do you have to look at something else a bit before you return to more eye contact?
  4. What percentage of a conversation do you think you should be making direct eye contact?
  5. Do you get bothered by people who don’t?
  6. Do you feel uncomfortable not making eye contact?
  7. Is it really that nice making eye contact with people or is that some sort of myth?
  8. Is what I describe myself doing eye contact or not?

I’d love to hear experiences across the board, but especially from people who do seek out eye contact. You can leave your responses here in the comments, or on my Facebook page here!

Weird Primary Friendships

I used to hide behind trees and watch the other children play. I’d observe friends laughing and skipping, running around the playground and wonder–where could I get one of those? I wanted things to be like in books and on TV, where everyone had that one special friend who knew them inside out.

I’d drift from group to group, looking for a place that had a me-size hole but I never really found anything. When it became painfully obvious I didn’t fit in, I moved on. Sometimes to pester my little brother and his friends, because, he was my brother and he had to play with me.

I have a lot of memories of building sandcastles on my own, wandering the school yard, and being told off for trying to walk and read at the same time. There was a little spot in the library that became my favourite, curled up under the fire extinguisher in a tiny alcove that housed the W-Z books. Authors with surnames starting with W/X/Y/Z became my favourite, they became synonymous with this safe and solitary place I’d made for myself.

Books were a double-edged sword though. The Babysitter’s Club especially (in spite of the first few chapters that were almost identical repetitions of the same information depending on the leading character, and I skipped these pages) hammered hard the importance of friendship groups in life. I wanted one, I wanted it so bad I dreamed about it.

I’d always wanted a close friend. A twin, preferably. For pillow fights and staying up telling stories. It was the driving force behind my demand for a sister (who was a very disappointing lump of screaming flesh when she arrived, not at all what five-year-old me was hoping for). At eight years old, I still hadn’t managed to secure this all-important best friend thing.

Somehow, something was different about me. Something other kids saw and avoided. I was terrible at sport, and too good in class. I got on with adults best. I thought that cats were (still are, fight me) the most majestic creatures and I devoured information on them. I collected hundreds of cat ornaments with the help of family. I could spend hours arranging them across the table by height or colour, or what ones I liked best on a particular day.

Cats were the key, I decided one day. An aunty had given me a packet of cat stickers that I’d been hoarding (I’m always afraid if I use something up, I’ll have a better use for it later and regret it) for a special occasion. I couldn’t think of any better reason. There was a girl in my class who was bright, funny, popular.. and most importantly, she loved cats. There was a starting point here.

So I opened the pack of stickers, and removed one sheet. One for her, one for me. Hers I put into an envelope and wrote her name on it in the best, neatest handwriting I could manage. We were in the same class, and my handwriting was infamously horrible. My pen license had been revoked three times. My sheet of stickers went back into my drawer for safe keeping, where my sister later found them and stuck them all over the wardrobe door.

I’d so cleverly disguised my writing that she didn’t know it was me. I held onto the secret, afraid that if she knew, I’d be ridiculed. I didn’t know why–I never knew why–other kids avoided being around me longer than a lunchtime. I’d put sincere effort into this. I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid that like the older kids, who actively called me names by now, she would reveal a disgust with me that I’d then have to face every day in class.

I don’t remember why I confessed. I just remember doing it. She was surprised. Delighted. We talked about cats, and I was invited to gather with her friends. I thought I’d ‘made it’ finally, and I’m pretty sure my parents and teachers alike breathed a huge sigh of relief when I managed this sort of normality.

There was a pretense of protection there. One of the main antagonists in my life was my new friend’s cousin, and with so many other girls around I believed I was safer and more secure. More accepted. Some days I was.

None of this was miserable for me–not even the periods of loneliness while I tried to find my place, it was my normal. I wanted to fix it, but it wasn’t unpleasant all the time. I had three siblings I could boss about, and older cousins that I considered good friends. Being bullied by older kids was less than fun, but again–it came with a sense of normalcy that bothers me now more than it did then.

The group was large, and there was a pecking order. I was always at the bottom, but I never saw it as a slight. I was happy just to be part of things. When they tied knots in my hair, telling me they were ‘braiding’ it, I believed. When, for the duration of an entire day, they pretended they couldn’t see me, I started to believe I actually was invisible.

What I struggled to believe was that these girls, who I adored and wanted to be like, would betray my trust.

There were upsides and there were good times, too–I stopped focusing as much on classwork and interacted more with my new friends. I spent an entire afternoon ignoring the maths work I was supposed to be doing, and joining with a friend as we telepathically tried to encourage a storm to start. We didn’t want to go out and play sport that afternoon. By fluke, the rain came just in time.

I went to parties and joined netball teams, and agreed with the things they did, disagreed with the things they didn’t. I was always easily swayed by strong opinions. I changed my football team because I didn’t want to be ‘wrong’. Essendon was overrated. I had legitimate fun, and discovered interests I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t regret any of it. I repeated a year of school to ’emotionally and socially catch up’, which changed my world. No longer was I in the same grade as older kids who taunted me, I was now in the same grade as these new friends.

A year or so later, I moved schools just before the start of fourth term. The idea was to get a head start settling in before my final year of primary school, and I knew it would be far more manageable in the mornings and afternoons. The new school was closer. Plus, their Grade 5/6 camp was to Canberra. Canberra!

Two weeks into the new term, I was… as you would expect. Drifting in a sea of new people at school, and desperately calling my old friends when I got home. They tolerated it for a while, until one afternoon I finally got told: ‘Stop calling, we were only friends with you because we felt sorry for you’.

I don’t remember if I ever called again. I do remember crying for hours.

I was awkward and shy at the new school. I talked too much when I should have shut up, I beat a grade six boy out of his prized ‘best at maths’ title. I answered teacher’s questions and read the sorts of books that only ‘good readers’ could read. I was simultaneously a show off and shy, no matter which way I went it didn’t endear me to the others at all.

Children have a sixth sense for oddness. Difference. The older they get, the keener it is, and they can’t put words to it. Just mistrust and avoidance. You’re weird, I don’t like that. I didn’t know how I was weird, and I promised myself every day that I would find out, I would fix it, and then I wouldn’t be a bother. People would like me.

Some people did. Kids who had to sit beside me in class got to know me better. I’ve always been creative, curious, and quirky. Those are fun things! But playground structure meant that, even though one girl swore to the moon and back that we were best friends for life–we weren’t allowed to be seen spending time together. She was strict on that.

So I drifted, and looked forward to after-school visits and sleep overs. Spice Girls and telling each other stories, dropping plastic bottles of water from the treehouse until they split on the concrete. Good, happy memories.

When I graduated primary school, I made myself one promise: I wouldn’t let that happen again. I would have friends I could spend time with in class and at lunch. I would be what I had to be, do what I had to do, and I would be like the others so that I could be part of it all. I would succeed, this time. Changing primary schools hadn’t given me that chance, but twelve-year-old me was determined. High school would be it.

And it was. But in a very different way.

I found friends that not only wanted me around (genuinely!), they still do (suckers). They wanted me to be me. I found people who wanted to bounce ever-increasingly weird hypotheticals off each other, and who didn’t roll their eyes when I got answers right in class. They asked for help. They gave me help.

I don’t hold a grudge against the ones I knew before. Kids are kids, and I was a weak target. I can’t ignore the good that I got out of it. I choose to be thankful for it, and for the lessons I learned the hard way. A good many of those girls are adults that I can now have a great conversation with. They had their own demons to rise above.

This was my story. If I could go back? Sure, I’d like a happier story. But I’d be a different person, without a lot of the things I have now.

And what I have now is pretty awesome indeed.