Friday, January 11, 2008

A visit to White Brook School

I spoke to the students of White Brook Middle School today. They’re in Easthampton, about 15 miles from my house. I was a little apprehensive, because I knew there were over 600 kids. Individually, a middle school kid is no match for a guy like me. But 600 of them in a swarm? Savage. That would give anyone pause for thought. What if they turned?

But most kids like me, I reasoned. I squared up my shoulders and trudged inside on a rainy January morning. As soon as I got there, the auditorium filled. Sam, the 13-year-old who’d invited me, did the introductions. And then it was time.

I remembered the advice of Dick Buesing, my speech teacher so long ago. Blow your nose, and spit out your cigar, he said. Talk slow and loud and clear. Keep one eye on the crowd, and the other one on the door. And never forget the crowd is like a pack of feral dogs. They can smell fear, and they’ll tear you to pieces.

Good advice for anyone speaking in public. Would I survive the day?

First, I talked with the fifth and sixth graders. I read them the tale of petting Chuckie from the book, and I told them the story of testing holes with my little brother. I talked about life in the music world, and how I learned about Asperger’s. I showed them how the conditions they thought were disabilities could actually turn out to be gifts later in life.

When the time came for questions, they weren’t shy. At least 50 hands went up, all at once. “We’re going to be democratic about this,” I said. “The first kid to show me a ten dollar bill gets his question answered.” Their enthusiasm made me sorry I’d left the cash register home. I took a full 20 minutes to answer their questions, but it wasn’t enough. When the period ended, there were still 20+ kids with their hands in the air.

Many of the questions were practical in nature. How did you dig a five foot deep hole? What’s a post hole digger? Why didn’t your brother’s neck break when you put him in the hole upside down? What did he do to get even?

There was talk of cats, and pranks, and drunken parents. Why didn’t I use drugs? They wondered.

Some questions were universal: What did you do about bullies? Did people call me names too? Did I get into fights often? What did my teachers think of me? Did life get better when I got older?

I had a short break, and then the auditorium filled with seventh and eighth graders. They were bigger, scruffier, and a tougher looking bunch by far. But I knew I could handle anything they threw my way. “I’ve got eggs under this podium,” I said, “And I know how to use them.”

I told them about growing up, my tricks and pranks, and how I learned to fit in. I told them about my first job, collecting the trash. Like the younger kids before, they seemed captivated. And they too were full of questions. Bullies and name calling came up right away, and to my surprise, several kids rose to the microphone and announced that they had indeed bullied others. I was amazed that we’d created an atmosphere where they’d feel comfortable saying such a thing.

Will the principal have the bullies shot after I leave, I wondered? But at the end of the day, they got on the buses and rode home.

I had brought my friend Bob Jeffway along, and I pointed him out to both groups. The bigger kids were thinking of getting boyfriends and girlfriends, and I knew they feared geeks like us would never be able to attract mates. I was particularly pleased to show off Celeste, Bob’s mate, as an example of girls geeks attract. And I know the students were pleased too, seeing what happened to us as we got older.

We talked a long time, and once again, the period ended too soon. I spent lunch with a group of kids. I ate the same food as the other inmates, and pronounced it tasty. After that, I cruised around the school and dropped in on three classes, where we talked some more. It seemed like minutes and the day had ended. I’d been there all day.

Before I left, they gave me this gift basket they’d made:


I had a wonderful time, thanks to all the students and staff at White Brook Middle School.


And now, a word from our sponsors:


My speaking engagements are booked by the Lavin Agency, with offices in the United States and Canada. You can find them here:


29 comments:

Polly Kahl said...

You've done it again John, made me laugh and cry at the same time. How do you do it?
Hugs to you {{{John}}}

kyra said...

what a wonderful visit! i love the questions the kids asked and the trust that clearly existed for the bullies to call themselves out.

Kim Stagliano said...

Beautiful. I'll ask -- if this school has a program for lower functioning kids, would you/did you stop by there too? I would love to hear the reaction to you from kids who are not speaking and not mainstreamed. The kids with more severe autism.

Enjoy the goodie basket. Looks good!

John Elder Robison said...

Kim, I didn't see any totally nonverbal kids. There were some middle function kids in the assembly, though.

And I visited with smaller classes for kids with more particular needs than the general population.

One of the kids I talked to quite a bit has a more autistic brother in the school, but he had not wanted to attend so he didn't. I'm sure his brother told him all about it, though.

ORION said...

This is so terrific John! Actually hearing an author and seeing that problems in school don't define you your whole life is so important to kids.
I love your comment about eggs- I found humor to be the single most effective tool in teaching when I taught high school! LOL

Hey LOTTERY is number ten on the Tesco chart in the UK WOOF!

John Elder Robison said...

That's great news on the Tesco thing. Woof!

Ben L. Kemer said...

Hey, John,

It's pretty interesting to have found a blogger such as yourself around! It's also pretty interesting to hear the story of how now, despite all else, you're actually the guy who faces what to some people is the greatest fear ever: public speaking. It feels great to know also that sometimes things happen so that we can become strong, caring, people, even when "challenges" or roadblocks seem to exist.

Kanani said...

Good job, John.
It's great to see you out there doing so much for so many.

The Muse said...

Orion,

I love your comment "that problems in school don't define you your whole life is so important to kids."

What a great truth! John, you are a wonderful role model to these kids.

J said...

Wow, it sounds like you made a great impression on those kids. Seventh and Eight graders, in particular, can be a tough audience. You had some great strategies going on though--the egg joke and having your buddy bring his wife. Great moves!
Wished you lived closer to Michigan so you could speak to our college students here at Central Michigan University. Oh well, you are doing great work where you are. Best wishes to you.

John Elder Robison said...

J, I can go anywhere in the country to speak. In the coming months I have engagements in Texas, Connecticut, New York, Texas, and elsewhere.

Have your school contact Lavin if they are serious about having me out.

And one more thing - I didn't plan to bring Bob and his wife. They just showed up and I siezzed the moment. I never plan my talks; they just unfold and I work with what I get.

AspieMama said...

Hi! I just found your blog, and am in the middle of reading your book. I'm glad to hear that your speech went so well. It sounds like the students responded very well. I think it's great that you emphasized "how the conditions they thought were disabilities could actually turn out to be gifts later in life." Best of luck with your future speeches!

Aspie Mama - http://aspiemama.blogspot.com/

jimbranch3 said...

Regarding Polly's comment, John have you ever listened to the music of John Prine? Like you, he can definitely make you laugh and cry at the same time. I think this you both are honest about your feelings and the imagery you evoke overpowers people. I think "A visit to white Brook School" could be a chapter in your next book. You do realize that we fully expect another one?

Jim B

J said...

O.K. I'll make an inquiry at CMU. If it works out someone will contact your agency.

Chumplet said...

It's wonderful that those kids asked so many questions. You must have a gift that makes them open up. So many kids just sit at assemblies and barely listen to the message being offered to them.

That swag is certainly impressive. I love Ferrero Rochet chocolate.

Demon Hunter said...

I loved this! The kids sounded great---and they listened! I finally picked up your book over the holidays and I cannot wait to get started on it!

I told you what I did for a living (working with the Mentally Disabled/Autistic/Asperger's/ Related Disability populations) I look forward to reading this and hoped to get my book signed one day!

Donnad10 said...

Thank you so much for speaking out. Thank your brother for me for suggesting you write your book. I am half way through it! The book and your blog have given me strength to pass on to my son and have helped me understand my husband ( he was never diagnosed but I'd bet money he too is Aspergian...and Im not complaining!)
I check out your blog every day to see what intersting things your have written. Thanks so much ( again). I am going on & on so I will stop now. (HUGS)

Trish Ryan said...

That sounds FUN! I bet that made the kids' day, and it sounds like it made yours, too :) I'll remember the bit about the eggs if I'm ever in a tough crowd!

Mellow One said...

I just recently found you. Thank you SO SO SO much for your personal insight. My father was diagnosed with Aspergers just a few years before he died. Learning about it put a whole new level of seeing my father for all his wonderfull ways. He excelled in school but was made fun of because of his social awkwardness. He was patient, and gentle, but also a wicked prankster. I have learned to be a 'master instigator' because of my dads influence. I am sure you two, had you met, would have been GREAT friends, your stories are Echos. Please don't stop your advocacy.

Melanie Avila said...

That's so great you're able to affect these kids but just being YOU. I would've loved to have someone talk at my school who wasn't Homecoming King or head cheerleader. For these kids to see someone who's had the difficulties you've had come out clean in the end is just wonderful.

I finished your book over the holidays and you've inspired me through my next round of edits (I'm writing memoir, too). I can't wait to see what you come up with next!

Michelle O'Neil said...

Awesome John!

I love everything about this post.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Having seen you speak, I'm sure they were fascinated.

And yeah for LOTTERY! Ah, Tesco...fond memories, and obviously good books!

WOOF

Karina said...

What a great post- about a great day.

John, I just finished your book, Look Me In The Eye. I didn't want it to end. I loved it. My husband is reading it now.

What you are doing- with your remarkable book, public speaking, and all-around Asperger's awareness raising- is so important.

I hope it encourages more Aspies to venture out of the closet and share their gifts.

Thank you, John!

Dontforget2laugh said...

Thanks John for your book and the work you do for Aspergers. It was great to see your thought process in your stories. I have often known my son thinks 'differently' than others and I'm sure would understand. I am fortunate to have found a school that believes socialization is as important as education which is what, I believe, all Aspergians need!

Thank you again

dkenned said...

I am listening to your book Look Me in The Eye on tape. What a GREAT story teller you are. My students will be hearing this book as soon as I am finished. They too have been diagnosed with Aspergers. We are a public high school in Santa Clarita Valley, California. We have a great program for Autistic and Asperger kids. Jr and Senior High Schools. We would love to have you come and speak to the students. Do you ever come to CA. You would love our students. And they would love to meet an adult with the same fears of talking to people that they have.
Thanks for a wonderful book.
Donna

John Elder Robison said...

Donna, you should contact my speaker's agent - Lauren Verge at Lavin. I could come to California.

We may do a special program for schools who adopt my book for Fall 2008. I'll have more on that soon.

Also. . . note that I personally narrate the 5-cd abridged audio book but the longer library edition is read by an actor. If you are playing it for autistic or Aspergian kids you should use my version.

dkenned said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dkenned said...

Thank you, I will contact Lauren. I DO have the 5 cd version that you narrated. Once you have more on the visits to CA I would love to hear from you
Thanks again
Donna
dkenned@hartdistrict.org

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