Lessons from a Square Peg
My standard answer, when people ask us why we chose to remove my son from public school and enroll him, instead, at a facility we have lovingly nicknamed “Hippie School,” is this: It took me a while to realize that public school was trying to fit my beautiful square peg into a round hole, and eventually we figured it out and put him where there are round holes and square holes and octagonal holes and even the option not to go into a hole at all.
The answer is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, sure, but it’s also the shortest way to encapsulate how it all went down. Because, truly, by the time my son was struggling to fit into a classroom, I already had 30-odd years of conforming to expectations (or suffering the consequences when I didn’t). There was a tacit assumption on my part that my son could also learn to adapt and that would work out just fine. Yes, I accept that my son is very different from me, and even that his mind works very differently from that of a “normal” kid, but for years I believed he would merely be slower to conform, but that “social acceptability” was the goal.
Man. Think about all of the societal constructs that brought me to a place where I had to UNLEARN the one-size-fits-all, get-with-the-program philosophy. Intellectually, I knew it didn’t make as much sense as I hoped it did. Emotionally, as much as I may have chafed against expectations as a child and young adult, I came to realize that I believed the path to fewer struggles for my son was for him to learn conformity. And it wasn’t until he failed—repeatedly—to slot his marvelous square self into that stupid round hole that I finally let go of all of that and admitted that it wasn’t working.
Then came Hippie School. I could write hundreds, probably thousands, of words about how it has saved him, changed him, stretched him, made him utterly more himself. He is more confident. He is happier. He is at peace with himself, more often than not. School is now a place where he is admired for his strengths and supported and cheered on in areas where he’s still learning. He mentors and is mentored by others. It’s a community; it’s a family, really—the best kind of family, the kind where you work hard and play hard and fight hard and always make up. I realize that this all sounds cheesy and I apologize. Back when I believed schools like this were all touchy-feely and specialized in teaching children how to braid hemp I would’ve rolled my eyes, too.
There’s a poster at my son’s school that says, “I have the right to be myself, and the responsibility to respect others for who they are.” Again: I know. Total cornball stuff, on the surface. All that poster needs is a kitten hanging from a tree branch, the cynical part of me whispers. I’ve seen that poster countless times and never given it a second thought, but yesterday I saw it and I finally got it. It’s not the anarchy of “I am who I am and screw you if you don’t like it,” which is, I think, what I used to fear schools like this one would be. It’s a very simple statement, a simple philosophy. I’m me, you’re you, and I would like you to take me as I am, so I’ll try to do the same for you. Basically it’s the Golden Rule of selfhood, right there.
Now, I’m not autistic, like my son, but I’ve certainly had my share of not-fitting-in experiences in my life. I don’t know many people who haven’t. Environments where differences are respected or even celebrated tend to be few and far between. So most of us simply… learn to pretend to be round pegs. Even when we aren’t, not really. For me it took watching a child who was unable to pretend to realize that it’s all bullshit, this “fitting in” thing. Are the majority of us going to have times when we HAVE to behave a certain way? Sure. My son knows that some situations require certain behavior if he doesn’t want unwelcome attention… but we’ve changed the game by making those situations a smaller percentage of his overall experience. And it turns out that if he can spend most of his day being exactly who he wants to be, it’s not nearly so hard for him to sit through a church service or a visit with people he finds boring or whatever. We meet him where he is, more of the time, and then if we ask him to meet us where we are, sometimes, he’s so much more willing and able to do that.
But at the end of the day, he’s still a square peg. And I can’t imagine him any other way, or loving him any more than I do. He is perfect—delightful, witty, weird, and wonderful. And not only that, but he’s taught me that we’re all allowed to be whoever we are, just so long as that doesn’t include walking over others to do it.
I think I may be an oval peg. (Almost round, but not quite.) And for the first time in a long time—thanks to my son’s intrepid example—I think I’m okay with that.
How about you? Do you feel like you can just be you? Have I beaten this peg metaphor to death or will you tell me what shape you think you are?