Sometimes I Feel Like I Don’t Have a Partner

The American education system needs a lot of reforms but one aspect in need of reform that I never see mentioned is the classroom partner system. By this I mean the practice of a teacher asking the students in the class to partner up with another student for a project or activity.  In fact, when I am queen of the world, I will ban the practice.

It may seem like a rather innocuous practice and in fact, most kids would probably rather have the freedom to choose their own partner than have one chosen for them but if you’re the socially awkward kid who always ends up being the one left without a partner, it’s torturous. I speak from experience on that one.

Every time the teacher told the class to find a partner I was filled with dread and discomfort. I would just sit or stand there awkwardly as everyone else scrambled to find a partner. I was never quite sure what to do with myself but there didn’t seem much point in trying to find a partner or in even pretending to try to find one.

Many socially challenged kids are bullied but I was not the kind of kid who was a target of bullying. I was just the kind of kid who no one wanted to have as a partner. Once most of the class had paired up, the teacher would ask if there was anyone who didn’t have a partner and I would have to raise my hand in shame, or worse, the teacher wouldn’t ask, and I would have to tell her I didn’t have a partner.

If there were an even number of kids in the class I would be paired off with the other poor, unfortunate soul who hadn’t found a partner. If there were an odd number of kids I  would have to be added to an existing partner pair to form a threesome. That often involved the teacher asking the class if any partners would be willing to take me on. There were rarely any volunteers and never any eager ones.

A threesome in a class full of partners is like a three-wheeled bicycle; it’s awkward, it’s useless and no one wants it. I had one pair of students I was thrust upon explicitly tell me they did not want to work with me. The rest told me that implicitly. While I did have some trouble picking up on implicit social cues, I had no trouble perceiving that I was not wanted as a partner. My classmates weren’t particularly subtle about it.

Of course even without the choose your own partner system, I still would have struggled socially both in and out of school and I would have been aware that I was a social outcast. It did not escape my notice that no one played with me at recess or that no one invited me over to their house after school. Yet being the one in the class left without a partner over and over again made my social issues tangible, public and humiliating in a way that I did not appreciate and it did my self esteem no favors. It was like having a sticker that said social reject stamped on my forehead while I was on stage in front of a captive audience.

I was recently watching a Netflix show geared towards teenagers that featured a scene in  which a high school teacher threatened a dawdling, misbehaving student with “Find a partner or I’ll find one for you!” I’ve heard that in real life too. For me that wouldn’t have been a threat; it would have been a promise of salvation. For the kids who did see that comment as a threat, being assigned me as a partner may have been the ultimate punishment.

I wish teachers just assigned partners as standard practice. I imagine the more socially adept kids would disagree though and there were more of those kinds of kids than there were kids like me. Of course kids would prefer to work with their friends but if you only ever work with your friends, that doesn’t lend itself itself towards making new friends or learning to work with different types of personalities. Once you grow up you can choose your romantic partner but for the most part you can’t choose your work colleagues. Being stuck with a bad partner for a school project sucks but it’s not like you have to to marry them.

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Since I don’t have the best social skills and I’m not a very sociable person, Research Methods in Social Psychology would not have been my first choice of a research methods course but in order to graduate from college this summer I needed to take a research methods class and Research Methods in Social Psychology was the only one available.

The syllabus we were handed on the first day of class informed us that we would be doing a final project and that we had two options to choose from. Option A was an individual project. Option B involved working with a partner of your choosing.

I didn’t have to think twice about which option I would choose. I knew I wouldn’t be able  to find a partner and that was just as well because Option A was clearly the easier option and it was much more suited to my strengths and interests.

I walked out of the classroom that night feeling pretty good about my prospects in the class and about the project. As I was exiting the stairwell, one of my classmates approached me.

“Excuse me….?” she began

“Yeah?” I replied, a little nervously. I figured she was going to tell me my fly was undone or I had something in my teeth because those kinds of things are a part of my brand of social awkwardness and when a stranger stops to talk to me nine times out of ten it’s to tell me something of that nature.

My classmate cleared her throat and said “I was wondering, would you like to be my partner for the project?”

Strangers Being Assholes to Me

Sometimes I wonder if I have some kind of target on my back visible only to other people. That could explain why strangers so often seem to feel the need to humiliate me in public. I think a lot of it has to do with misunderstandings related to my being on the autism spectrum but the amount of shit I’ve been getting from strangers in public lately has just been insane.

Of course if you asked those strangers they’d say I was the one who was the asshole. They’d say my behavior was so appalling that I needed to be reprimanded. They’d say they were just setting me straight and giving me what I deserved.

A few times when I’ve neglected to thank someone for holding the door open for me they’ve reacted by huffing and puffing and blowing out a snarky “You’re welcome.”  I’ve seen that kind of thing happen to other people too. It’s awkward and it makes me roll my eyes.

Obviously those door holders are offended by the perceived lack of manners on the part of the people they held the door open for. Yet somehow I don’t think barking a snarky “you’re welcome” at a person whose story you don’t know is the epitome of good manners. That person’s slight against you was probably not deliberate while you are definitely deliberately trying to make that other person feel bad. Intentional cruelty is worse than unintentional rudeness.

I don’t know about anyone else but I can say that there’s never been a time when I’ve noticed that someone has held the door open for me and I’ve thought to myself “I’m not going to thank this person for opening the door because I do not feel this person is deserving of my gratitude.” When I notice that someone has held a door open for me I say thank you.  It’s just that sometimes I don’t notice.  That’s because I have attention issues and executive functioning issues. Sometimes I’m distracted because I have something important or upsetting on my mind.

One time after a woman huffed and puffed about not being thanked for holding the door open she said loudly to her daughter for the benefit of the person she’d held the door open for (who happened to be my father) “You can still do nice things for people even if they don’t thank you.” She’s right about that but since she’s so outraged about not being thanked perhaps she should examine her motivations for doing nice things for others.  Maybe you should do nice things for people for the sake of helping them and not for the sake of being thanked.

Sure, it can sting when you’re not thanked for your good deed but let’s keep things in perspective.  Acts like opening a door for a stranger require a minimal amount of effort and hardship on your part. It’s not like you donated a kidney. But speaking of which, I regularly donate blood knowing that the people who receive my blood will never thank me and will never know who I am. I’m fine with that because I don’t donate blood for the sake of being thanked.

Sometimes I’m dense and don’t even realize someone has done something for me for which they should be thanked. I walked in to my school cafeteria and asked the cashier how much a meal cost. She asked if I was a student and I replied that I was. She then told me I didn’t have to pay.  Thinking that just meant the general cafeteria policy was that students didn’t have to pay, I went on my merry way.

The cashier barked an angry “Thank you” after me. I continued to be dense and didn’t realize she was chiding me for not thanking her. I thought she was thanking me for something, although I wasn’t sure what. “You’re welcome” I replied in a confused voice.

That’s the problem with being all around socially awkward. My social awkwardness causes me to be called out and embarrassed by strangers and then my social awkwardness causes me to respond to the calling out in a socially awkward way, causing me further embarrassment.

“What do you say when someone does something nice for you?” the cashier asked.

“Thank you” I replied meekly, feeling about five years old and five inches tall.

“Remember that next time”.

It was nice of her to give me a free meal but her random act of kindness was cheapened by the random act of unkindness she followed it up with. I would rather have paid for my meal than been publicly humiliated like that.

Perhaps she held a grudge over that incident because the next time I encountered her she chided me for coming so late to lunch even though there was no official time limit and the cafeteria was open and serving

The next time I came to the cafeteria I got a different cashier. I made sure to thank her after she gave me my change but the truth is I was also thanking her for not being the other cashier.

At the theater I accidentally bumped in to a woman when I was exiting the bathroom. I immediately apologized but apparently my apology wasn’t good enough for her. She had to snidely say “Just shove right past me, why don’t you?”

I was sitting in a movie theater reading on my silenced cell phone before the movie started and before the lights went out when this douchebag extraordinaire walks down a few aisles to point at me and yell “Turn off your cell phone! What part of the announcement about turning off cell phones did you not understand?”

I was so angry that I tried to flip that guy off but unfortunately I raised the wrong finger (my awkwardness strikes again!)

I’m self conscious and socially anxious enough without having to deal with this kind of shit from strangers. If I’d done something truly horrible I could understand why they’d feel justified in yelling at me like that but when it comes to minor faux pas like not saying thank you I think they can afford to give me the benefit of the doubt and choose their battles.

You can never know what issues the random people you encounter in public may have or what they may be going through. They may have some kind of invisible disability that makes seemingly simple tasks like saying thank you or navigating their bodies through space difficult. They may not have the energy or wherewithal to pay attention to their surroundings or to social niceties because they’re reeling from a traumatic loss they’ve just suffered. The last thing they need is to be the recipient of some random act of unkindness from a stranger.

The impulse to publicly humiliate a stranger over some minor issue is foreign to me because I would feel just as embarrassed and uncomfortable to be on the giving end of something like that as I am to be on the receiving end but for whatever reason some people seem to get off on that kind of thing.

The moral of this story is don’t be an asshole.  If you want to make nasty comments to a stranger whose story you don’t know because you think they’re an asshole due to some minor perceived social slight, consider that doing so makes you the real asshole in the situation.

 

Allow me to introduce myself

In my copyediting course the other introductions are all like:

“Hello, my name is John. I have a Phd in astrophysics, a JD, a masters degree in cognitive psychology, another masters degree in English literature, plus a certification in underwater basket weaving. After serving in the peace corps, I worked as a lawyer and then as a rocket scientist,while publishing a few novels on the side. Although I’m fluent in five languages and have won both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize, I realize that there is always room for self improvement. Thus, I have enrolled in this copyediting course. When I’m not working, furthering my education, travelling the world or fighting for world peace, I enjoy spending time with my beautiful wife of 25 years, Caroline and our three beautiful children.”

Then my introduction is all like “Um, hi, I’m Kira. I like to read. I have a dog and a cat. I’m in this course because I realized I can’t make money as a writer.”

Those socially awkward autism spectrum moments

When you’re on the autism spectrum it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a lot of socially awkward moments. Learning social skills and trying to figure out how to behave in a socially appropriate manner can be very frustrating for people on the autism spectrum. Often when you try to fix one social deficit you end up committing another social faux pas in the process. Allow me to give some examples from my own life.

My parents complained that when I was introduced to new people I did not talk to them or engage with them. Therefore when I was introduced to my uncle’s new girlfriend I decided to engage with her by telling her about the time my uncle let out a big smelly fart that made the whole car stink and the time he clogged the toilet so badly that my father ended up having to carry trash bags full of his poop.  Unfortunately I was not praised for engaging with my uncle’s girlfriend by telling her funny stories. I was told that it was not appropriate to share stories like that about my uncle because they were embarrassing to him.

As bad as I was about talking to people in person I was even worse when it came to talking on the phone. I usually didn’t bother to answer the phone. When I did answer the phone the things I said were not very interesting or helpful. One day when the phone rang I decided to answer it. “Hello, is Daniel there?” the voice on the other end said. I recognized it as the mother of Daniel, the boy who was currently playing with my brother in the backyard. I helpfully answered her question with “Yes” and hung up the phone. A minute later the phone rang again. It was Daniel’s mother again and she once again said “Hello, is Daniel there?”  Thinking she had not heard me the first time, I once again answered “Yes” and hung up the phone. A minute later the phone rang for a third time and for a third time it was Daniel’s mother. This time she sounded rather angry as she said “Hello, is Daniel there? And can you please not hang up the phone this time?  I need to talk to him.”

I learned from that experience. When a teacher informed me that my shirt was on backwards I realized that just like Daniel’s mother was asking if Daniel was there because she wanted to talk to him, the teacher was informing me that my shirt was on backwards because she wanted me to fix it. So I fixed it but that caused the teacher to exclaim “You can’t take your shirt off in the middle of the hallway!”

As bad as I was at interacting with adults, I was much worse at interacting with my peers. A babysitter of mine often wondered why I did not have any friends. One day when the conversation with my babysitter had shifted to a topic other than my social incompetence she told me about the time she broke her wrist by sitting on her father’s feet and having him catapult her across the yard. Unfortunately the message I took away from her story was not “I better not try something like that because I’ll end up breaking my wrist” but “That sounds like a lot of fun! I think I’ll try it.” And sure enough I ended up breaking my wrist.

Many children on the autism spectrum are bullied by their peers. Fortunately I wasn’t bullied much by my peers. I was mostly just ignored by them. The day I came to school with a rainbow cast on my wrist I got a lot of attention from my peers though. When they asked me what had happened I replied “My Daddy flung me.” Unfortunately when you phrase it like that it leads nurses and social workers to question you about child abuse.

Aside from some spanking, my father has never physically abused me and he has never sexually abused me either. It’s just that while my dad has never been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, like me he engages in some socially inappropriate behaviors and has a poor sense of social boundaries. When you put a socially awkward parent and a socially awkward child together disaster can result. One of the worst disasters occurred when I said “Daddy, can you give me a massage?” and he replied “Sure, Princess, take off your clothes.” Fortunately for me my mother does recognize social boundaries. She walked in to the room and exclaimed “This is not appropriate!” Unfortunately for my dad my mother used that incident to convince a judge that my father should not have split custody of me.

Since my relationship with my dad was strained at times and my relationship with my peers was non-existent, I was lucky to have my brother. I have to give my brother a lot of credit. Since I was on the autism spectrum and had abysmal social skills it would have been very easy for him to be cruel to me and torment me constantly. He was usually nice to me though and was only cruel on a few occasions. I’d like like to say I was always nice to my brother and was never cruel to him but that’s not true.

Take my brother’s piano recital for example. Before his recital my parents urged him to practice but he assured them that he didn’t need to practice because he had the material mastered. When his turn came to perform at the recital he messed up twice. The second time he messed up he slapped his hand against his forehead and exclaimed “Doh!” While the rest of the audience sat in sympathetic silence, the sound of my laughter could be heard echoing throughout the auditorium. To be fair, I imagine many neurotypical children would have had the same reaction to their sibling’s misfortune.

To be fair to myself again, all of these incidences of social ineptitude occurred when I was a child. I’d like to think that as an adult my social skills have improved. Sometimes I still feel the impulse to behave in a socially inappropriate manner but I restrain myself because I recognize that that behavior would be socially inappropriate.

For example the other day my niece, my nephew and the son of my father’s girlfriend were all sitting on a bench at the dinner table when all of sudden the bench toppled over and they crashed to the floor. While everyone else was scrambling to make sure they were okay my first instinct was to laugh but I did not laugh because I recognize that it is not appropriate to laugh when people fall down.

Yesterday I told my mother that I did not want to sit outside at Starbucks because the sun is evil. Some black women sitting at the the next table laughed at my comment. I wanted to pull up my shirt, show them my sunburned torso and say “White girl problems” but I did not do that because I recognized that it would be socially inappropriate.

I was afraid I had committed another social faux pas last night when I went on to the deck to inform the people who had been eating dinner that their cat had just had explosive diarrhea all over the rug. They replied with “Well, I guess we won’t be having dessert.” I realized I had actually done them a favor though by saving them from inadvertently stepping in the cat diarrhea and by giving them the opportunity to remove the cat diarrhea before it permanently stained the rug. Unfortunately I did commit a social faux pas later that night when the man who had invited me over for dinner called my name and I said “What?” in a rude and irritated tone but I was so lost in my own world at that point that I wasn’t really conscious of what I was saying.

I will fully admit that I continue to engage in other socially inappropriate behavior. Sometimes I pace, flap and twitch in public. That often gets me stares. When it happens in the bookstore, I’m tempted to walk up to one of the bookstore employees and within earshot of the people who are staring at me passively aggressively say “Excuse me but can you show me where the autism books are? I’m especially interested in books on dealing with people who are insensitive about autism spectrum disorders” but I don’t do that because I recognize that it would be socially inappropriate.