view from mars

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

my debut


Earlier today, I was a guest on Jay James' morning talk show on WINA. I was invited on in order to give an instructor's perspective in an ongoing conversation focusing on the Virginia Institute of Autism, where I've worked for just over two years.

First, I want to say something about WINA. I hate it. It's a despicable mouthpiece for right-wing propaganda that has smothered the potential of talk radio as a medium for productive and enlightening political discourse. WINA happily hosts slimy fucks like Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Neil Boortz. Visit MediaMatters to learn more about these lying bigots. As one of my heroine's once said, I can feel the chunks start to rise, so I won't say anything more about these shit-spewing Rush-worshipers. Ugh.

Jay is a great guy, though, and is diametrically unaffiliated with the ring-wing-bags-of-pus-and-shit. I've never listened to his show before, but the development director at VIA who booked the interview knows him and made me feel better about gracing the sullied airwaves with my presence.

My spot lasted about 25 minutes, with a few commercial breaks and a couple of airs of VIA's recently-recorded PSA.

For the past week during various moments of spacy introspection, my mind worked to crystallize the past two years of my life into charming fact-filled one liners. I mean, I was pretty anxious about it, but also excited to be able to share with a (large?) audience the effects working at VIA have had on me.

Since this blog is new as hell, and I have no problem with blogging conspicuously here's what I really wanted to say when Jay and I were having our conversation. Clearly the questions are paraphrased, and I've ignored those for which my answers I believe were satisfactory.

How did you get involved in this line of work?
I was holding down a lame-ass job at Barnes & Noble during my last semester at UVA, and the following post-baccalaureate summer. I credit that job with providing me with a critical experience -- by enduring the hell of high-volume retail, I really began my transition into adulthood (I was only 20-21.) I came into contact, albeit momentarily, with literally thousands of people. I saw it all, and I took a lot of shit and experienced a loss of my humanity. I was a servant, and I was to be shat upon. I was a machine, and I was compensated for regularly shutting down my consciousness. Did it pay the bills? I guess. Could other jobs have paid the bills? ...
It was a painful experience. I felt worthless, I felt like an animal whose instincts had been trained into submission to the will of authoritarian slave-drivers. I lived as millions in this country do, except they often do it for a panel of overlords so that they can feed and clothe their children.
I had a friend who worked with me who was a year ahead of me, and we became pretty close (we also lived in the same building.) She was hilarious, and smart and kind, and warm. She started telling me about looking for other jobs, and finding a classified for VIA. She was hired, and one fateful day during the school-day brought her student into the cafe (he's a kid I work very closely with now.) The Universe was laying out my future literally in front of me as I handed the boy a sugar cookie and haphazardly initiated what I would learn to be a social interaction beyond his present level of functioning. It was exhilerating, and from that one experience the tree I have now cultivated to adolescence was covered with the earth of dedication and thoughtful improvisation.
I applied, and was granted an interview. I parked in front of the building, not knowing or realizing the existence of an expansive parking lot in the rear of the school. I entered the school with inexplicable hubris, breezing through a door to one of the classrooms as though it were perfectly familiar. My friend met me on the stairs as I stumbled around, pointing out my error and leading me to the office. Lucky I found her.
My interview was very conversational, and warm. She had been with VIA since its inception, and I would later learn has quite a gift for character judgment. Though the intracacies of the conversation are lost in a cloud of anxiety and exhileration, I will never forget the tour of the school as the networks of my future experiences were first laid in my awareness. I will never forget sitting with one of the students after my interviewer asked, "Would you like to try it out?" The next five minutes would serve as a priming experience for the lack of responsivity and resulting constant requirement for speedy improvisation that has become a hallmark of my career.
I wanted it so badly, and got a call back the next day offering me $22,000 a year for 40 hours of work and a complete change of lifestyle and worldview. I accepted with zeal.

What is it like to work in a typical classroom, essentially guiding your student through the social and academic framework an elementary school contains?
I'm blessed and honored to bear the responsibility of shadowing a kid with autism in a typical like-aged classroom. In the last school year, I was brought aboard as a member of his team for reasons that currently elude me. Two of us split the duties of working in an inclusion setting, alternating days as I deferred to the role of my colleague as chief "programmer" (a term I detest -- more appropriate is "behavior analyst/instructor.") My role was not typical of an instructor secluded within the walls of VIA, one that I had filled for a year previous to my transition. The framework of instruction at VIA rests upon the theories articulated by researchers under the umbrella field "Applied Behavior Analysis," that of intensive one-on-one instruction with strict stimulus control and religious adherence to the tenets codified by Skinner and his disciples in the field of human education who interpreted and elaborated on his work. Researchers found it particularly useful to engender skill acquisition among students with disabilities -- notably, students with autism.
My job as inclusion-analyst/shadow required a different and less practiced approach to ABA. I was faced with the problem of ensuring the maximization of inclusion of a student who possesses a fraction of the skills same-aged peers possess, in all areas. Respecting his anonymity, I won't discuss specific facets of his personality but I think here it will suffice to say that he and I began to form a deep and respectful mentor-student relationship, in spite of it all. He changed me, and continues to change me in ways that I have presently not been able to understand, much less articulate.
Candidates for partial inclusion in a typical environment necessarily possess skills that facilitate that inclusion -- an outwardly apparent easy-goingness, willingness to change or endure change, fundamental skills required to communicate desire or intention. I could go on, but one can imagine an individual who would not be a good candidate for inclusion and then by virtue of exclusion arrive at a conceptualization of factors that would lead to success.

How have you been rewarded by working at VIA?
I have been profoundly and forever changed by my work. I love what I do, and I bask in the glow Fortune has afforded me with this opportunity. I have learned so much, more than at any other point in my life. I have learned about respect, and gratitude. I have learned about the unspeakable beauty of humanity, and the Good Nature of souls. I have learned that to truly effect change, one must be changed by others and be constantly willing to change. I have learned to make mistakes, and to assert my will fearlessly. I will never forget the gifts my students and their families have been willing to grant me merely by allowing me into their lives. I have learned what desperation and hopelessness is, and the pure joy that small miracles can bring when everything else seems black and impending.
If for nothing else, humans live to affect their World; the great unending work set in motion so long ago calls to each of us to accept our role as pure Artisans. We are by our nature communal, social, and loving. It is because of my experiences with the community in which I currently work and live that I can realize the beauty of directing that drive towards healing my brethren. And I am eternally grateful for the path Grace has laid before me.

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