There is a girl – I hesitate in calling her a woman for reasons that will become clear – who I see skipping her way to class every day as I drive into the parking lot on campus. There aren’t a lot of people around at eight a.m. That generally means that I get a relatively good parking space though not one close enough to the buildings where I have my classes as that would be far too convenient. The lot next to the science building fills up by seven and I can’t imagine what classes those kids are going to because the earliest class offered in that vicinity starts at 7:30. Damn overachievers.
I have to keep my eyes on what’s going on in front of me because God knows that bad drivers operate at all hours of the day and night. Still, my eyes wander off and I ponder what makes someone think that skipping in a public place is such a good idea. Certainly this method of travel isn’t all that faster than walking. By the time I get out of my car and make my way towards class I realize that if anything this youthful display of exuberance acts as much as a hindrance than anything else as we both arrive at the same class at the same time. This skipping though, I can always tell when she is in or around my class because she’ll be skipping around. It’s what defines her to me and probably to many others as well.
When we are in school it is not the behavior that is like that of the group that we deem noteworthy but that which is not like that of the group. We look for exclusionary behavior in others when we’re in school. Some, indeed many, of us continue this outlook as we make our way through the evolutionary process of life. From school to college and college to the job world we look for that which casts people as “other” so that we can quickly discard them as a friend in school and as a job candidate or coworker later on. We look at exclusionary characteristics in things like resumes and job interviews, college applications and even in political candidates. We look for the automatic disqualifiers rather than looking at ways in which people might excel.
Most people point to a lack of time as their excuse for exclusionary behavior when in reality it is a lack of patience and a failure of empathy that makes these decisions so commonplace in our society. If you’re interviewing candidates for a new job and you come upon the perfect job candidate hopefully you would make time to try to help them overcome whatever obstacle it is that they face that prevents you from hiring them. That is not how we operate in America however. It is far easier to simply say “no” and move on than it is to take on tough issues, but that’s true everywhere. Why are Americans so apprehensive about trying new things? Look at the backlash over the Affordable Care Act. Under the ACA we went from 18% of the population not having insurance to 11% in just one year. That’s rather remarkable when you think about it. Yet Republican Presidential candidates continue to promise to repeal the legislation.
We have a certain animal instinct to avoid change. If you have settled somewhere and someone tries to take your territory you fight over it. That’s how it’s been for thousands of years and I’m not suggesting that we change that policy. What I would suggest is that we open up our minds and open up our hearts to differences in the ways people have lived their lives. For example, right around when I turned eighteen I suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted until I was at least twenty-two. I made decisions that simply don’t make sense. When I turned eighteen I started smoking. No one in my family had ever been a smoker, but I thought I’d give it a try. I didn’t quit until I was twenty-five. I started drinking, using drugs, and became almost completely undependable when it came to anything that mattered in my life and it wasn’t just because of the drugs or the drinking I was subconsciously sabotaging myself.
The decisions I made during that four year period were terrible and I’m not talking drug addict terrible I’m talking poor decisions in a number of areas including basic ethics and morality; things I wouldn’t dream of doing today. We all make bad choices in our lives, but my decisions during that period in my life were chaotic and inexplicable to put it mildly. I suffered from a constant depression that saw my anxiety manifest itself in trips to the emergency room. Doctors would pump me full of tranquilizers and my heart rate would be relatively unaffected. No one understood why this was happening and I didn’t know why I was doing any of this. It simply didn’t make any sense. With the benefit of hindsight it’s very clear to me that I was – in a very classical sense – suffering from a nervous breakdown. Abraham Lincoln suffered one at a similarly young age and he was locked in a cabin for months on end. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about her breakdown in The Yellow Wallpaper. These things happen.
As a result of all of this however it has been nearly impossible for me to find employment. Many are convinced that in almost all fifty states I’m pretty much unemployable. Now, why is this? I didn’t murder anyone. I’m not a convicted sex offender, I didn’t rape or assault anyone and I wasn’t convicted of dealing drugs or anything like that yet I still find myself in a situation where people cannot justify hiring me. It’s a frustrating position for someone like me to be in because I graduate in six months. I’ll have completed my Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in just four years and for my Bachelor’s degree I have a double major. I was on the Dean’s List every semester I was in school except one. I’m a published author. I’m a small business owner. What the hell is wrong with me that has led the private sector to the conclusion that I cannot be employed?
The quick answer is that background I gave you on my late teens and early twenties. Since then I’ve also discovered that I have Asperger’s which I write about frequently. It’s affected nearly all my relationships in my life barring those with my immediate family. It would be very easy for someone like me to simply give up on life and conclude that since the job market has assessed my worth as being as close to zero as it can get that I have nothing positive to offer the world. I do not believe that to be true however. My work as a student and an author speak for themselves. Next year I hope to attend graduate school focusing on creative writing with the hope of one day teaching, but I am very apprehensive about this goal because of the value society has placed on me. If I’m not worth it now what will a piece of paper really change? I’ll still have the baggage and if anything I’ll likely be even more cynical than I already am. I don’t know how someone like this is supposed to function in our world.
I look at this girl skipping along as I make my way through the parking lot and think that it is good that she does this. It’s good that she is who she is and she could give a damn about who knows it or what their judgment is. I look at that kind of relative opacity to ridicule with a kind of awe yet at the same time I want to tell her to knock it off. I want to explain to her that the world is not forgiving nor is it accepting of this kind of behavior of people who are her age. I know if I did this however it wouldn’t make a dent in her psyche and part of me says that this is the kind of resolve you need to have if you’re going to make it through the million little challenges that life throws your way.