This is to thank the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and from around the world who protested today. It turns out you were marching for my life today, too.
As a school kid I had epilepsy which was diagnosed, and Asperger’s which was not. That combination made me a bully magnet. What were, in the hindsight of an adult diagnosis, typically autistic traits were treated by teachers and even my parents as character defects. My stimming and spontaneous unfiltered utterances were the acts of a willful, disobedient, incorrigible kid as far as adults were concerned, so they tended to turn a blind eye to physical abuse by my classmates, and there was a lot of that. It started early and grew worse as I got older. By 9th grade it had become life-threatening.
When I was 13, a couple of boys from the neighborhood caught me at the local 7-11, threw me in the dumpster behind the store, and wired the lid closed. Florida sun turns a metal dumpster into an oven so when the sun rose over the roof of the store I started to bake. By mid-afternoon I was too weak to scream for help anymore, or even sit up. After I puked, pissed myself, crapped my pants, and puked again, I thought “this is how I die.” I laid down, closed my eyes and hoped the end would come quickly.
Some hours later I was roused by the sound of the store owner cursing about the dumpster being wired shut. He was cleaning up to close which meant I’d been trapped for over 12 hours. This was my first, but not my last, near-death experience at the hands of bullies.
The culture in which I grew up was very protective of the “us” group but treated “them” with a brutality so casual that it seemed almost normal. Between the epilepsy and the autism, I was never in anyone’s “us” group so I lived as a prey animal both at school and in my own neighborhood. A few of the football players even had a point system for the types of injury they might inflict on me. Lowest points were for a shoulder check. More points if I was knocked off my feet. More still if I had to go to the school nurse afterward. Whenever I was among people, I was either looking around the corner or looking over my shoulder.
A few months after the dumpster incident one of the football players attacked me from behind, shoving me face-first into a brick wall. My forehead was split open to the bone, and my upper lip was split to the gums. My nose was broken and one nostril torn. There were cuts ringing my eyes where my broken glasses had dug in. Despite the 10-day suspension, my attacker was allowed to keep his athletic eligibility and make up his work to preserve his GPA. When I found out I made my own plans to go shoot up my school, starting with my attacker and then as many of his buddies as possible.
After I calmed down I went a different direction and tried to commit suicide instead. I dropped out of school the following year.
As soon as it was possible, I moved to a different town, changed my name, and built a new life. I distinguished myself as a Computer Operator, then as a Programmer, in a field with lots of diversity and in which my autism was more of a benefit than a burden. I allowed myself to believe the past was behind me. Or at least that my hometown, a regional Klan headquarters, was an outlier and not representative of the country.
Then Trump announced his candidacy and suddenly it seemed the whole country turned into my hometown. The decades I’d spent overcoming the emotional and physical abuses of my childhood disappeared and suddenly I was that kid again, that prey animal. Except now that casual brutality inflicted on me in my youth was aimed entire populations of people. People of color. Women of any color. Muslims. LGBTQ. The disabled.
Being autistic, social media had been a refuge for me. The place where I was able to find community and be part of someone’s “us” group. That ended with the campaign and the total abandonment of any civility of discourse. No matter how well researched and reasoned my argument, I was a “libtard,” a “snowflake,” a “cuck” and worse. When I reported a Facebook group advocating incarceration or murder of all autistic people, jailing or killing people like me in other words, Facebook’s initial response was that it didn’t violate their Terms of Service. Contempt had become the new normal.
My last hope was that this would all die down after the election, but then Trump won and all hope was lost. I had no idea what we’d become with Trump as President, I just knew I didn’t want to live to see it. My wife said I should give it some time. Once I got over the shock, she assured me, I’d see that all the good people who had been there before were still there. Everything I valued was still there.
After I promised her to stick around, things just kept getting worse. Every day that passed in the Trump Presidency was another day trapped in that oven of a dumpster, clawing for the light, screaming into the void, eventually passing out exhausted. Except that in this version I wake up in the same nightmare the next morning and a bit worse off. Stephen King’s version of Groundhog Day.
Then this evening the first thing I saw when I turned on the news was Emma Gonzalez holding the podium in complete silence. I missed the first part and didn’t know what was going on. You never see dead air on TV but there she stood commanding our attention, and the camera didn’t break away. I didn’t know what this was but I understood instantly that it was important.
I sat down, eyes glued to the screen and watched. When Emma finally continued tears started streaming down my face as she recounted the timeline of the shooting. Then came the clips of Naomi Wadler, Jaclyn Corin, Yolanda Renee King, Edna Chavez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alex Wind, and so many more.
My wife was right. I just needed to wait. If this movement can arise in the trump era, if these leaders can spring from the halls of high schools and middle schools, then we are going to be okay after all.
I was still watching the news when my Matt came in to say goodnight. He saw the river of tears and was concerned.
“What’s wrong, Grandpa?”
“Nothing, buddy” I said, wrapping him in a big hug. He hugged me back. Then I held him at arm’s length so I could get a good look at our future. “Not anymore.”