What is autism? (#32)
Word Crashers (#34)

Charlie, the Classics, and Life in Autismland (#33)

A year after Charlie was diagnosed with autism, I took a leave of absence from my then-job as a Classics professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota; after a few months, I submitted a letter of resignation. And I was pretty sure that was it for me and Classics. I was the mother of a barely verbal autistic child and I could not rationalize how Latin, Greek, and the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world fit into what was becoming my world of speech therapy, behavior analysis, special education, sensory integration, IEP's, cognitive disability, and on and on and on. It seemed a no-brainer to "give up" Classics.

For some time, I considered becoming an autism therapist or teacher or advocate. Charlie was and would always be our life, which was solidly rooted in "Autismland" and was everyday farther and farther away from the hushed world of libraries, classical Greek grammars, Virgil's love-sick shepherds in the Eclogues, Socrates exhorting us to "know thyself" (gnothi sauton) in Plato's philosophy. To this day, I clock in plenty more hours at national mega-chain stores (Target, ShopRite) than in ivy-draped neo-Gothic academic settings and "the stacks" of a scholarly library and it seems quite unlikely that the reverse should occur. I love Catullus, but Charlie is my man.

I became a Classics major in college because I was, and am, good at Greek and Latin; I was a champion parser of participles and I gloried to memorize the latest irregular verb; my first job was to teach Latin to middle- and high-school students in St. Louis, Missouri. The comfort of certain lines of Virgil--sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt [these are the tears of human things, and mortal affairs touch the mind] Aeneid 1.462--is like the smell of cooking oil and Chinese herbs. Frankly, in the face of the severe neurological disability that is autism, a love of Sappho's gorgeous lyric poetry seemed ridiculous.

For the past four years, I have taught composition and literature as a writing instructor at a university in northern New Jersey. Teaching college students to write essays--to learn to articulate their ideas in writing--enables one to get to know what and how they are thinking. It is, I think, possible to get to know a student much more quickly and immediately in a writing course (especially when the students are writing five essays--rough drafts and final versions--daily journals, and online postings) than in one in which I walk in, turn to the class and say, with the rah-rah-ness of a cheerleader, "Today we get to learn the imperfect tense of verbs! The endings are -bam, -bas, -bat, -bamus, -batis, -BANT".

It is a truism that students today are not as well-educated in the niceties of grammar as they were in some golden-age past, so such a class tends to begin with a fast explanation of what the imperfect tense is. "You usually can just translate it as 'was doing'; it's a past tense when the action is repeated, habitual, accustomed." So, amabat, "he was loving," timebat, "she was fearing." Charlie is not a verb-guy--on his own, the only verbs he uses are "I want" and some others that are plugged into specific phrases: "Daddy cominn home. Sit table. I want eat boo-berries. Hepp I need hepp."

For the past years, I have been accustomed to listen (another way to translate the imperfect tense!) to Charlie's words and to brainstorm with his therapists about how to increase his spontaneous utterances to 2-3 word sentences. Maybe it's because of the green and blue volumes of Latin and Greek authors on my bookshelf; maybe it was the CD I bought last year that opened with a chillingly gorgeous rendition of Regina caeli, laetare, Alleluia by a favorite pop/rock singer; maybe it is the truth of Virgil's words, in time of trouble. But I have been unable to leave Classics behind, even on the toughest days in Autismland. And rather than Latin and Greek being an extravagance, I have come to understand the importance to my and Charlie's life in hanging onto some aspect of my own life that predates his having autism.

Raising a child with autism is an everyday challenge. Our days are always packed and the ones in which no behavior squalls erupt are a matter more of relief than triumph. When Charlie was first diagnosed, I thought the only way I could truly help him was by giving up everything in the service of his education and learning. As he has grown, and as he grows up, Jim and I believe, more and more, that Charlie can only benefit and learn from exposure to those aspects of ourselves that have "'nothing' to do with autism." And so we play Otis Redding and Alex Chilton in the black car, Jim writes about the place of religion in contemporary American life, I study ancient Greek medical theories of reproduction. Derek Walcott writes that "The Classics can console. But not enough" and he is right. Right, in part. It is certainly good to make forays out of Autismland, into, perhaps, a bit of Greek tragedy (Antigone professing her duty to bury her brother, in defiance of King Creon) or the Roman poet Horace reminding us carpe diem, "seize the day" (Carmen 1.11) Why should the interests of a child with autism not include ancient poetry and rockabilly?

I am again a Classics professor and start a new job this fall. It is true, that Charlie is most likely never going to study the likes of Greek or Latin or seek to participate in an archaeological dig at the forum in Rome. But why not provide him with these experiences? (Why not let him hear about the threats to New Jersey's environment, as in The Riverkeeper (#13)?) Virgil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are "Great Books" but every reader must figure out what makes them "great" for her and himself. Thanks to Charlie, I am emboldened to consider how cognitive disability and disability exist in the ancient world. No less than Socrates, Charlie has the right not to live "the unexamined life" and, while some might think he would be better spending his time working on his pronunciation of /f/, giving him the chance to be Achilles sulking in his tent and Odysseus taunting the Cyclops acknowledges that he is Charlie Fisher, student, ready to learn and teach the rest of us a thing or two.


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