Who Was Ms. Wood? (or: Why Am I So Tactless?)

I enthusiastically told my fifth-grade teacher that my fourth-grade teacher was my favorite.

It wasn’t that I disliked Tracy. (This new school’s teachers didn’t use Ms. or Mr.) On a teacher scale from 1 to 10, she was a 7.5, even an 8. She read interesting books aloud to the class, encouraged creativity, and gave every sign of being pumped about learning. She just wasn’t the 9/10 that Ms. Wood had been.

What was her reaction when I told her? I don’t even remember; I don’t think I registered that anything was amiss. In my mind, everything was normal. After all, it was Tracy who’d asked the class to write essays about their favorite things. Choosing my favorite teacher as the topic was a totally valid choice. It was as valid as replying “vanilla” when Mom asked what type of frosting she should put on her cake celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama. Young me didn’t get why she looked so offended by that.

When my fifth-grade teacher Tracy realized what I’d written about, held the essay in her hands, what did she think? Much of anything? She probably shrugged it off as one of the many inexplicable tactless things that children do. There’s a sliver of a chance that she might have had a minor crisis, wondering what she could possibly change to make students truly like her. Possibly she wondered if I was lashing out, but in a sublimely passive-aggressive fashion: “Oh, I just happened to write about a teacher who’s way better than you.”

But no doubt she thought it was rude.

Doomed to be Awkward and Rude?

Now that I’m an adult, I can see my fifth-grade project in a new light. Yet I can’t laugh it off as a one-and-done blunder or “what kids do.” It’s the tactlessness that has chased me all my life, even into now.

Yes, I believe I was lashing out at something: all the stresses of my life at the time, which had tossed me from the suburbs to Manhattan, shrunk my big yellow house to nothing, and put my mom on edge. But I never meant to be passive-aggressive. Actually, I was the one person least aware I was being reactive. Therefore, I was just innocently, blithely telling my teacher that compared to my last one, she was garbage.

I went on to tell others—though not in so many words—“Hey, the way you say that word is weird. And that one and that one. Your accent is also weird. So basically, you and the country you came from are garbage.” “What names do you like? Oh, I never liked that name. I don’t like your name either. So basically, your preferences and heritage are garbage.” “The other day, our mutual acquaintance said she did something unbelievable that I would never do in my life, so I look down on her now. Also, she told me that in confidence and now you just kind of know the secret. What were you about to share?”

All of those were people I liked, cared about, was close to. I have hurt them TERRIBLY and some no longer want to be associated with me.

Sometimes I will stop and freeze—literally freeze, stop what I’m doing and hold it – and feel the guilt again. It’s healthy remorse. Or the remorse part is healthy, but the pausing, might not be, and it’s gotten more pronounced with time.

When I was ten years old in Manhattan, my mom would often say to me, “Joi, one of these days somebody is going to walk up to you and slap you.” She thought I knew exactly what behavior she was talking about. I thought she was just as ambiguously angry as she always was in my eyes because I couldn’t read her intentions or reactions for shit. In hindsight, I wish I’d been sat down and told, in the most patient words in the world, how my words would be received, how there was more to socializing than saying the first thing on my mind.

I understand, to be clear, that today this is my responsibility. But I wish. I wish someone had known not just how deeply I was lacking tact but how deeply I was lacking the resources to adequately reflect on it. I’ve had to keep learning again and again, and 90% of the time that learning has come at the expense of me and others but mostly others.

In the Present

Self-diagnosis is something I’ve always been wary about. Please know that I don’t do it lightly. I had to be told by friends and my therapist that they suspected I might have autism for upwards of a year before I began to take real notice.

I guess the last straw was when I walked into a job interview—a job I settled for, after months of failed applications and repeatedly discovering that my “perfected” resume had yet another glaring error all along—and less than a minute in, the manager asked, “Are you alright? You look kind of awkward.” And I thought, what the hell? Am I really that obvious? No, I’m feel fine. I’m just profoundly, horribly awkward and I hate that you know it. For the next few weeks I felt like every other employee could see right through me, like I couldn’t read them beyond their smiles but they could read every part of me.

I believe I have what was formerly called Asperger syndrome, but was recently reincorporated into autism spectrum disorder. I never thought that standard descriptions of it fit me. For one thing, I’ve always been good at communicating, right? can read emotions and make eye contact. Of course, it wasn’t that I was especially graceful in social interactions—I had just gotten away with having so few social interactions not centered around shared hobbies or discussions of The Lorax (2012) that I never faced an obvious blow-up until college.

As I began deeper research than just Wikipedia articles, I found that disorders I’d never self-diagnosed myself with but had cautiously used to make sense of my own faults—schizoid personality disorder and alexithymia—are considered similar to autistic traits. Meanwhile, there are some common autistic traits that I know I don’t share. Yet an extremely high volume of the commonalities listed in Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome describe me so well that it would feel spooky if it wasn’t just based on interviewing lots of people.

Now I feel seen and I don’t totally hate it—because knowing oneself like this can point the way to good change and radical action. Instead of reading that “schizoids just need to open up and make friends and have life experiences” (which makes me cry because don’t I already do that to the best of my ability?), I can finally address my problems in specific. It’s easier for me to take responsibility when someone points out what the majority of people caught at a glance but I staunchly overlooked.

Who Was Ms. Wood?

What did I even write about Ms. Wood? I can’t remember Tracy’s reaction to the essay and, naturally, I can’t remember the essay either. All I know is that the cover of it was drawn in marker and showed Ms. Wood’s hand writing on the whiteboard.

I have a strong hunch, though. Before Ms. Wood, most teachers had been in the same 7.5-to-8 range for me. To me they could’ve been a few tweaks on the general model of a kind woman teacher person. One exception was my third-grade teacher, Ms. Bumgardner. She had an easily mockable name, wore what I considered too much eyeliner, and during the morning exercises she would play Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage.” Vomit! Vomit!! (Never mind that this is pretty much what I would play for my students today.)

Ms. Wood, though, was cool. No, not cool; wacky in a way that I resonated with. She dressed like a pastel Mr. Rogers. She kept a candy machine on her desk that would dispense fruity Runts to good students. During lunch, she’d invite us to leave the cafeteria and come back to her room to watch Schoolhouse Rock, Flintstones Kids, and Flipper of all things. That’s where I watched The Sound of Music, where I picked up the song (“My Favorite Things”) that won me a big role in the fifth-grade end-of-year musical. Ms. Wood once played a game with us called Kahoot where she’d glue owl eyes onto a long wooden stick that she called the Kahooty Stick, and then she’d tap you with it. (I don’t remember why.) Her favorite cartoon was El Kabong, a fact which she was quite proud of. (I didn’t give a crap about Hanna-Barbara cartoons, but somehow it was neat that she loved them.) At the end of the year, she even had custom shirts printed for the class that were lightly Kabong-themed: we were purple electric guitars, a sort of modern, non-copyright-infringing remake. (I still own mine.)

She did things that annoyed me. When I wrote on the wrong side of my paper a single time, she drew three big circles on the left-hand side of my desk as a reminder, which sent me into a fit. I wasn’t stupid! I wrote on the right side of the page all the time! I cried so often that she told me, “If you cry a lot, you’ll get ulcers.” That made me cry harder; I couldn’t stop, which meant I was making myself sick and there was nothing I could do about it. My mom did what amounted to the same thing, always saying, “Quit crying!” Like I did it on purpose.

When I told Ms. Wood in front of the class that the Georgia lottery was a scam, I felt proud of myself and my rightness. I was always proud of my rightness and ashamed to get little facts wrong; in first grade I’d said that “Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer because he made laws,” learning that these two facts did not go together sent me into a little tailspin. Anyway, Ms. Wood replied that the lottery funds teachers, so it’s actually good. That just made me angry. She was dismissing my obvious rightness with her inferior also-rightness.

Ms. Wood was quirky and proud to be. She reminds me of my mother, she reminds me of me.

Fourth grade was another time of upheaval for me. My childhood home, for instance. The big yellow house did disappear when I moved to Manhattan. We moved out in fourth grade and relocated to an apartment in Georgia, sure, but I still passed by the old house on my bus route. Every day I stared at the place with death eyes, indignant that whatever new family owned the place could never seem to close the garage door all the way.

This was also the first time, and not the last, that I had no school friends. Absolutely zero. It’s not surprising that the smartass who obsessed over getting things right, and bawled at any injustice or any time you called a left foot right, would end up with no friends. It surprised me then, though, that the creative joker who’s always ready to draw epic-length comics with and for others would end up with no friends. One of the friends I’d bumped into during the Bumgardner administration moved away, and the other had a different homeroom. When I finally met her again, it was at her birthday party, where I discovered that not only had she made a metric ton of other friends, she had also metamorphosized into…a girl who loved High School Musical. YUCK.

I guess Ms. Wood was an anchor. I related to her on that deeper level that I couldn’t with anyone else at school. She tried her best; I guess we all did.

For more chapters out of the Story of My Life™, take a look at my experience of being agender. Or try my thoughts on Blondie (not the band, not the comic, but the old movies).

2 thoughts on “Who Was Ms. Wood? (or: Why Am I So Tactless?)”

  1. An interesting autobiographical retrospective.

    It’s good to know yourself, and rough to come to revelations years after it feels like it should have been obvious. But missing seemingly obvious things was part of the problem at the time. But you don’t have to be on a spectrum to be oblivious to things as a youth, only to realize way later in life how actually awkward things were.

    Speaking of, I was surprised that manager you mentioned would just come out and say “you look awkward”, but maybe that was exactly the level of bluntness you yourself needed to hear if the usual social tact wasn’t getting through at the time. But its hard to be blunt without coming across as rude or hostile to most.

    Dwelling overmuch on past guilts I hope does not become a problem, but I understand this is all part of processing these revelations. I hope your self-reflections continue to bear more positive fruit.

    1. Thank you for your support and encouragement, and for your interesting-as-always reflections.

      You know and I know that I have a problem with over-ruminating as well as with milking way too much meaning out of a single label I’ve glued onto myself (“could X, Y, Z, A, B, and actually all the letters of my life ALL be SOLELY because I am autistic??”), so you’re right that I need to guard against that and seek some targeted help for it.

      The manager who said “you look awkward” quickly apologized and said that as someone with a disability herself, she just wanted to get to know people and disabilities better. She’s also younger than me, which could have made her doubly awkward. (In hindsight, I could’ve fit that into my post too, but that’s alright.)

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