Getting Past My Past (A Blog About Lee Hirsch’s Documentary “Bully”)


I know that change cannot happen overnight. I also know that hope can encourage one person to make a difference in a town, country and world. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch recently accomplished a first in his new critically acclaimed documentary “Bully.” This is a topic that I feel very personal about. I was bullied in high school and it is something that still effects me today. I felt a number of emotions throughout the scenes in this film. I felt sadness when I heard about the tragic death of Tyler Long, the seventeen year old from Georgia who committed suicide because he could no longer take the physical and mental abuse from his classmates. I felt the horrible combination of anger and shame when Alex Libby’s tormentors kicked, stabbed, punched him on the school bus. These bullies did not even care that Lee Hirsch’s camera captured the whole incident on film! Frustration and confusion overcame me when I heard the comments from the school board members in Murray County, Georgia. Some of them were willing to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue, but they had no idea how to intervene and prevent it. They tried to justify the behavior using cliché’s like “boys will be boys” and “kids are cruel at this age.” I felt disgusted when a pastor from Murray county stated that kids went to school the next day with nooses hanging around their neck. This was a blatant mockery of Tyler’s family and the school district seemed to have shrugged it off.  To the best of my ability, I want to write a blog post about this documentary and how it had an impact on me. To all of you out there who are any shade of different, I hope my writing will give you positive motivation. It doesn’t matter if you are LGBTQ and risk being disowned from your family or if you are Autistic and trying to understand the world around you. I also hope my writing will give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in.

When it comes to my experiences, I honestly felt like my tormentors expected the worst of me. They wanted to see me unhappy. Therefore, my academic performance and my desire to interact with others plummeted to the lowest possible level. Most of these bullies wanted to manipulate me into thinking they were trying to be nice. However, I knew they were not to be trusted from the beginning.  I felt like every single person in my Western Pennsylvania high school was out to get me. I didn’t trust anyone. Period. When I look back on it, I question one thing. Paranoid delusions can increase your chances in becoming victimized, can’t they? People will notice if you appear to be nervous, angry or depressed. Some of them will show genuine compassion and understanding, while others will intentionally or unintentionally exacerbate it.

The scene featuring Kelby Johnson in her rural Oklahoma town was all too real for me. “You can always count on something happening when you are walking down the hall at school and in the classroom, after school when I’m walking home, when I am walking through the parking lot in the mornings, to school. I wasn’t welcomed at church. I’m not welcomed in a lot of people’s homes.”  When I look back, I honestly cannot predict what would have happened if I decided to come out as a gay teen while I was still in high school. People in my Western Pennsylvania high school did call me names like faggot, cocksucker, queer, loser and retard. They certainly noticed that I was different and you can bet that some of them tried to use it for their own laughs and personal gain. I was one of those kids who tried to avoid being put into any of those “cliques” that are commonly associated with the high school social scene. We have already gone over the fact that I felt like I could not fit in with anybody. I was a loner. People tried to convince me into believing they “cared” about me. The truth was they did not have that “magic wand.” What magic wand am I talking about? I am talking about the one which would have eliminated my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and all the struggles that came with it. Therefore, they were not to be trusted. 

If we take a trip back into the real world, we face the bitter realization that magic wands only exist in fantasy. My writing is no fairy tale. I try to express myself in the most real way I possibly can. It is important for me to get over the phase where I dwell upon the fact that people do not accept me. However, there is one question that still remains. Why does it feel like these experiences are always going to be embedded in my brain? Why does it feel like most neurotypical people are confident enough to (literally and figuratively) throw the middle finger at anyone who makes derogatory remarks about their sexual orientation or any other trait which makes them seem different from the societal norm? I cannot help but feel like I am demanding others to fight my battles for me. Is it normal for me to feel that way? I know that I am not in any way comparable to an alcoholic with codependency issues. But, why do I feel that way? I cannot expect others to fight my battles for me, but I want to know that people are willing to answer questions and are willing to help me when I reach out to them.

I know that I need to learn how to move on from those experiences. Over the spring and summer months, I have deeply thought about ways to move on. I know that I have been very fortunate to have people who genuinely care about me. I have decided to write about some individuals who have made a lasting impact on my life and why they are so important to me. They are all from different parts of my life. I am not doing this just for myself. I know there are people who desperately need to feel good about themselves. Some may risk being disowned from their family because of who they are. Others have loving and accepting families who are willing to fight for what is truly best for them, but still experience cruelty anytime they go outside their home. We all need to learn how to recognize those who do genuinely care about us. One thing comes to mind when I think about those people in my life. I know they would be devastated if I even contemplated suicide. I am offering my words for them and I hope you are able to use them in your own lives! This is an essential step for me in overcoming those wounds.

I know that I am fortunate to have such loving and caring parents. I do not deny that they are on my side and they are willing to guide me through the road to a happy and successful life. Raising a child with any kind of Autistic Spectrum Disorder has it’s fair share of challenges.  It is important to know that no parent is perfect. Am I ever going to pretend that my parents are perfect? The answer is no! My parents are both very intelligent human beings who did everything in their power to support my sister and I. They have tried to understand the pains that result from the challenges associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. It goes back to as far as I can remember.

I was about three going on four. We just finished a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time, my aunt Teresa and uncle Benny lived in that area. It was very early in the morning. It started out as a normal airport routine until we heard an announcement that our red-eye flight back to Pittsburgh was abruptly canceled and we had to book another one. We had no choice but to wait at the McCarren International Airport.  We went through security, rode on the tram and walked to the gate. Things went smoothly until a few minutes after we arrived at the gate. An ear-splitting alarm was mysteriously triggered and it blared throughout the entire terminal. We assumed that it would only last for a few minutes. Instead, it continued for over an hour. Everyone around us became impatient and sick of listening to the alarm. Naturally, I became very upset. My mother tried to put earplugs in, but that still didn’t help.  I continued to cry and scream until my parents decided to get back on the tram and wait in the ticketing area. They held me and did their best to comfort me because we were all very tired. Despite that we had to go through security again, we were relieved to discover the alarm was silent.

I am 21 years old now. Struggles can become more complex than a loud noise hurting my ears. I am grateful for the fact that my mother and father are willing to guide me through any struggle I may experience down the road. Mom and dad are still trying to understand my communication barriers. I feel these barriers are comparable to a crying infant. A baby cannot use words when they are hungry, in need of a diaper change or craving attention. I did not know how to communicate the emotions I felt during high school. So, my high school life consisted of withdrawing from people and just having an unhappy outlook on life. I happen to know that many Aspies go through their high school lives wondering the many complex reasons behind those communication difficulties. I refused to accept answers like “that’s just the way you are.” I hated being placed in special education classes because they treated me like I was an idiot. I hated being placed in mainstream classes because I felt distant from the majority of my peers. If I tried to explain this to adults, I can guarantee they would ask that one question I hate. “Why is that?” Do you know why I hate that question? It’s because I do not know how to answer it. My mother and father do not know all of the answers. I don’t think they ever will. However, they were proactive in advocating for me when professionals were only willing to do what they felt was best for me. This was the case when I was a student at the Computing Workshop summer program. Long story short, my school district felt that their services were superior to those offered by Computing Workshop. They wanted me to work with a traditional one on one tutor for two hours a week. We went into due process, and the hearing officer ruled that the services offered by Computing Workshop were the best fit for me and that they must reimburse my family for summer tuition. The next summer, they came up with a new extended school year program. They were extremely vague about the program and the officer ruled in favor of the school district. The fact that mom and dad possessed the patience to deal with such difficult people is truly astounding to me. 

As you can see, my mother and father are just two examples of people who do genuinely care about me. I have begun to accept that my parents will never have all of the answers when it comes to understanding my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that I am a gay man. My next challenge is to think about people from other parts of my life. I hope to reach out to people who are experiencing the same (or worse) feelings of loneliness. I could sense these feelings of hopelessness throughout the documentary because this is the first film to ever raise awareness about the profound impact that bullying can have on people’s lives. I hope people will use these experiences and understand that they are worth a lot more than those people who punch, kick and call names. This message is a message that needs to be spread more than it is now. 

To be continued soon!

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Does “Normal” Exist? (John Elder Robison’s Book “Be Different”)


Synopsis of selected chapters from “Be Different”:

Part 1: “Rituals, Manners and Quirks”

Part 2: “Emotions”

I will blog about parts 3, 4 and 5 in the near future!

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate reading clinical reports about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The only things they really focus on are the symptoms and treating methods. I urge you to take a look at this article on Web MD.com. It is a perfect example of something that absolutely drives me crazy. These reports only show a list of symptoms in childhood, adolescence and adult hood. I have tried my hardest to explain the emotions I have experienced in my life through the writing of my blogs. This brings me to another reason I can’t stand articles like this. It mainly focuses on the “cant’s” of Asperger’s. I am the proud owner of John Elder Robison’s new book “Be Different”. There have been people in the Asperger’s community who have given his first effort “Look Me In The Eye” negative reviews. It is hard to describe experiences throughout a person’s life, then explain how they overcame them in just one book. This weeks blog is going to describe how I can relate to my favorite chapters of this book.

John would probably agree with my statement that we have come along way when it comes to understanding Asperger’s. However, we still have much farther to go. The chapter “Asperger’s and Me” mentioned his son Jack Robison (nicknamed “Cubby), who is now twenty-one years old. He was officially diagnosed when he was sixteen. John was not officially diagnosed until twenty-four years later. A quote from the chapter reads “I look at him today, and see how much he’s benefited from understanding how and why his brain is different from other folks. In many ways, he’s the young man I could have been if only I had known what I had.”

Social skills groups did not work for me, because they focused on “fixing” my weaknesses instead of building on them using my strengths. They seemed to think threatening and scaring tactics would magically cause me to become “reborn” into a “socialite who had lots of friends”. My last blog was about teachers, counselors and parents who don’t “practice what they preach.” It showed how they all push students to learn more about “social skills”, while they behave in a way that shows a lack of social skills. The teacher at Freeport who tried to convince me into believing there was a fee to attend Lenape was a prime example. Remember the situation where they purposely put me on the spot in front of everybody? I liked the chapter Finding Your Path to “Fitting In” because there was one thing that showed me why I didn’t function in the Wesley Wonder Kids “social skills” group. A quote from the chapter read “competence excuses strange behavior. That’s a very important point for those of us on the spectrum, because our special interests can make us competent in whatever we find fascinating”. Wesley Wonder Kids only focused on “fixing” my quirks, not building on my strengths to improve my social skills.

With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to a story about Florida mother Melissa Barton and teacher Wendy Portillo. She is a kindergarten teacher at Port Saint Lucie elementary school. Her son’s teacher allowed her students to vote him out of class. Alex, was five years old when his teacher allegedly asked each student stand up and say something they didn’t like about him. They commented “Alex is disgusting”, “Alex is annoying”, “Alex sits under the table”, “Alex spins in circles” and “Alex eats his crayons”. After each student spoke, she asked him. Fourteen classmates voted him out of the classroom and two voted to let him stay in the class. In this CBS interview with Melissa, she talked about  Alex’s only friend in his kindergarten class. Mrs. Portillo asked the little boy if Alex should be allowed to stay in the class. This happened not once, but twice! The first time he said Alex should be allowed to stay, but Mrs. Portillo sternly said his name. The boy eventually decided to vote him out of the class to prevent the teacher from potentially being punished for disagreeing with him.

Wendy Portillo’s punishment was originally a year suspension without pay and loss of tenure. However, the West Palm Beach school board decided to change that punishment and give her tenure back. In September 2010, she behaved discriminatory to another student with a disability. This teacher is now working at Allapattah Flats in She and two other West Palm Beach teachers were discriminative to a partially deaf girl. The two teachers were supposed to wear microphones so the female student could hear them, but the female student claimed they would “sometimes would not wear them”. According to this news article, the mother filed a complaint with the department of education. There was a claim in the report that said “that one teacher never wore the microphone and screamed and yelled at the student to pay closer attention.” The report also stated another teacher wore the microphone but did not turn it on and “laughed sarcastically in the face of the student”. When Alex Barton’s mother heard about this incident she commented “I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve fought very hard to correct this district and this teacher, and here we are again!”

Alex’s mother was very lucky the school board took any action about this teacher’s behavior, however Mrs. Portillo should not have received her tenure back. Discrimination against people is something that we unfortunately can’t erase, but society has a long way to go when it comes to enforcing the laws regarding it. However, we still have a long way to go. During John’s upbringing, anybody who exhibited these characteristics was perceived as “bad”, “ignorant”, “selfish” and “self-absorbed”, just to name a few. I am sure his mother was also very worried about his self-esteem after this unfortunate incident.

Let’s take a look at the chapter “A Reason To Care. John’s mother suffered from Bipolar disorder and his father was a raging alcoholic. As a result, he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. A quote from the chapter read “I loved computers and electronics, so I naturally imagined myself becoming an engineer. Yet, even with that dream secured, it was difficult for me to see a clear path from high school through college to professional engineerhood in my head. There were just too many problems. My home life was awful, with a drunken father and a mentally ill mother. And I didn’t seem to focus on what my teachers wanted.” Nobody was really there to motivate him and push him in the right direction. His behavior caused resulted in frequent trips to the principal’s office. A school like Lenape Tech sounds like something John really could have benefited from. I hated most of my classes, and my grades started to plummet because of my many issues with self-esteem. I was so bitter about the fact that nobody liked me and truly appreciated me for who I was. Just like John I felt “I wasn’t getting a thing out of class. No one wanted me there. There was no good reason to be in school”. 

My freshman and sophomore years at Freeport were dreadful because I simply because I had to be there for about 6 hours every day. The teachers were not motivated to fit my needs, and they didn’t do a very good job motivating me because none of my classes really interested me. Most public high schools hire teachers for the sole purpose of filling employment vacancies. They don’t consider matters like their ability to teach the material in a way the students will understand. I urge you to search for your school on the website Rate My Teachers. Reasons like what I just described are why this website has sparked such a controversy. Every school out there has at least one teacher who seems to think that giving assignment after assignment out of a  textbook will “light the spark” and help them truly understand the material and want to learn more about it. The thing that annoys me about teachers who give nothing but book work is the fact they never explain any of the terms or (if you are in a class that involves math) formulas in the chapter you they assign you. It is also really no use to ask the teacher for help, because they just tell you how to do the steps instead of showing the steps in a way the average student can grasp it. A “bad” teacher would say “Derek, I’ve told you the steps countless times. Why aren’t you paying attention?” A “good” teacher would say “Derek, let me explain the steps in another way. You don’t seem to be getting it.” The simple fact about teaching is they have to get used to the fact that every student has a different learning style.

A visual learner needs to be taught how to take notes, remember important ideas and they need to have notes and a visual to look at and help them remember information that is going to be on a test. Visual learners would most likely excel in classes like geometry and trigonometry. Algebra can be very challenging for these learners because it is a very abstract

A kinesthetic (hands on)  learner should be allowed to make models of the topic they are learning about. Field trips are a great way to show real world applications of the topic you are covering. They should have the opportunity to use tools and put their skills to the test.

An auditory learner may have difficulty reading passages in a textbook or handouts and they may take longer to get the work completed. They often have high confidence to contribute to class discussions and they are good with words and language. Both oral and written instruction are essential.  

The problem with many teachers is they are unwilling to adapt to the many different learning styles of each student. I am mostly a visual learner, but the hands on an auditory approach towards learning can be helpful for me. It is also important to remember that not every single Aspergian learns the same way. I am a person who needs specific instruction when it comes to performing a task.

Let’s skip forward to the chapter “(Not) Reading People”. Awareness of things like facial expressions and tone of voice can be very difficult for people like me. The chapter opened with John describing how his grandma Richter would make faces at him when he was a toddler. Instead of smiling and laughing at his grandmother, he would just stare. He had absolutely no idea what to make of her action. The circus clown faces coming from his grandmother caused him to wonder if they were supposed to be “funny” or “dangerous.” This agrivated her, so she asked “Why aren’t you smiling at me? You are just a mean little boy.” She finally had enough and plopped John onto the ground. His initial reaction “I was not able to fully grasp what had just happened, but I got the message that she didn’t like me very much.” The therapist I described in many of my former posts (especially “You Need To Laugh More”) seemed to think that pushing me would magically cure me of this problem. He took a similar approach to how Elaine Hall handled her son Neal. He would mimic my facial expressions, film them with my video camera and laugh at them in the process. After we watched the video tapes, he would sit there and tell me how I needed to fix them “immediately”. I am surprised I “kept my cool” and didn’t punch him after I encountered that whole experience. That was an approach that caused me to put even more of a wall. I most certainly didn’t think it was funny, so I refused to open up to him. The fact is, I will not open up to somebody who tries to push me to the limit. To me, it seemed like he was trying to blame me being me for the fact that I had self esteem issues and was bullied a lot. I was emotionally drained by the end of every session with him. I am gradually improving on my ability to recognize facial expressions in people, but never again will I let anybody shove them down my throat! 

If grown-ups are aware, they can do a whole lot to help by explaining what the kids are missing.” 

John Elder Robison

Friendships in high school have been very difficult for me. This was because of my difficulty with facial expressions. The chapter “Making and Keeping Friends” illustrated how his views of friendships have changed. Social skills groups like Wesley Wonder Kids weren’t very helpful when it came to making friendships. The group members were lost in their own worlds and I was lost in mine. I could not figure out how to interact with them because I was not into the same things they were. I met my good friend Aaron from the Computing Workshop program, and we automatically got along because he was a very laid back guy who wasn’t interested in normalizing me. The group members from Wesley Wonder Kids seemed to be lost in their own world of video games, cartoons, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon. When they would talk about their interests, the staff members would put me on the spot and make me ask questions about it. I had no idea what to ask them because I am not interested in any of those things. I was just to stressed about the whole social pressure of high school that I didn’t really want friends. Mom would try to encourage me to find out more about the things they were interested in, but I chose not to because I feared I would get even more lost into my world. Reading this chapter described how I felt at just about any social event with people close to my age. There was another thing about friendships that really frustrated me during junior high and high school. The following is another quote from this chapter “Like anyone, it cuts me when a friend I care about turns on me, but if someone I just met fades from the scene, I’ve learned not to be troubled.” I know now that friends who come and go are not true friends. I’ve come to realize that it is their problem if they don’t want to truly get to know me. Very much like John, I thought of friendships as “all or nothing”. People have different groups of friends and not every category of friends share their deepest darkest secrets.

There is one more chapter that I want to talk about in part 2. “Keeping Cool In A Crisis” can be very difficult for many people. People often joke about tragedies like car accidents and school shootings because they don’t realize the seriousness of the situation until it actually happens to them or somebody they care about. John was involved in a serious car accident, but he and the passenger were not injured. The following is a quote that described the situation “Everything happened in slow motion, though the crash played out in a fraction of a second in real-time. Jim saw a rainbow as the other car’s window glass exploded in our headlights. I remember a tremendous jolt, and struggling to twist my wrecked steering wheel as our car slid to a stop. When we stopped moving we both looked back and forth for a moment, and wiggled our arms and legs to ascertain that we were still alive and intact.”  The driver of the other vehicle was killed on impact. Head on collisions are among of the most serious types of car accidents because they involve more than one vehicle. I honestly don’t know how I would react if I encountered a crisis situation because I have never experienced it before. Instead of screaming and panicking, he did his best to rescue the passenger trapped inside the other vehicle. He took the logical approach and solved the problem while helping somebody who was in danger. Fire, severe weather and lockdown drills in school are necessary in schools because they are intended to prepare for the unthinkable. Before I leave you for today, I urge you to look at this video. It contains rare evidence that was found from the shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999. The evidence was put there to help people reconnect with what happened that day.

I hope you enjoyed reading my perceptions of John Elder Robison’s book.

I will review parts 3, 4 and 5 next week!

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