by Ben Freeman
My ex-boyfriend has changed his profile picture.
Somehow this merits five minutes of acrobatic weeping, head lolling first against the bed frame, face smushed up with the rug and lint.
When you put it that way it is kind of funny.
One of my students is making a drawing. He overlays several types of loops and squiggly lines, reserving a lone zigzag for the upper right hand corner. It is a kind of abstraction only a child could make by accident. Or it sits somewhere between the subconscious and the intentional.
“What are you drawing?” I ask.
“Years,” he responds, “I’m drawing years. How slow and fast they go by.”
I find this slightly astonishing. I laugh and gasp simultaneously and something in me softens. I carry him everywhere. He is a child in my charge. He has become integral to my understanding of the world.
“Is February a good month?” he asks brightly, nodding his head. Seeking assurance.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Is February a good month?”
There is a precarious sort of empathy involved when one’s job is to help kids develop strategies for self-regulation and is operating at a significant deficit oneself.
It is my first year out of college. I have acquired a new title, and with it a pronounced sense of adulthood: by day I am Mr. Freeman, working in a school for kids with a variety of special needs. Our work is both silly and serious, improvisatory, intensely intimate. Suddenly I am one more friendly adult that can help with handwriting or manage a crisis. Suddenly I am depended on.
The most easily observable characteristic that unites my students is a difficulty, stemming from neurobiological differences, in processing and responding appropriately to sensory stimuli. In a given environment there are countless things to fix our attention to: the adhesive gunk that accumulates around a laminated nametag stuck to a desk, for instance; the precise position of one’s back with respect to the slats of the chair; the eyes and voice of someone that is speaking. In college I encountered this as the defining aspect of an artful worldview: a profound openness to experience, a conviction and trust in what is porous. I am encountering it again as the authority figure that ostensibly knows how and where attention should be directed, as the arbiter of what is acceptable.
At its core my work consists of facilitating self-understanding, teaching my kids to access internal space so that they can interact more successfully in and with their external environment. In the course of a given day I may model the steps of constructing an apology, as well as the pitfalls of delivering it; I may model hurt or indignation to help a student understand the effect of his or her words. I have never loved so much to be working. I find the term “special needs” to be clarifying because it rests on the premise that all humans have needs, among them the need for true and successful self-expression. One could say that this is where my kids struggle. One could also say that this is where society struggles to know them on their own terms. In any event from this perspective I find them to be eminently understandable. In many ways they are my best friends.
One morning a first grader enters the library with a grimace that is almost cartoonish, very Calvin and Hobbes when Calvin feels put-upon by the world. My friend in first grade folds up petulantly in his canvas seat, half-intentionally kicking the seat in front and reviewing something with himself at a high, hushed grumble. I crouch alongside him, adopt my teacher tone – which is almost cartoonish in its gentleness and deliberate emotional contours – and ask him to come talk with me at the back table. “I notice that your legs are kicking against the chair and that your face is kinda scrunched up, like this,” I say. “Right now your body is telling me that you might be feeling frustrated.”
It turns out that his mother has forgotten to put his library book in his backpack, which means that he will not be allowed to check out today (which means, at this moment, that the day is ruined). It is my responsibility to uphold this policy – not because I particularly care, but because one aspect of childrearing is preventing children from getting what they want when they haven’t met the prerequisites.
“That’s super frustrating,” I say, “I’m sure if I was missing my library book I’d be upset too.”
This is genuine, if slightly understated. My emotional life outside of school is frenzied, utterly unregulated. Forgetting my library book at home is precisely the sort of failure that could trigger an outright temper tantrum. So far I have broken at least one coffee mug, brought my knee through a painting, kicked holes in drywall and a wooden door. There’s a lot of pacing involved, flying books, body parts pounded against various surfaces. Hissed verbal admonishments transmitted through fists to my forehead, from my forehead committed theoretically to my mind or heart. Mr. Freeman’s gentleness has disappeared to somewhere else, cowed and brutalized by my fury. When I speak to myself the cruelty in my voice frightens me.
Of course what I’m saying to my friend in the first grade is a tactic – improvisational, yes, felt, but deliberate and rehearsed, too. I am sharing in the experience. I want him to know that we are level in our vulnerability, that he has a friend.
There’s an art to this.
I shift course.
“It’s okay to feel upset about leaving your library book at home,” I begin. “But is there anything we can do about it now? Can we leave school, go home, and remind Mom to put your library book in your bag?”
“No,” he says, crossing his arms.
“You’re right,” I say, “Mom forgetting your library book is something that already happened. We can make a plan for next time it’s check out day, and then we can take some deep breaths to help us be flexible and be part of the group. But there’s nothing we can do to change something that happened this morning.”
Flexibility, in contrast to cognitive rigidity, is a very important concept around here – recognizing when our individual desires and plans conflict with those of the group, making adjustments to account for what others need, often at apparent disadvantage to ourselves. When one is not working or living with children it is easy to forget how profoundly taxing this adjustment can be. We don’t always get what we want. Typically functioning adults tend to perceive children’s meltdowns as outlandish melodrama; it is relatively easy for us to mark a line of separation, to conceptualize ourselves as enlightened beings that have left all that silliness behind.
Quieter now, conspiratorially, with a wink: “Do you think Rock Brain could be invading your mind?” Rock Brain is one of the super-villains that we use to embody the particular difficulties that our students experience in processing stimuli and regulating behavior. To help our students conceptualize their challenges as things they can save the world from. Rock Brain is part of a larger social thinking curriculum developed by speech-language pathologists that is admirable in its scope, utility, and visceral appeal: in order to defeat the forces that make their brains “unthinkable,” kids draw on their own resources, become “social detectives,” and use their powers of flexibility to overcome obstacles. They become, in effect, their own superheroes.
In any event, at this moment Rock Brain is exactly what he sounds like: a button, a hook, a bit of closure. As the villain that represents perseveration – the protracted fixation on a given issue or problem, irrespective of the psychological or social need to move on – in this moment it is my student’s responsibility to use his social thinking strategies to defeat Rock Brain and return to the group. It is my responsibility to communicate that this is what’s expected. Prior to becoming a full-time teacher I had failed to notice how coercive schooling is in its essence, how much depends on children accepting that I have some authority to do or say or demand.
“It sounds like your brain is a little stuck on something you can’t change,” I say. There is a demand hidden in there, another useful little rhyming coercion: Poof! It’s gone, we’re moving on.
“Yeah, I think it’s stuck on something I can’t change,” he says.
“I know how that feels,” I say. This is genuine. “My brain is stuck on some things I can’t change, too.”
For a few weeks I walk around talking about the alarming contour of my depression. This is a new phrase I am trying out. Alarming contour. It suits me well enough. It feels very literary. What I am really trying to say is: this sadness is rude, invasive, abstract and imaginative. I am walking through the world wide-eyed and odd-angled in the thrall of its modernity. It pushes against the confines of my being, it throws me out of perspective.
Every losing has its language. In this case, most prominently, we have spoken endlessly about doors. “I don’t know how willing or able I’ll be to open that door,” he says. Not that mine had closed. Scripts are comforting because they are predictable: we know how to participate in them, how to more or less successfully have the interaction. Through scripts our words can have the desired effect.
“I love you” is a script. “It sounds like your brain is a little stuck on something you can’t change” is a script. Of course the chaos contained within the script is loosed when it fails to effectuate itself. Or when what one script effectuates fails to accord with what another had hoped to bring about. When there is failure. Rigidity.
My colleagues and I find all this scripting very funny. Our school has a lingo – its own isms, its own forms of double-speak. We parody ourselves constantly, I think to better process the alternate universe we sometimes seem to inhabit, chastising and redirecting one another with perfectly outlandish sing-song voices.
I hate the sing-song quality. At the very least it makes me uncomfortable. I fear that it is Pavlovian, dehumanizing, that we are treating children like trained dogs. But then there is the question of communicative intent: through deliberate intonation and rhythm, through patterning – through song – I help my kids latch on to the central meaning of my message. I can assist them in gathering crucial information or differentiating between the cadence of a statement and the cadence of a question. Occasionally this kind of explicit socio-emotional signaling creeps into my life outside. “Is this behavior expected?” I find myself thinking. “If you want to be my friend, show me you’re thinking of me.”
Often our students ask questions that they plainly know the answer to. “Should I put my hands on a friend?” a student might ask, giggling, often with their hands already placed on the friend that they’ve ostensibly asked about.
“Do you know the answer to that question?” we tend to respond. Knowingly, at worst condescendingly: “Questions are things we don’t know the answer to.” And then our students use their powers of flexibility, with varying degrees of assistance, and this little intermission is over, unless it’s not, and the day goes on. It takes me many months to recognize the ingenuity of the gesture, on the kids’ part: in asking these non-questions they can almost guarantee our non-negotiable response. Through scripts their words can have the desired effect and they can more or less successfully have the interaction; through scripts the chaos can be contained.
I wonder where asking an ex-lover to clarify, once again, that he has ceased to desire you falls in the categorical schema of questions and negotiations. Whether it is something I actually know the answer to. Rigidity.
I watch to see if the words have the desired effect. Whether the chaos is contained. Wondering do the words fit the feeling. Does the feeling fit the failure.
I wonder precisely what effect is desired.
When one thinks of doors being closed one wonders what was on either side.
In the weeks that follow I take up American Sign Language. Write many notes to myself in a variety of places and mostly forget to review them later. Spend a fair amount of time, non-consecutively, wondering what arcane means. Read several Wiki how-to articles (with pictures!) about letting go of the past, about moving on from failed relationships and returning to the present moment. Consider becoming a monk (there are illustrated Wiki how-to articles on this, too). Et cetera et cetera et cetera. I contact a college friend and ask him to teach me physics. It’s not that I do these things for literary effect.
I find myself making comparisons to prior episodes of heartbreak, I think in an attempt to expose a sequence or system or code. (There does not appear to be one.) I am certainly impressed by my mind’s ability to thread debilitating anxiety through seemingly unrelated daily activities, to turn every instant into cause for discomposure or disconsolation. For a while bookstores are unbearable to me (“but he loved books!”), the thought of Europe; my own snow boots, remembering the way he used to take his off. I remember that at some point all of this feels less catastrophic, though it does little to temper my incredulity at this juncture.
During a voice lesson I am struck by the simple improbability of the task: plucking pitch seemingly from the air, replicating its precise musculature and tone; or the great perceptual feat of discerning, amid a chaos of other information, a stream of pitch and hearing it as a melody. The exercise is permeable, intensely unguarded – at times I fear either the breath or I might gulp down the other. Singing is ancient, an exercise in opening.
I wonder if my students notice how often Mr. Freeman is going to the bathroom to cry, whether they perceive him as being in crisis. How they’d respond to Mr. Freeman throwing breakable objects across the room or kicking holes in the bedroom door. Mr. Freeman is in meltdown mode. Mr. Freeman is a balled fist, or a brain made of petrified wood. Mr. Freeman is perseverating.
It is the worst kind of artfulness: this sense of being impossibly close to something and impossibly distant from its expression. I am too receptive to pain, not receptive enough to anything else. At best my current role in my students’ development is to normalize challenge or the sense of being not-quite-there. At worst I should perhaps not be in a school at all. It feels planetary – the impossible image of great masses floating in empty space. I talk about my kids constantly. I feel suspended, massive as a planet. Entropic. The chaos is not contained.
One day one of the speech pathologists reads a book with the first graders, “When I’m Feeling Sad.” The lead character is a bunny rabbit with terrifically expressive eyes. He is very self-aware, this rabbit, very conscious that it’s okay to be sad, that there are helpful strategies we can all employ to manage our stormy and cloudy days. You can do it, too!! I don’t remember how it ends but overall the book is very didactic and very boring and very nicely done. Its words have the desired effect. Part of me feels some serious resentment toward this bunny rabbit.
The speech pathologist finishes the book and flips to the front cover. “Okay, social detectives, let’s use the power of our eyes,” she says. “How is Bunny feeling?”
My patience is faltering today. I have expended too much energy fighting and policing myself to be very compassionate toward anyone or anything. There is a tear slipping down his bunny cheek, furrowed brows. It’s in the title. You can do it! I think. It’s a gimme.
“It looks like a broken heart he has,” someone says.
On Wednesdays we have professional development. Today a neurosurgeon has come to give a presentation on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Construction work is occurring at maximum volume outside. The room is dim and warm and the neurosurgeon appears to know nothing about interactivity, visual aids, or really anything that interests conscious human beings more generally. It is an ambience uniquely fit for sleeping.
He tells us much that I imagine would be useful should I ever find myself in the unlikely circumstance of having to perform brain surgery. He does not tell us much that might help me to interact sensitively with an actual child, in a classroom, that has suffered traumatic brain injury five or seven or ten years prior.
In any event these are some of the notes I have taken:
BRAIN SURGERY IS FUCKING CRAZY
“They take out half the skull and put it in the freezer until the swelling goes down.”
Regulation of behavior is a function of the frontal lobe. Ergo…
The audible response to each anecdote of a child sustaining brain injury has something to do with imaginative empathy, and something to do with the mortal recognition of frailty.
What did I read somewhere about the human brain being just advanced enough to contemplate itself (i.e., sitting here in this presentation about brain injury, trying to imagine my brain encased in my skull, tossing about in some fluid I can neither name nor recognize). The compulsion to touch one’s own head, to look at oneself clinically – is that really like that? In there? –
Is it really?
I’m holding a grudge against New York. Ascribing blame for human events to nonhuman actors. xxxx (which stands for an elegant way of describing us having broken up). I am sad and lost. I notice how frequently I walk the streets reciting memorized text message exchanges. The way the milestones of this separation have given form and content to my internal speech – the manner in which being separated from, separation itself, has become indistinguishable from my self-concept. If I were a student I would tell myself to practice accessing my Cranium Coach, to speak gently and reassuringly with myself, to remind myself that I can do it!
At this moment I cannot do it. I notice I have been attempting to write the way Joan Didion looks on the cover of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. It would be very helpful if all of this turned into a Formative Writerly Experience. Unfortunately there is, increasingly, a certain hardness at my core, a certain rigidity. At this moment the best I can do is to correspond with the ideals and the imprints of the time we spent together, to suffer in relief.
Asceticism: The investiture of certain domains of one’s life with a cosmic veil of silence: which is to say, enormous, without atmosphere, unable to be approached. xxxxx (something italicized – a script, a mantra)
One day a student of mine remarks: “Music empties my mind [of thought, of feeling].”
(Unless it doesn’t, I think. Unless it submerges it. “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world? / It ended when I lost your love.”)
Monasticism: the solemn necessity to void oneself of the world. The abstention from pleasure, or the bawdy overindulgence in it. (the farmer salting his own crop, in deference to xx [what?])
On the way to work I stand in the front car, track the tracks through the cut-out window. Hunters Point, Vernon-Jackson Avenues. Grand Central. To this there is a sequence, a system. A code. There are umbrellas and wet footprints on the floor. I fix my gaze ahead, let myself be jostled, seek out the almost imperceptible curve. New York is dirty and inflexible but is, in a sense, my home.
“Your life is tracking you while you are tracking it,” someone said to me recently. I tossed it around for a few days. Tried to imagine the shape of the words or extract something from them. Wrote it down eventually because it felt important in its inscrutability.
I consider whether I could be relied on to operate the train, should some extraordinary circumstance throw me heroically into the conductor’s booth. Whether I could accurately interpret the signals and press the proper buttons, contain the chaos. Whether I could successfully save someone.
In physics we have discussed whether a point exists in isolation, a fixed entity, or with respect to the dimension of motion. All of which comes back to the question of relationship – whether it can be assigned a discrete value, the set confluence of certain points; or whether it ramifies and bends, not only in space, but in time. Physics lives beyond my comprehension. It is big and fundamental; it does not need me. I am one body held in its gravitation, its wave.
How do you hold on to something of which you have been asked to let go? This is to say: How can you nurture the heart of love, even as it dies away from you? “A quantum of solace.” Which means what, exactly.
Of course there are good moments. Moments in which I have more or less successfully made space for the experience. The calm of wandering Midtown in the rain, for instance, feeling untethered either to people or to manners of leisure, but feeling moved by the sheer rhythm: here there are people with places to go.
In Wednesday morning choir the kids are singing Pharrell’s “Happy.” Their performance is, consistently, just that. Perhaps more specifically what I mean is that they seem present – uninterested in being elsewhere, enlivened by and giving life to their activity in this moment in time. Occasionally when I am able to open myself to that stimulus – ironically, to attempt not to regulate it – I feel somewhat present, too. I soften, I open to joy and to gentleness. Mr. Freeman is the kind of person I would like to be.
When you move from California to the East Coast everybody teases you about the seasons, as though there were no variation in climate along the entire Pacific coast. It is true that our seasons are less pronounced; but, for the record, we do have them. Still, in six years I have found East Coast springs to be something else entirely, something I had no prior vocabulary for. They are aching, tender, full of awakening and release. The days stumble and fall down giggling, moments vibrate and sing. The attention opens, stimuli that nature leaves unregulated and uncontained seeking those that seek pleasure, or nearness, or now, this sensation emerging – ambient, but piercing, as the sudden call of birds – that life does, in fact, go on.
Finding a psychologist in New York City is a silly process, almost trivial: everyone seems to feel that they need one, and the city is almost as rampant with them as with cockroaches. In all the intake sessions I am crudely aware of how easy it is for a person in crisis to fall off the path to treatment: first the recognition that the present mental state is undeserved and able to be reckoned with, then navigating goodtherapy.org or ZocDoc.com, making a phone call. Showing up. Several times the number sits on my bedside table for weeks without being called. And yet I am lucky.
The therapist I ultimately choose has an office on the eleventh floor. I see him on Friday afternoons. It is early spring. The sun fills up the room of my heart. In this light the city is almost beautiful to me.
Around this time someone posts a Facebook status that particularly kills me. “Stop wishing for peace,” she says, “Become it. Stop wishing for love; become that, too.”
I think of my students. In their presence I become love.
In their presence I become peace.
I once had a writing professor whose primary intent seemed to be to radically destabilize our writing practice, to render it indeterminate. He led samurai meditations and had once given us each a container of Play-Doh and asked us to make models of heaven and was generally everything I thought I would like to be.
And lists. We were constantly making lists. “Song titles for an album that does not yet exist,” for example. “Kinds of rooms.”
“Things that matter.” This was a verbal list.
“Things that matter,” he said.
“Everything and nothing,” I said to the friend opposite. With whom I had been paired, with no special consideration. With whom I had been assigned to share this moment.
“Everything and nothing, everything and nothing, everything and nothing.”
One of my students is making a drawing. It sits somewhere between the subconscious and the intentional, a kind of abstraction only a child could make by accident. A kind of indeterminacy.
“What are you drawing?” I ask. I make a note to rephrase my question next time. To stop pressuring him to turn his drawing into something static and consumable, into something for me, something I can hold and categorize and compare to other likenesses of the thing. I carry him everywhere, this child in my charge. The subjective universes we hold inside us are merging; our doors open, we are lending one another our eyes.
“Years,” he says. “I’m drawing years.”
He nods his head. At least one of us is seeking assurance.
Something in me softens. Some part of me heals. I am love, responsibility, becoming, peace. “How slow and fast they go by.”
The terms “Rock Brain,” “unthinkable,” “social detective,” and “Cranium Coach” reference Michelle Garcia Winner’s Superflex© curriculum, a teaching framework consisting of specialized vocabulary, original characters and stories, and teaching tools, materials, and strategies designed to present concepts of social cognition in ways that are to individuals spanning preschool children to adults. Superflex© and related materials referenced in this text are a product of Think Social Publishing, Inc. I encourage you to explore their theories and resources at http://www.socialthinking.com/About.
All photographs included in this text are my own; the first and last images are of drawings expressly given to me by students and photographed with their consent. Protecting the integrity and confidentiality of my kids’ education and respecting their agency in the process is of the utmost importance to me.
My greatest hope would be that this piece teaches in some way. Thank you for reading.
I have used Michelle Garcia -winners material in my program in California ; love the rock brain; and red thought, blue thought.
Great article Ben