Dear Mrs O,
This isn’t just for you. But when I think of my final years in primary school, it is you who comes to mind off the bat. You were my teacher after all. I trust you will share this with the others, as they need to see this as well. You were not the only one. Not by a long way.
I hope you know what this about. Usually, I am an optimistic person; I see the good before the bad, and give people the benefit of the doubt where perhaps they haven’t earned it. That doesn’t apply here. I don’t think you know what this is about at all. So, let me tell you.
It was hell.
Every day, those last few weeks of Year 6, as we wound down from the SATs, no classes or structure, I wanted to vomit as I approached the school gates. My heart would clench, my head would pound, my brain would itch for me to run back and proclaim: I can’t, I’m sick, I’m sick in my head and I’m sick in my heart and I just just can’t.
I was eleven years old. And it wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair that for years I had been the target of bullies, of people who would be my friend one moment and next moment, as punishment for some crime that I didn’t know I had committed (but that I believed I had committed nonetheless), would have the whole class sniggering behind my back.
It wasn’t fair that I kept it inside myself for those years, never really talking about the true extent of it, because I genuinely believed that these people were my friends and, if they weren’t my friends for a period of time, it was because I had done something to deserve it.
It wasn’t fair that the few times I burst into tears in class and was forced to reveal what was going on, it was chalked up by you – not just you, but all of you – as ‘girls being girls’, ‘silly tiffs’ and something that didn’t warrant immediate action.
I remember how my mum raised it as an issue in my parents evening, and how your face (as she tells it) transformed into a mixture of shock and amusement as you declared but I thought she liked being called a ‘boff’.
Boff. That word. That word that defined my childhood. Boffin. Nerd. Geek.
Because I was clever. And I wasn’t just clever, I was intricate. Obsessive. I knew things, and I wanted to know other things. I was hungry to fill my brain with everything.
I got the grades you wanted me to get, so nothing else mattered. On paper – maths, english, science, history – I was fine, and therefore the fine-ness of my emotions didn’t matter. I began to feel as though this was a normal way to live. I was a child. I had no idea that it could be like anything else.
I was also a daydreamer. I remember, when I was six or seven, running my fingers along the wall, seeking out the bumps and hooks and cracks and lumps, desperate for the sensory input it would give me. I remember being so absorbed in it that my finger hooked in a measuring cup in a tray, and brought the whole tray crashing down. I remember being shouted at. Being glared at as I was made to pick each item up and put them back.I remember the shame. I remember not being able to answer why I had done it, but not understanding why I shouldn’t have been doing it:
I just wanted to feel the wall. My finger slipped. But I just wanted to feel the wall.
I remember having grandiose ideas, and not understanding why I couldn’t pursue them. Why couldn’t I build a crank to pull along my toilet roll tube boat, rather than using wind or simply string like everyone else? Why couldn’t I rewrite the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a rhyming couplet poem told from the perspective of a squirrel watching things unfold from the treetops? Why couldn’t I read this amazing book of you were teaching something I already knew?
One scene in particular stands out. I approached you with some work – a map of Ancient Greece, or something – that I felt was finished. You glanced at it. Told me to go next door to the other classroom, and to ask that teacher whether they thought it was ‘acceptable’. I complied. I didn’t understand that this was a punishment. I just did what I was told. It only dawned on me when that other teacher looked at the paper derisively and made it abundantly, loudly clear that this was not acceptable. This was a show. A show to shame me for not doing it right. I hadn’t realised. I hadn’t understood. I wasn’t prepared.
I remember, in the Year 6 farewell performance on the last day of school, wearing a sign around my neck saying ‘BOOKWORM’; a joke made to all the parents about me being too busy reading ‘War and Peace’ to have taken part in the first segment. I remember that. It sticks with me. That was your idea. That was my ‘quirk’. I was a nerd. I read my books. It was funny. Hilarious. Let’s use it in the script. The audience howled. And my heart still aches.
I don’t hold grudges against them. The bullies. They were kids. Many of them have grown to have kind, productive lives. Sometimes, the fury rises within me, when I see a comment or an achievement on social media, but it is momentary.
You, and your ilk? I fume. You were adults. You were supposed to protect me. My mum dropped me off into your care every day, expecting that I would be watered and fed and encouraged to bloom – and every day, I came back wilting a little more, dropping another petal of the slightly-odd-but-happy-and-flappy child I had been before all of this.
For a long time, I let that bitterness consume me. I couldn’t move on from it. I still haven’t fully. It held me back. It doesn’t have the same grip any more, but there are moments – triggers and words and sounds and smells and looks – when I’m right back there, grovelling for my friends to talk to me again, convinced that it was my fault, smiling pleasantly as people called me names in front of you and you did nothing by laugh along.
I remember, three years after I left, coming back in with a jovial smile to see how everyone in my old haunt was doing. I remember talking to you. I remember your words, said with the tone of pinching the cheek of an adorable yet not-to-be-taken-seriously child.
Oh, I remember you at breaktime, sitting there, reading your books.
A laugh. How quaint. How quirky. How socially awkward of me. What fun we had.
I remember bristling. I remember words flooding from my mouth that hadn’t dared be spoken before.
It was because no one would play with me.
And then your response; the words that crept up and stuck with a fury that wouldn’t leave me for years.
Oh no, you were just a very anti-social child.
That still stings.
Now I look back, and I realise the ignorance of you. The ignorance of you all. My social problems were my fault. I didn’t make enough effort to have friends. If only I’d been like everyone else, everything would have been fine. I was not a troubled child, because I was a clever child. I didn’t have problems, as long as I solved the problems on the exam paper in front of me. I read books at breaktime because I was a boffin, not because the thought of going outside with the other children was terrifying. You had no frame of reference for me. Who I was. What I needed.
Let me tell you now.
I am autistic. I was an autistic child. I did not fit into your stereotype. But I needed support. I did nothing wrong. I did not deserve what I got. I needed you to understand. You should have done that. You failed me. You all failed me.
I wonder how many other children slipped through your fingertips, and their fingertips, and the million fingertips of a million teachers and tutors and doctors and counsellors and friends and family who didn’t care to look at it any other way.
And now all I can do is channel that rage, that disappointment, that sense of loss when I look back – what life could I have had if things had been different? – to try and make sure we don’t lose any more. To make sure there are no more little copies of myself, waiting and enduring and accepting what they don’t deserve.
You, all of you, were supposed to be teaching me.
It’s taken me fifteen years to realise that you, not me, were the ones that needed to learn.