“Pop, John will be all right. I will help him fit in,” my mother said.
And she did. My mother, a high school English teacher, started going to graduate school for counseling psychology. She slowly and carefully acclimated me to being hugged and to the idea that the rest of the world might have something to say. She encouraged me to swim and run, and gradually I stopped pinching myself so much (I still play with my hands, but I have learned to keep them under the table).
She hired one of her counseling friends to give me an IQ test, the results of which I am sure she fudged, and thanks to her help I was designated as “gifted.” From then on my teachers were orchestrated and managed by a professional handler. The storytelling, which in truth, was probably the biggest obstacle to fitting in, eventually became a great deal of writing. The ability to write in my head and then transcribe the words, verbatim, was a boon and not a burden. I just had to make my stories accessible — so now I am a prolific writer, most of which never gets published.
One thing that I have never put in print is that I have spent my life dealing with what today would have been certainly diagnosed as a form of high-functioning autism. Thanks to my mother, I now have some sense that I actually do fit in. Thanks to the way my grandfather handled my childhood, I have a lingering sense that I actually don’t.
This brings me to a story about an introspective 12-year-old girl from Massachusetts, Skylar Monahan, who writes her own stories. She is the daughter of my wife’s co-worker, Casey Monahan, himself an eccentric person, often with a red or purple beard and a mohawk, a love of sci-fi and a penchant for fishing. At first glance, I worry that Casey might share my grandfather’s position on children who are “not normal,” but my mother taught me that first glances are almost always wrong.
Skylar has recently become the topic of after-dinner conversation at my house. I have a very hard time accepting what my wife, Kathleen, has to say, at least in part because it is so incongruous with my early life. Skylar, according to Casey, definitely is not normal. She is exceptional. She has a gift, and not the type that has to be adjudicated on an IQ test. The stories she tells are better, in so many ways, than normal life. Casey and his wife cherish all four of their children in their own unique ways. Skylar’s world is to be valued as Skylar’s world. Plain and simple.
Still, I silently have had my doubts. As the pandemic has raged on, I have watched many people — adults and children alike — succumb to its pressures, revert to self-soothing behaviors, retreat into their own strange little worlds. And I have watched anxious people demand normalcy with something like a white-knuckled fury. Normal. We need to get back to normal. We need to be normal. So I have a lingering fear that Skylar feels more alienated than the rest of the world, that she will grow up with the same nagging thoughts that she doesn’t fit in. Yesterday my fears were compounded when Kathleen brought home a poem written by Skylar. She wrote:
This will last forever
I refuse to believe that
Things will change
I am positive that
We are all doomed
It is not true that
I will leave my house again
Everything will remain the same
I do not believe that
I will see my friends again
I know that
Everything will remain boring forever
It is impossible that
We can get through this
I believe that
We will all die
It is a lie that
The vaccine is real
So, I was right, Skylar was in pain after all, I thought. She was struggling to feel normal. But that wasn’t actually the full story — I was wrong about Skylar.
Kathleen told me Casey got emotional when Skylar gave him the poem, because he and his wife have tried so hard to keep things positive for their children during this time. His daughter just laughed at her normal-not-so-normal father.
“Dad, now you’re supposed to read it from the bottom up.”
Skylar Monahan is a seventh grader, aspiring author, softball playing Girl Scout Cadette and self-proclaimed Ravenclaw. Casey Monahan works for a digital freight tech company and is a father of four. They both approved this essay. John Kaag is a philosophy professor and author of “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.”
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