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Sunday Reflections: Imagining Others Complexly (by Robin)

I have to admit, I’ve been really discouraged lately. All of the recent events in Washington DC, with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the government shutdown, with it’s corresponding misinformation and lack of information, bringing our country up to the very brink of default for no particular reason, etc., has really caused me to question the direction our country is taking. I feel like we should be…beyond this? Maybe it’s just me.

In terms of the healthcare ‘debate’, I have a difficult time understanding how people can NOT see how this will benefit everyone. Yes, it might make your insurance costs or your taxes go up (slightly). But, in the long run, it will decrease the amount we pay for healthcare because we wont be subsidizing emergency care for people who are unable to pay. If everyone has access to regular preventative care, fewer people will need to access emergency care. People in general will be healthier, productivity should go up, the amount of people who rely on disability will go down. It’s a win-win.

I feel the same way about education spending, and not just because I work in public education. I look at my own state with it’s recent cuts to education funding, especially to our once flagship More at 4 program and wonder, “Do people not see how a (relatively) small investment now will save us SO MUCH in the future?” Forget the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The simple fact that it is so much more of a drain to our economy to have an undereducated populace, in terms of financial support, lack of productivity, and expenditures on incarceration, should be enough to convince people of the importance of fully funding public education.

And then a couple of things happened. First, there was this simple exchange I had with someone I follow on Twitter:

Once I got over my initial bout of flabbergasted rage over people’s inability to understand the complexities of living in poverty, I began to really think about the problem. What is really at the root of this lack of understanding? In simple terms, it’s generally attributable to a lack of ability to imagine others complexly (a concept I first encountered through one of John Green’s Vlogbrothers videos.) It’s a failing I encounter daily, even within myself, and I make a concerted effort to do it.

Second, there was the widely reported study on the impact of reading (literary) fiction on our capacity for empathy. If you’ve missed it, I would start here with NPR’s coverage. But, you can also find information about it here, or here, or here. Choose your poison.

And what I realized was, “This is how I can make a change.” Because that’s what it really boils down to for me. When I get really discouraged about the state of our world what I really need is a way to make a change. Every time we make an impact, no matter how small, is a force for good in our world. That’s what I have to hold on to on a daily basis.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend the novels of A.S. King and Laurie Halse Anderson. I was recently able to procure an electronic advanced reader copy of Anderson’s upcoming The Impossible Knife of Memory, and I have to say it completely blew my mind. I’ve heard, over and over, about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress on military personnel and their families, but this book made it REAL for me. In our efforts to promote literacy in our youth population, we will hopefully also impact their capacity for empathy and their ability to imagine others complexly.

Book Review: Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

Colin Fischer is ‘swirlied’ by the school bully on the morning of his first day of high school. Most kids his age would respond either by reporting the incident to the school authorities or by plotting an elaborate revenge (at least in the world of fiction.) Colin responds by returning home to dry off and change his clothes. Because that is what makes sense to him. We (the readers) very quickly learn that Colin is not a ‘normal’ teenager – he has Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. And what makes sense to Colin is often unexpected or indecipherable to the outside world. Luckily, we have a glimpse inside Colin’s world through the 3rdperson omniscient narrator and through Colin’s notebook – a window into his thought processes.

In quick order we are introduced to the key players in this story – Colin’s family, classmates, teachers, and school administration.  When an altercation occurs in the school cafeteria, a mysterious gun appears and goes off, miraculously harming no one. Colin’s bully, Wayne, is accused of bringing the gun on campus and Colin is determined to clear his name! (Not because he cares about Wayne’s innocence, per se, but because he knows the school has gotten it wrong.)

At first I was a bit bothered by how intelligent Colin is, until we find out what Colin’s parents do for a living, then it seemed well within the realm of possibility. In fact, the characterization of Colin’s parents makes the entire story believable (well, almost all of it.) Why am I a good judge of how reasonable this is? I’m going to let you in on my secret, while the Autism Society’s statistics state that one out of every 100 children between the ages of 3 and 17 living in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, the number of high functioning autistic students (and/or those identified with Asperger syndrome) at my school is considerably higher. My school does not have a separate setting classroom for autistic students, so I have very little experience with those students whose disability precludes them from being mainstreamed with the general school population. However, due to a confluence of factors, my school has an unusually high number of students ‘on the spectrum’ who are high functioning and come from families similar to Colin’s. In fact, most years my school’s population of these students is between 5 and 8 percent.

What worked for me in this book:

Colin’s family – especially the characterization of his little brother. I think it’s important for youth who have a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder to see that they can be normal. Sometimes being ‘normal’ includes being extremely frustrated and lashing out, just like any other sibling might. His parents are portrayed as active and concerned without being perfect. They’ve sought out as much information as possible to help them raise a child with Colin’s particular needs, but they are still feeling their way through how to parent him (as all parents do.)

Colin – as a main character it can be difficult to establish empathy for an autistic individual – they are so different and seemingly ‘other’ to so many people. I ended up feeling as if Colin were one of my own students. In fact, he reminds me of several of my favorite students from past years.

The pace and plotting – almost everything was tight and well explained. It is a consummate example of ‘show, don’t tell.’

What didn’t work for me in this book:

Colin’s school administration. Maybe things are different in California, but I have never in my 18 years as an educator run into a principal who would have responded the way Colin’s does to almost any of the situations presented in the book. But that’s just me. I don’t think it detracts from the overall reading of the book (especially as its intended audience will doubtlessly not notice.)

The footnotes, and, to a certain extent, Colin’s notebook entries. From the beginning I was frustrated by the footnotes. I felt that most of the information in them was either unnecessary or could have easily been incorporated into the text. I quickly realized that they were effectively pulling me out of the narrative and stopped reading them. I enjoyed the book much more after that. I felt similarly about some of Colin’s notebook entries (mostly towards the end of the book.) Overall, though, I thought they contributed to an understanding of Colin’s character.

Why I think this book is an important purchase:

Empathy. Empathy, empathy, empathy. I cannot say enough how important it is for students to be exposed in a positive way to a diverse population of characters in the books they read. This is a quick and engaging read that explains what it is like to live as a person with Asperger syndrome without casting it in a ‘pitiable’ light. Today’s students are tomorrows coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors. The more we can do to establish empathy for everyone within them now, the better off we will be as a society. For more thoughts on this, here is an excellent recent blog by the author Shannon Hale.

Colin Fischer was published November 1, 2012 by Razorbill. ISBN 978-1595145789.

Approximately 1 in every 88 children born today will be diagnosed with autism or designated as being somewhere on the spectrum. For more information, please check out the Autism Society web site. http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics.html