The brat in your classroom
(and the power of narrative)
At Providence's Moses Brown School in the 1970s, Michael John Carley didn't fit in. So he took charge of his own story.
“This is only the box. The sheep you asked for is inside.”
— Antoine de St. Exupéry, "The Little Prince"
Part I: The Providence of others
Kathryn had dramatically positioned a piece of mail beside my laptop. It was from the Moses Brown School.
“What would they want with you?” she said with a laugh.
“Uh, how’d they even find my address?”
We stared at the envelope and joked about what could be inside. An apology? A presumptuous invitation to speak? A highly-uninformed fundraising appeal?
The Moses Brown School was, and probably still is, the school for privileged children in my hometown of Providence, and a long time ago I had been a student. The school for privileged girls was the nearby Lincoln School, where my mother taught. The schools having arrangements with one another surrounding free or reduced tuition for the children of faculty, I attended Moses Brown at no cost from 1st grade until just a couple of weeks into my 10th-grade year.
For the entire nine-plus years, it was a disaster.
On top of the economic disparity between me and my classmates, I was also the only child of a single mother — just 20 years my senior. Her husband, my father, further complicated things, as he had been killed in Vietnam, a conflict so divisive that no one felt uncomfortable speaking their angry mind about, even to a child. And in a comic grand finale to illustrate the inappropriateness of my attending a school like that, was undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, a condition that I and my older son not only have, but is also a field that I now reside in professionally. Back in New York City, where I lived happily for 28 years, I was the founding executive director of non-profits, and now I mostly write or speak on a variety of autism-spectrum topics. But I also consult for schools that are struggling to integrate often “bratty” students with non-apparent disabilities. It’s a subject that colleagues and editors will grimly tell you I can talk about for hours.
We opened the letter.
“Dear member of the Moses Brown community, I am writing to share the sad and troubling news that a Moses Brown alumnus recently reported that he was the victim of sexual abuse by two teachers…”
They were asking for anyone with information to contact an investigative firm that Moses Brown had hired to look into the matter.
Spoiler alert: I was never sexually assaulted by a teacher. There had been an attempt when I was a 6th grader, by an older, 8th grade student. But as soon as he tried to put his fingers down the front of my pants, I hit him, yelled at him (so that all could hear), and that same day reported him.
So I figured I’d trash the letter. I’d enjoyed 35-plus years of no contact with Moses Brown … why ruin a good thing? In the context of “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” my experience at that school might have been the best thing for me. Furthermore, life changed very quickly for me after I left. I was instantly saved by an alternative/hippie high school called School One. After that, I got into a good college (Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts), got out in three years only to be recruited and given a partial scholarship to Columbia University for grad school. I then had wild adventures running from cops in Eastern Europe, more months living out of my car as an eighth-rate Jack Kerouac, shot at covering an election in an economically challenged island nation … all before concurrent careers as a New York City playwright and minor-league diplomat at the U.N., before switching over to the autism/Asperger field after my and my son’s diagnosis.
As a person? Well, I’d say I’m actually quite gregarious, and surprisingly low-maintenance … maybe more confrontational than most of my professional peers, and yes, occasionally this has its drawbacks. (Trust me, 99% of the people who brag that they “tell it like it is”?…They don’t.) But a large part of my brand surrounds the trust that has been accrued over the years because, despite my diplomatic training, actor training, and even a poker background, I still suck at lying (it is, after all, a staple of my diagnosis). And to close what are hopefully my only arrogant paragraphs in this essay, what the heck — I also have a wife and two boys that I feel only a fool wouldn’t envy.
So under no circumstance was I willing to ponder those Moses Brown days under an inevitably defensive examination of whether or not “I’m okay” simply because my time there stunk. I took the letter and reached for the trash …
Until a voice reprimanded me firmly: