When I was a kid, I got told a lot that I was never going to make it in the real world. Only that isn’t what the people who told me that thought they were saying, when they said things like this:
“You’re going to have to learn to work with other people.”
“You have to be able to work with people different from you. You have to understand that not everyone is like you.” Nobody at all was like me. I knew that.
“If you don’t learn to work with other people, you’ll never make it in the real world.”
“Employers all say that the biggest reason they fire people is not inability to do the job, but inability to get along with others.” So I was basically, completely screwed.
(The future well-being or success of others was never predicated on their ability to work with people like me.)
I can’t even count the iterations of this message I heard over the years, from how many teachers and authority figures, people the school brought in to tell us how it was in the “real world.” It was endless. That everything I did had to be the best. And none of it would ever be allowed to matter. It would never mean anything.
They didn’t mean to tell me that I had no future and no chances. But they did. I guess the thinking was that I could be intimidated into understanding how mandatory it was that I learn to work with other people, and that, since I was basically an obedient child who wanted to do well, I would.
Only I couldn’t. I couldn’t even begin to do what that would entail.
It’s corrosive and fraying to hear constantly how much you don’t matter because your needs—which aren’t real; you’re imagining them, or being spoiled and entitled—make you inferior and incapable. That your differences and difficulties will make other people—real people, people who matter, people with power over your life or work—look down on you, and therefore you won’t be allowed to succeed, no matter what.
Unless you can make yourself acceptable.
But you can’t, so forget it.
These days, I’m lectured a lot about some other child, who it’s been decided “will never.” Who “will never” live on her own, advocate for herself, have a job, write a blog or be able to understand a debate, be in a relationship, defend her self-worth, and would never say she values her autism, or think she’s okay the way she is, because she has real deficits. Other autistic children who will never do things have real deficits, and can’t function in society. Once again, I’m told that I can’t understand that other people aren’t like me.
I wasn’t allowed to have real deficits; it was just that everything I did was somehow wrong. As good as I could be was never going to be good enough. If I were ever going to get to have my own life, it would have to be one that I could make for myself, completely alone.
So I was going to go away and leave society behind. I didn’t belong in the world of people. I couldn’t learn to work with other people, and I wasn’t going to make it in society. Everyone said so. I probably couldn’t ever be valued or loved, but I’d be damned if I was going to spend the rest of my life being belittled the same way I was in school or at home for some part of every single day, because I couldn’t learn to work with other people.
I would go away, and live alone, and work alone.
That is what I planned for. It made me incredibly sad, but I couldn’t see an alternative. I studied biology. I would have a cabin in the woods, or follow wolves or prairie dogs through the fields. Maybe write books. I would have to be as alone as I possibly could, obviously, but at least maybe I could be free. I couldn’t function in society, but I would have control over my own life if it killed me.
Yes, things went all kinds of wrong with that plan.
In my junior year of high school, I got involved in the props crew for the school play, and senior year I took an acting class. The reasons why are part of a whole other tangent of a story, which also involves a lot of people telling me why I couldn’t do things that I thought I could. But I took an acting class, and I fell in love. I knew I had to do this for the rest of my life. I started planning on being a performer. Or a theater technician, I wasn’t sure.
I double-majored in drama and biology in college. Because the “go away and live in the woods” plan was technically still in effect. I studied biology, and I studied theater, and I tried not to think about the fact that the two plans were mutually exclusive. I couldn’t honestly have told you which was the backup plan, and which was the real one.
I was getting a mercy D in Organic Chemistry.
Then something else happened one day in class. We had the cast and crew of a local professional production in to talk to us about their jobs, and how they’d made careers in theater. Our professor asked one cast member to tell us a little about his experience in stage management.
I’d never heard the term before. It was a warm afternoon in spring and my mind was wandering.
“Well,” he said, “It basically involves keeping track of everything that no one else wants to.”
I snapped awake. I didn’t know how to believe what I’d just heard. That was what I did. That was what I was. That was a job?! That was a real job, that someone could have?
Then that was what I would do.
Do you want to know something ironic?
I get told now that I’m a good communicator. It still stuns me a little, every time. Being valued the way I was—neurotic, detail-oriented, enforcing routines and making lists—took me a while to get used to.
I’m good at working with people. I even work better with other people than I do alone. But most of what changed was context, and what was valued within that context.
In biology, it’s called a niche. The place in the world where you fit. The singular role in the ecosystem that you’re adapted to fulfill.
I grew up being told that I did not and could not have one. This is only part of the reason why I’m automatically skeptical when I hear absolutist proclamations of what a child will supposedly never do. Because context matters. Because how the people around you choose to see you has real effects on how you function. Because I got told a lot about what I would never do, too. And yes, I worked really hard at skills that other people take for granted, and pursuing opportunities, and I don’t want to downplay that. But I was also given a lot of chances. The theater and arts world gave me opportunities to succeed, without prejudice, in ways that the rest of the “real world” wouldn’t allow me, and that has made all the difference in how my life has turned out.
The world is a big place, and the real world is what people make it. Never is a long time, and I truly believe that everything belongs somewhere. Give us real chances to succeed. Let what we’re good at matter.