“My Life as a Standard Deviation From the Norm”
All of my life, I’ve existed at the edges of society’s Bell Curve — one full standard deviation from the norm. At times, my unique position on the x-axis has afforded me amazing opportunities and connection. At other times, that obvious distance from the center has caused lasting trauma. The key, I’ve found, is talking about it.
A standard deviation is a number used to tell how measurements for a group are spread out from the average. The average range encompasses 1 standard deviation to the left or right of the average on a Bell Curve. Most measurements are crowded around the average with a few outliers at the edges.
Since I can remember, I have always felt that I existed in those edges — a standard deviation away from normal. A non-neurotypical anomaly traveling through a neurotypical world, sometimes I blend into the group — and sometimes I don’t.
Where I Fit in the Bell Curve
I spent a good chunk of my 20s and early 30s working at ski areas (teaching skiing and snowboarding) and in the food-service industry (mostly at a country club). In these jobs, I fit in because my colleagues were an eclectic group; there was no normal, and no abnormal either. I’m thankful for the time I spent in these jobs while I was figuring out my place in the world. The hustle and bustle of the service industry was a good fit for my ADHD brain.
Maybe surprisingly, I also felt right at home in my college history and political science classes. When everyone shares an interest and enjoys discussing that interest, it’s easier to fit in. For me, finding an outlet for my (sometimes obsessive) interest in government and history was healthy. Most people are not interested in discussing the fragmentation of Western Europe in the 5th century, but during a 400-level history or graduate course, you can go deep without people running for the door.
Where I Liked Being Different
My experience as a high school dropout marks me as different from my teaching colleagues, but this allows me to understand struggling students in a way other teachers may not. My past struggles and experiences (in a variety of employment settings) have given me a perspective that’s different. These experiences, and my ADHD, afford me unique insights into students and education. In this setting, being different has made a world of difference.
Where I Didn’t Care That I Was Different
It was my last year as an undergraduate. I was taking a 100-level class entitled “Politics and Economics for Elementary Teachers” (PEET). My other classes were 400-level courses with titles such as “International Organizations” and “Revolutionary Movements in Latin America.” The latter were stimulating and interesting, comprising upperclassmen with interests in politics and history (see above). Some of us were thinking about grad school and possible careers in academia or politics.
PEET, on the other hand, attracted mostly freshman who were taking the class because it met two requirements (political science and economics) in one class. I was in the class because I needed one more political science class to complete a minor in the subject. At this point, I had already taken three classes in economics and five classes in political science, so I had strong background in the course content.
My background and interest in the material marked me as different from the other students, and I soon began to hear students make disparaging remarks about me. Some students in the class reminded me of characters in the movie “Mean Girls.” It didn’t help that, when the professor would ask questions to the whole class, she would stare at me until I answered if no one else did. Once we were split into groups for some classwork, and a student looked at me and said, “You’re the brain; why don’t you just do it for us?”
But, you know what? I didn’t care. The haters had no power over me and I could see their immaturity. In fact, I felt sorry for them for being so parochial and narrow minded. I got the credits I needed to complete my political science minor, and kept it moving. No harm, no foul. They had no power over me, and I was only in the situation for one semester.
Where I Didn’t Fit Because I Knew I was in the Wrong Place
I lasted three days as the director of distribution before I realized I had to look for another job. My plan was to work there for six months, and then begin to look for something else. Thankfully I was laid off within four months. As I drove away from the office the last time, I felt worried (because, you know, money) but also exhilarated because I never had to go back to that office. The job was not stimulating, and while I liked my co-workers, I just felt like I was from a different planet sometimes. When you know a situation isn’t for you, get out as soon as you can without putting your family or finances at risk.
Where I was Different and It Caused Damage
“Hey, Jon, are you a faggot?” I heard this slur, or some variation of it, everyday during my 11th grade year. This was 1990-1991 and bullying was not addressed like it is today. I did my best to avoid the taunts by taking alternative routes to class, or skipping a certain class altogether, but as a straight guy I felt hurt and confused with no way to internally process what was happening.
When I dropped out of school in the spring of 1991, I tried to bury what had happened. A part of my ADHD is a tendency to overshare, but I never shared this bullying experience with anyone for 23 years. I stuffed it down deep and did not allow myself to remember it.
The thing about trauma is… you cannot ignore it. Trauma will manifest itself one way or another. Since recovering this memory, I have struggled to deal with it, and I can see now how not dealing with it for decades affected me whether I knew it or not. The trauma I experienced — at the hands of people who could not or would not appreciate my differences — was real and insidious. Today, in my work with high school students, I’m dedicated to making sure my students get the help I never did.