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Creative Nonfiction Friendship Inspirational

I watched as Ben walked across the cafeteria, reached out and plucked a plastic-wrapped two-pack of Oreo cookies from another student’s lunch tray while that student was away from his seat, getting seconds, or a glass of milk or something. I was the teacher on duty and knew Ben. He’s in one of my classes. I intercepted him as he walked back to his seat. “Did you just take that person’s cookies?” I asked, pointing at the unoccupied spot at an otherwise fully occupied lunch table.

“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, stopping.

“Does he know that you took them?” I asked.

“No,” he answered quickly, as Ben always does.

“So you stole them?”

“Yes,” he said, then justified it. “I asked if I could have a second pack of cookies in the kitchen, and they said no, so this was the only way I could get some without getting in trouble.”

Hmm?

“But you stole from him,” I said, pointing over again at the lunch tray. The other student, Jackie, had returned and was looking in our direction. Six foot four with a round, sunshine face, Jackie is in grade 11. Ben is in grade 9. “You can’t do that,” I said to him.

“Well, I asked him,” said Ben, “But he said no.”

 “You can’t do that,” I repeated. “Plus, Jackie is a great guy. He’s super nice.” That’s beside the point, I realized.

“It was the only way I could get some without getting in trouble,” Ben repeated, and then lowered his head. “I probably shouldn’t have done that, should I?”

“No,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

I extended my palm for the cookies.

“They’re already opened,” he said, clutching them closer and turned away slightly.

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter.” I reached out my index and thumb slowly and took the cookies. He let me have them. “Thank you." I walked over to Jackie, gave them back to him; Jackie immediately stood up, walked over and gave the cookies back to Ben. A great guy.

“Thank you,” said Ben.

“Well, there you go,” I said. "He's super nice, you see?" We parted ways. Jackie and Ben went to their seats. I went to the kitchen, got a pack of cookies and placed them on Jackie’s tray as I walked by. I flashed him a heart sign with my hands, and we nodded. Respect. Happy ending.

But this is about Ben. He answered every one of my questions without a shred of hesitation.

“Did you just take that person’s cookies?”

“Yes.”

“Does he know that you took them?”

“No.”

“So you stole them?”

"Yes."

He spoke with unbridled honesty and total transparency. He gave me a crystal clear glimpse into his unfiltered imagination.

"I asked if I could have a second pack of cookies in the kitchen, and they said no, so this was the only way I could get some without getting in trouble.”

Ben is autistic. He calls out in class. He moves about contantly, shifting to and fro. He gets up suddenly and speed-walks around in repetitive lines and circles. He has trouble containing his emotions. They're bigger than him. He's truthful in the deepest sense. He cannot lie. What you see is what you get.

I’ve worked in a high school for 18 years and have come to realize I gravitate towards a particular type of student: intelligent, articulate, sensitive, knowledgeable and, once you get to know them, so refreshingly honest.

I will never be as interested in Disney movies as Ben, but I love listening to him talk. He can list all 60 Disney movies ever made in order of their release dates, in less than 30 seconds. He asks questions, so many questions. “Have you seen the little Mermaid? What did you think?” He jumps from topic to topic, especially, if he’s uninterested in what you’re saying. He’s got opinions, strong opinions. For example, he thinks fighting in hockey should be banned. “If players fight, they should be penalized far more severely,” he says. “Why do they do that? It sets a terrible example. People like that deserve to die.”

Sometimes I can only laugh. Often, I reel him in. “Whoa, Ben.” I play Devil’s advocate. “Some people like fighting, Ben.” Sometimes, he listens. Sometimes, he changes the... “Have you ever seen the Hunchback of Notre-Dame?”

Sometimes, I oblige. “Yes, I have.” Sometimes, no. “Whoa, hold on for a second, Ben.” What’s also refreshing is that when I get serious, he always stops and listens. "Even animals in the wild fight, Ben. It doesn't mean they deserve to die." And he trusts me. He trusts me fully, to the point that I recognize I have a responsibility to take care of his feelings. He's vulnerable. It’s difficult to be vulnrrable in a neurotypical world. Neurotypical people can be...oblivious.

I’ve had disagreements with Ben. I get mad when he talks over me while pressing his points. I catch myself, usually. “We’re going to have to stop," I say. "I can feel my emotions rising.”

And instantly – I can’t express how quickly he reacts – he stops. “I’m sorry," he says, "I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

“Thank you. I’m okay. How do you feel?”

“Good.” I manage our interactions by speaking openly about how I'm feeling. That’s the key to dealing with Ben – or anyone, let’s be honest – speaking our emotions. And it's challenging.

One time, I snapped when he caught me off-guard. He approached me in the lunchroom eating what I know now were popcorn chips, popcorn which has been pressed into flat, triangular, tortilla chip-sized wedges. Chewing, with crumbs on his face, he held them in a clear Ziploc bag.

“What are you eating?” I asked.

“Popcorn,” he said.

“Oh. They look like nachos.”

His reaction was sudden and volcanic. “They don’t look like nachos at all,” he said in the most condescending tone.

My anger boomed before I could stop it. “Oh, come on!” I said and frowned.

One thing I've learned in dealing with Ben is he speaks with his emotions, but those emotions might not necessarily be connected with the conversation. I only realized this later: when Ben approached me that day, he was already agitated. I’ve noticed, since then, he’s often agitated at lunch. I don’t know what he’d just been doing, what had happened to him, or how his day had been, but he was edgy, irritable and already primed to lash. I’m sure he would have spoken the same way to anyone, no matter what he was saying. He gets into verbal altercations with peers his age because they think it’s about them. He blurts and spouts, says random things; they think he’s strange and for the most part steer clear. He sits alone at lunch, every day.

Had he been neurotypical, I would stand by my “Oh, come on!” (the chips really did look like nachos) but it wasn’t okay with Ben. “Are you serious?” he quietly asked, his head lowered, moving closer. “You were just joking, right?" And when I didn't respond fast enough, "You were just joking, right?”

It hit me. Oh no, I thought. I hurt him. “Yes,” I said quickly. "I was just joking." I lied.

They say autistic people miss social cues. Maybe subtle ones, like that one. But not big ones, like anger. What you say matters. How you say it matters. You need to be mindful of volume and tone. (Precisely what he has trouble with, you need to control.) In Ben, I have access to the purest form of being. I protect him. I appreciate him. For he shows me who I am. With every one of his reactions, he grants me access to honesty and truth that most people are incapable of granting. Even the best of us. We try hard, but it’s our neurotypical flaw: we lie. We hide. We mask. We distract. Each other and ourselves. (Does it do us any good? Yes. No. Maybe.)

Ben loves Disney movies, hockey and music of all sorts. You should see him listen to a symphony, or piano, or hip hop, or whatever. He moves with it and sings along. He feels it, you can tell, to the core of his bones. The gift of autism: engagement at the highest level.

“Must be the moneyyy!” he says to greet me nowadays, a song reference to rapper Nelly’s Ride Wit Me. He says it with a twinkle in his eye. He teases me. He teases everyone. He laughs. I laugh. Most shy away. If they only knew. If they weren’t so scared, they’d realize the treasure of how much there is to learn, about life, about love, about us, from Ben.

I sit with him at lunch now. I let him talk. I let him talk his ass off. I answer his questions and roll with his punches. He’s not perfect. He’s learning. Like the rest of us. The difference is, he has no choice; he wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s the deal with autism. Ben is honest to a flaw, but only because our culture fears its own reflection. But we can learn, as Ben can learn - “I shouldn’t have done that, should I?” - to speak honestly, and change our culture's perception.

November 19, 2022 04:53

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1 comment

Tammie Williams
14:13 Nov 27, 2022

I like how you brought us into Ben's world. I was able to picture the interactions easily. The only suggestion I would give is to make sure your sentences don't all run together. I had to backtrack a couple of times to understand what I was reading.

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