A week ago, I volunteered in Jack's first grade inclusion class, but Jack wasn't there. He spent the hour in his TEACCH (autism) classroom, so I didn't get to work with him. His TEACCH teacher had told me to stop in anytime I was in the building.
If you know anything about autism, you know how unusual this invitation is. Many people with autism have difficulty coping with breaks in routine. Surprise visits to the classroom by strangers can throw off their routine and result in everything from simple loss of focus to screaming tantrums. Jack doesn't really have tantrums, but I don't know his classmates, several of whom are more severely affected than Jack and at least one of whom has violent meltdowns.
As I stood outside the TEACCH classroom door, I wondered if I should go in. I knew how disruptive my quick visit might be, but at the same time, how will children learn to cope with interruptions in routine if they never have any? As I stood, paralyzed with indecision, I watched the teacher, who was sitting at her table doing paperwork. A child I couldn't see hadn't washed his hands well, and she told him to do it again. He screamed something at her, and she calmly said, "I am turning your card for yelling." As she walked toward the door to turn his card, she saw me and smiled.
Jack had been working on the floor doing a puzzle (something he won't do at home), and as soon as he saw me, he yelled, "Mommy! You're here!" and ran into my arms. "I love you so much, Mommy!"
It was worth any disruption to hear that.
An older boy, perhaps ten or eleven, also ran up to me and stood just a little too close. "Is that your real hair color?" he blurted out.
His aide walked up to us and told him, "When you meet someone for the first time, put out our hand and say, 'I am Joe*. What is your name?'"
Joe put out his hand, and said, "I am Joe. What is your name?"
"My name is Mrs. Raihala. It's nice to meet you, Joe."
"Is that your real hair color?"
"Yes, Joe, it is. I don't think anyone would color her hair to look like this."
Joe walked away, having gotten the information he wanted. The aide, teacher, and I got a good laugh.
The teacher told me what a great day Jack had, how he had already finished all his work for the day, and how much fun he'd had that morning swimming at the YMCA special education program. Mommies love to hear stuff like this.
I gave Jack another hug and told him I would see him when he got off the bus. He said, "Okay, Mommy! I love you!" and went back to his puzzle without any fuss at all. His teacher and I made eye contact and smiled. What a great transition for him!
As I walked to my car, though, I thought about Joe's socially inappropriate (and refreshingly honest) question about my hair. Mine is grayer now than it was when my sister took my profile picture. I even wrote about my gray hair (Aging Gracefully) in February. My feelings haven't changed, but Joe's question reminded me what a rebel I am to leave my gray hair alone.
Our society tells women that aging is bad and that we must mask the effects of aging at all costs. We go under the knife or paralyze our faces to erase wrinkles, nip and tuck sagging flesh, and generally pretend that time isn't passing.
I've earned every gray hair on my head and every line of crow's feet around my eyes. I could pitch a violent tantrum at the inevitable effects of time, especially given my recent 43rd birthday. I could spend lots of money and time fighting the inevitable.
Instead, I'm opting out of society's expectations because it's cheaper and easier to have gray hair. Opting out is a theme in my life right now, something I plan on writing about in the next few months. How do we decide what to opt out of and what to embrace? How do our priorities get warped or shaped by society's expectations? When should we opt into society's expectations? After all, society tells us not to lie, cheat, steal, or kill, so it's not always wrong.
As with most good questions, I think there are lots of right answers. It all depends on your perspective, and everyone has a different perspective. I'd love to hear your comments about opting out. What societal expectations turn you into a rebel? When is it easier, more comfortable, and even more appropriate to accept what society tells you?
*Name changed for privacy