Susan's Blog

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Hall of Fame Speech

I was inducted into my high school Hall of Fame today! It was a lovely ceremony, with three other inductees from other graduating classes. The bond we shared was public service and giving back to the community. I feel so honored and honestly blown away by the thoughtful ceremony and the achievements of the others there. By the way, my high school is named after former U.S. Senator Brien McMahon, and so we were the McMahon Senators! You can imagine how interesting that was for me…

Here is the speech I gave today, drawing from certain life lessons of two of my favorite teachers:

“Get out of your culture,” Charlie Wiggins used to shout at us in twelfth grade Anthropology class. He meant that we were guilty of seeing different people through the lens of Americans. We were being “ethnocentric.” Unconsciously judging the world by our experience, our rules and mores, our privilege. Mr. Wiggins was thought of as kind of a hippie, a free spirit, and — even though I did not know the word in those days — a progressive.

I’d never heard of ethnocentricity. Oh, I knew other societies were different — like the French spoke French (and acted it!) Indians thought cows were sacred, the Puritans had avoided any sort of color or joy in life. But in my mind, people were still kind of like Americans, or wanted to be. Until Mr. Wiggins came along, and we studied the peace-loving Pygmies of the Belgian Congo, and also the warlike Yanomami of the Amazon Rainforest. And then we were asked to create a culture of our own. So my class worked for months on the making of Ema, which a classmate said meant “now” in Japanese. The point of Ema was that everything we did was all supposed to be in the present, for the present. Everything came down to just being here on earth.

The climax of the semester was for the class to go on a weekend camping trip where we would try to live in the world of Ema. We chose new names, from nature. I was Earth. My best friend Cynthia was Sky. One girl was Fern Texture.

God, we tried so hard. But the thing fell apart because we squabbled, we made inappropriate jokes, we started secret romances. We were teenagers, basically. And also, because cultures are actually so complex, so intricate and organic, that they cannot be constructed out of whole cloth, even in the greatest classroom environment. And yet in failing to become true Emas, we succeeded in appreciating the heart and soul and wisdom that goes into different cultures. We learned in a visceral way, the value of difference.

Bookending the mindblowing experience of Charlie Wiggins’ class was perhaps the perfect contrast: Stephen Hofheimer’s English class. Mr. Hofheimer, who wore leather pants and saddle shoes was the hippest thing we’d ever seen. Hoff is the guy who usually gets chosen as Favorite Teacher. He’s the one you seek out to autograph your yearbook. Everyone had a crush on him. We idolized him.

But AP English was also serious stuff. This was where we would maybe earn a college credit. This was where we would read The Classics. And maybe most important of all: this was where we would learn that secret formula to getting into a good college: Mr. Hofheimer’s weekly SAT words. We actually had to memorize something like 20 words each week, strange, hard words, like “Jejeune.” Or “Afficianado”. And, ironically, “sesquipedalian.” He would say each word out loud, getting his mouth around the thing like it was a fine dessert. He would give you the definition, and then use it in a sentence. It sounds – and was – boring, and yet. It was the first time I remember feeling the exoticism of words. His excitement, his appreciation for the very taste of a word, settled somewhere inside of me and I fell in love with language. And how to use words with care and precision.

I went off from McMahon and went to Penn, then got married. My husband Ned and I moved up to Boston. I thought I’d be a writer of some sort, and just continued writing novels that are still in my attic — and probably belong there.

Then I had my first child, Nat, and everything I’d ever known turned on its head. This beautiful baby was nothing like the baby books. He did not play with toys, he only mouthed them. Or lined them up. He did not like to be around other children. He would not get out of his stroller at the playground by the time he was 2. He could not answer a yes or no question. But he memorized entire books, talking endlessly from them, in scripts.

My Nat was diagnosed with autism by the age of 3. So not only did I have to deal with heartbreak, and learn about autism (before the Internet), I had to learn who Nat was. And I had to learn how to be a mother where there were no autism mothers around me. I had to learn what it was like to have a child who was very different from every child on the playground.

It took a few years for me to get on my feet. But one night, the day before Thanksgiving at my Aunt Rhoda’s house – she’s sitting right there – my husband and I were talking about how hard it was going to be to take Nat to the big family dinner, when we got the idea to make a book that would tell him exactly what to expect at Aunt Rhoda’s Thanksgiving. I wrote out the words in a way that Nat could understand, I cut up photos, we taped it all together.

Nat loved – and memorized – the book. And Thanksgiving was a success. Suddenly, I knew how to help my son. At my mother-in-law’s suggestion, I composed a brief article that described what we had done with the “Nat Book,” and it was published right away, in Exceptional Parent Magazine. Suddenly other parents wanted to know what I thought, what I’d learned about autism.

What I was learning was that the world was not prepared for guys like Nat. From lack of awareness to lack of funds to lack of empathy. To lack of best practices, fair laws. And it felt like I had to do something about it. I had to educate the world. I wanted them to understand and know Nat, and never ever simply dismiss him. I had to become an advocate, and teach everyone about difference. I have had to show people what an entirely different existence looks like. With my writing, I have tried to gently lead people out of their culture and connect with mine. With Nat’s. In writing my books, and in crafting a 750-word essay worthy of the New York Times or Washington Post, I have had to put myself deeply inside the moments of my life as Nat’s mom, and get other people to care. By using just the right words. Making every sentence count. Because the stakes are too high to fail. This is for my Nat, after all. And for struggling people like Nat. It’s on me to get people OUT OF THEIR CULTURE and open themselves up to difference.

That’s why I do it. And I know how to do it, in part because of this school.

Thank you so much.




Congratulations! Beautiful speech.

— added by Susan Harrison on Monday, June 4, 2018 at 7:44 am

Susan, congratulations. An honor, well deserved!!! You make us all proud!!!

— added by Susan Brown on Monday, June 4, 2018 at 8:09 pm

Congratulations Susan! Well done!

— added by Lisa C on Monday, June 4, 2018 at 8:44 pm

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