Sep 11, 2012 0 Share

Seeing Shades of Grey

Illustration of man wearing sunglasses with grey pattern next to him.

Learning to be flexible is a daunting task. There are times where I would have no problem considering myself the Queen of Rigid Thought Patterns. Black is black, white is white, and grey is the color of my adored kitty. End of story. But I have had the unfortunate experience of bearing witness to the self-destruction that can be created by a lack of willingness to even attempt flexibility. It’s enough to make me tell myself that whenever I’m tempted to be less than open to considering the point of view of another—no matter how impossible it may seem in the moment—I need to try to understand the other perspective. I do not wish to make the same kind of decision a young man I know made today. It was a decision stemming from a failure to make practical use of more than one of the employability skills we aim to teach in my little Career Education world. So although I am fairly new to this young man’s story,  it still leaves me aching to know what the magic word might have been that would helped him be more flexible before he made and followed through on a terrible decision.

This young adult is on the verge of leaving the world of high school behind as this school year gets underway, and has attained a level of maturity which allows for increasing opportunities for independent work experiences. He’s earned it. He’s a young man known for being on the quiet side, soft-spoken and eager for work where he can get his hands dirty. A true outdoorsman, he has been in his glory when working outdoors, in all kinds of settings and weather patterns. As I have had the pleasure of getting to know him, I have watched him emerge from his unwillingness/inability to work cooperatively with others to accepting change and the occasional disappointment, and to self-advocating with the best of them. But there are two sides to every coin, are there not? And the flip side of self-advocacy when coupled with unfailing rigidity can equal a prescription for disaster.

During the course of the school day, this student—along with many of his peers—needs to have a balance between the vital work experience opportunities and the academics that never stop being important. But there are only 30 hours in the school week, including lunch. This young man wanted to be able to continue at a work placement where he was working independent of job coach support, and had actually been specifically requested by management. Because there are only so many hours in the day, and the academics do matter, a schedule was created that allowed for this student to have a half-day at this preferred site. However, he was used to being able to work a full day during the summer program. Here is where this young man’s rigidity saw the chance to take the reins of his decision-making process and ran wild. If he could not work the full day, then he would not work at all! End of story. He would not, could not understand why further accommodations could not be considered in creating his schedule. And because he could not understand it, he does not get how other people could understand it. I pulled out every teacher-trick I could think of, as did several of my colleagues. The end result: Score one for the downside of autistic traits. My frustration at this outcome is palpable. Fortunately I have better impulse control than I used to and was able to successfully resist the compulsion to jump up and down, yell and beg “Don’t DO this!!!” That might not have gone over well, although who knows, it might have gotten his attention, gotten him out of the place in his head where because this outcome was not what he’d planned he wasn’t going to have any part of any of it. Who knows?

Perhaps this story is no more or less than my frustrated-teacher need to vent, but I hope it can serve as a reminder of the importance of flexibility—teaching it, practicing it, living it. We have to find the shades of grey, and find the way that leads our young people to that place. My student had a great future job reference from a respected member of the community that was blown to bits today. Definitely not my “perfect world” scenario … but I’ll keep trying.