Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Immaturity Is No Excuse

When I was ten years old I had a sudden onset of Tourette's syndrome. I lost control of my body and voice. My limbs jerked and writhed. I collected bruises along my left hip and my left arm went raw from hitting myself all the time.
I suffered through what remained of my fourth grade year and didn't do much over the summer. I was an active kid. I started dance at two, acting lessons at five, choir at seven, and did swimming and gymnastics off and on. Now all those doors were closed to me. Friends weren't feasible. I couldn't even read anymore. That was the summer the last Harry Potter book came out. I'd read the sixth one in a week, but my brain was so jumbled up that it took hours to chew through a few paragraphs. I read the first page of chapter ten, "Kreacher's Tale", so many times that it fell out of the book.
My mom got me the audiobook. The night I tried listening to it, the vocal tics arrived. Now I wasn't just flailing and jumping and spitting. I let out bloodcurdling screams no matter where I was-in the middle of church, the dead of night, the types of stores where children are expected to be well mannered-and then school started.
Ms. Rogers had a reputation as a mean teacher, but she was dedicated to helping us succeed. And she insisted on treating every student equally. Our class was a fifth-sixth grade split but she refused to divvy us up by age. She'd never had a student with Tourette's, but she educated herself to give me what I needed. The only other kid I know with Tourette's syndrome had to drop out and be homeschooled because of bullying. She kept me in public education.
Meanwhile, I taught myself how to swallow Zoloft dry. My medications sapped my energy. I ate like a bird and fell asleep on the bus both ways. I spent a lot of time in my head, talking to my twenty nine imaginary friends and God more than I did anyone in the real world. But without me having to try, my classmates banded together and stuck up for me.
One day Ms. Rogers was gone to a conference. We had a substitute and I was terrified. Explaining to kids is bad enough. When I took an art class through the community center, I decided not to tell any of the kids about my condition because it would be over in a week anyway. One of the girls, Josie, kept giving me grief about my yips and yells, but I snapped right back at her, telling her she would grow up to be a professional critic because she was already so good at it. But adults don't swallow it like Josie did. Even when you try to explain it in advance, they think you're trying to pull something.
But confronting him in class was a lesser evil than getting chewed out for screaming during quiet reading time. So I walked into the room, hung up my backpack, and when I turned around, three kids were already at the teacher's desk explaining my condition.
They were ten, eleven, maybe twelve. Biologically, socially, and legally immature. Words like "empathy" and "camaraderie" hadn't popped up on their vocabulary lists yet. But they understood smaller words. Friends. Nice. Bully. 
Fast forward to today. My friend L'ren has been "squeaking" for over eighteen months. Tourette's syndrome is a combination of vocal and motor tics, and L'ren's are only vocal, so she doesn't fit in that box, but I know her pain. Like me, she's confused and afraid to explain her condition to people who just won't listen anyway. I've corrected countless people who think she's faking it for the attention.      
We have government together. Josie's in that class too. Fortunately, she never grew out of her critical mindset. She's now an opinionated liberal feminist and leads our daily current events discussions, at least when I'm not doing it. We argue good naturedly, sometimes on the same side, sometimes not. Behind her sits a group of boys who like to talk to hear the sound of their own voices.
Today, after seventy minutes of successful silence, L'ren let out a single squeak. They echoed her with loud, mocking wails, and suddenly I was eleven all over again. I stood up, grabbed the nearest boy by the wrist, and yelled "Stop it!" They have to put up with her outbursts, but she doesn't need any from them. The teacher shushed the class, and she let me explain L'ren's tics and my own. Josie chimed in. "You're eighteen years old. Grow up."
That got me thinking. We're supposed to believe that when a teenager is cruel, it's a side effect of those nasty hormone monsters inhabiting the brain, or maybe a lack of education. We're supposed to believe they've got time and they'll use it to educate themselves. We're supposed to believe that age will bring them wisdom. But I've been on the receiving end of adult cruelty. To call it childish is an insult to children. 
On my way out of the room, I met Josie's eyes. "Thanks," I told her. It's hard to stand alone, even when you're standing up for what you believe in and you have the fury of injustice to guide you.
She nodded. "It needed to be said."
Here's another thing I need to say: Cruelty is cruelty and age is just an excuse adults throw out when they want to ignore a problem. Adults can be cruel, teenagers can be cruel, children can be cruel. I've seen hateful harassment and unspeakable kindness from every end of the spectrum. Some of the most valiant people I've met were a motley band of fifth and sixth graders who knew enough to stick up for a friend.
Instead of trying to be less childish, let's all live more like eleven year olds. 

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