During my career as an educator, I usually ate lunch alone. I never really enjoyed spending time in the teacher’s lounge. A principal once asked me about this and wondered whether or not I liked my colleagues. I told him that I liked them fine but that I just didn’t like all the noise of a dozen teachers chatting about their students while I ate my soup.
This same principal used to brag to prospective parents that at our school, “No one eats alone.” Of course, he was trying to impress upon them the inclusiveness of our culture. “No one will be left out, no one will be bullied, and your child’s social and emotional needs will be met.”
In an environment such as this, my solo dining made me stand out…or rather, stand off to the side a bit. I must confess that my behavior of this sort has not been limited to my role as teacher. In more than one instance, I have been accused of being anti-social. “Yes,” I like to say, “you are correct, I am indeed anti-social, but I’m good at it.”
I may be anti-social, but I am not alone. For instance, I have learned that anti-social behavior is common among those diagnosed with autism; perhaps the least understood of all the maladies we have attempted to name and categorize in our vain effort to explain why our children behave as they do.
So, when the principal inquired as to why I preferred to eat alone, and my reply had the potential to influence my performance evaluation in the matter of “collaboration and collegiality,” I went in search of a diagnosis. It’s actually not that hard to do: https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/autism-quiz/
While answering a few questions is not the most scientifically sound method to diagnose autism, my score struck a chord. Thankfully, I was two points shy of “seek professional help.”
Whether autistic or not, it is clear to me that I am an introvert. After reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” I realized that my self-imposed distance from my colleagues and my attitude towards my special students was a perfectly healthy behavior for someone with my social disposition.
Indeed, the most significant revelation from Cain’s book is that perhaps one-third to one-half of us is actually introverted. The world, however, decidedly favors and rewards extroversion which encourages introverts to fake it. This, as you can see, I have refused to do.
Back at school, while the faculty would spend hours trying to figure out why Johnny ate alone, I said confidently that maybe he eats alone because he wants to eat alone.
They saw his introversion as a disorder; that he was shy, that he only needed a few friends and all would be well. In some cases this was true. Middle school students sometimes need encouragement to find friends. However, sometimes Johnny just might prefer the company of books to the company of other eighth graders. You may not know what I know about eighth graders but, can you really blame him?
This makes all the more remarkable the notion that the “cure” for introversion involves teaching students—and the odd teacher—how to fit in. Indeed, teacher interventions focused upon getting kids involved with one another. Looking back, it occurs to me that we were engaging in conversion therapy not unlike that other “cure” you may have heard about.
Of course, middle school students are encouraged to join clubs and teachers are encouraged to sponsor clubs to engage in activities outside the regular curriculum. We called it enrichment.
But how do you enrich the life of a student who has no interest in spending time with other students? Answer: sponsor a really small club… one sponsor, one member. His name was Galen and he had been diagnosed with a rather high performing variety of autism.
We met during lunch. One of the first things I learned is that noisy food ruined the meeting. If Galen walked in and saw an apple, he just turned around and walked out; meeting adjourned. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches usually worked pretty well… creamy peanut butter.
It wasn’t unusual to hold a meeting without taking any minutes; no conversation, no minutes. In these instances, breaking bread without the constant need for personal interaction—quietly breaking bread, that is— became a welcome reprieve from the chaos of the cafeteria.
We called ourselves The Misanthrope’s Club, which almost guaranteed no new members. With a name like this, you can understand that we spent very little time talking about other people. True misanthropes don’t gossip. I mean, why bother?
Instead, we talked about real stuff like quiet food, vertical agriculture in urban areas, and how the Klingons became members of the Federation of Planets.
Galen didn’t like to shake hands. He always wore long sleeves and slacks to minimize potential physical contact with others. He grew his hair and fingernails long as if to armor himself against humanity with whatever means were available. If these outwardly physical characteristics of his condition were not enough to capture the odd attention of his classmates, he also often walked on his toes to minimize his engagement with a planet trod upon by so many other people.
I discovered that Galen really did not like people and I regret never asking whether he thought this was a result of his diagnosis or the reception of his condition by others; a classic nature versus nurture question if we accept that bullying can nurture.
During the last day of school, I told Galen that I understood why he disliked people because, in middle school, many people are just not very nice. Then I asked him if he liked me. His reply has become an everlasting tribute to my career. “I dislike you less than everyone else,” he said.
Jimmy P. Morgan is a semi-retired History teacher who writes about World Affairs, Social Justice, Politics, and Education. He can be reached at JimmyPMorganDayz@gmail.com.