Cyber-Summer School

It’s always been important to keep Nate on some kind of summer schedule. When he was in high school, I would get the following year’s English curriculum and we would watch movies all summer of the books he’d have to read in the fall. We’d talk about what we watched and, hopefully, Nate would have a mental picture to aid his comprehension when we’d sit down and read the books themselves.

With freshman year at SUNY-Cobleskill almost done, I felt it would be good if Nate took an English course. When I told him about it, he was upset.

“I don’t want to go to summer school,” he yelled.

Though Nate is always resistant to work at first, we’ve always pushed through the initial “no.” If we didn’t, if we accepted his negative reactions, we’d never get anywhere. He was strongly and consistently against the summer class. It took me a bit to realize why: he thought it was a punishment.

“Nate, you’re not taking a summer class because you’re bad,” I explained. “It’s just to help you graduate.”

With that, the negativity disappeared. Now all that was left was to create a reliable schedule of work. Nate has always thrived on knowing what was ahead. This is a kid who, when he wakes up, asks what’s for dinner. By lunchtime he wants to know what’s for dinner the next night. At first, the plan was for Nate to take a class at SUNY-Oneonta with his aide, but that was cancelled due to lack of enrollment. Fortunately, an online course was offered through Cobleskill. I’m not from the online class era, so I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it lends itself to Nate’s strengths quite nicely.

Every week he has to read one of two short stories, write one post of 250 words for class “discussion,” post two vocabulary words and two replies to other students’ posts. We read both stories on the weekend, out loud as we’ve always done since I realized that his reading was weak. Odd, since hyperlexia is defined by a precocious reading ability. As Nate got older, he got sloppier, skipping words, which further hurt his already weak comprehension. It wasn’t until I made him read for me that I realized how much he passed over. He picks his post question in advance, and, as we read, he’ll blurt “vocabulary word” for me to write down.

He’s been very effective with his posts. I wonder if anyone even suspects he’s autistic. Probably not, though he has caused some interesting exchanges. In his first essay, about his senior class trip to Washington D.C., he wrote that bathrooms were a hobby of his. (They are, and worthy of an entire post later on). This led to questions about how and why he likes bathrooms. He answered those queries well, though I imagine his readers scratching their heads.

Yesterday he wrote his second essay. The assignment was to write 750 words on a childhood memory, with at least two characters. We started talking about it on Friday. Nate likes when I tell him that the first thing we’ll do is discuss the essay. It’s like a free day for him.

“We’ll only talk about it on Friday, right?” Right.

When we talked about it, I stumbled upon one of the most memorable incidents of his youth. It’s something that he still refers to, uttering quotes from that period whenever it strikes him. That’s part of the Nate world, random utterances that occupy his mind and keep him laughing. You have to know his history to keep up with it, and even we haven’t figured them all out yet. As time has gone on he’s filled us in on most.

“Nate, do we visit James?” he’ll say through clenched teeth, followed by a smile.

“Get away from me Nate!” he’ll say, with chagrin.

He sat down in front of my computer and I sat next to him. I told him to write everything he could remember. His first pass was pretty good, although he didn’t want to write his finest description ever. (It’s the one about James’ hair and a phrase Nate has repeated for years). Then we had a nice back and forth discussion, me urging him to tell more about how things looked, what people said, how he felt. It’s that kind of prodding and cajoling that gets the most out of Nate. It’s pointless to sit and tell him what to write. What would he be getting out of that?

By the time he was done, he’d ticked slightly above the required word count. He knew it too – he’d been watching the tally in the lower left corner.

Here it is; it’s wonderful.

I remember my year in third grade. This was at Half Day School in Lincolnshire, IL.  Lincolnshire is a northwestern suburb of Chicago, IL, and where I used to live with my family: my parents, and my brothers Robbie and Joey.  Half Day was one of Lincolnshire’s oldest schools.  It’s a two story building with a brick exterior covered in white paint.  It was next to a Denny’s, which is now home to an Asian restaurant called Simon Lin’s, as well as a BP gas station and McDonald’s.  We used to have dinner at that McDonald’s every Tuesday when they would show movies on a small TV.

Before I came to Half Day, I was at Laura B. Sprague School.  I had come back to regular school after two years at Hawthorn Intermediate in Vernon Hills.  I had to go to that school because I had many problems behaving in class, and Ms. Smerge, the teacher, taught me how to concentrate in class.  I don’t remember having any friends, so when I met James  in third grade, I was so happy.

Let me tell you about James.  He was the same size as me, and his hair was short and looked like a brown egg with marble spirals.  He liked video games and sports, such as wrestling.  When I first met him, he was very nice to me.  He said “hi” to me and sat with me at the lunch table.  He lived only several blocks from my house on Carlisle Lane.  He would come over and play games with me, like kickball and T-ball.  Sometimes he would bring a friend, and we would all play together. Sometimes they would play with my toys without me.

One year later, when we both went to fourth grade, things had changed.  All of a sudden, James became really mean to me.  He would do terrible stuff, like telling me to get away.  I didn’t know why he was not being nice to me anymore.  When I tried to talk to him, he would tell me to leave.  I know I often annoyed him a bit by looking at and touching his hair.  I would do that when he was trying to check out his locker or having lunch.  I don’t know why I was obsessed with his hair, but I was.

The worst times were when he tried to steal my lunch money.  At the cafeteria, we would get our trays, and go down the line to get our food.  That’s when James would start.

“Give me your lunch money, Nate,” said James.

I felt sorry that he was being so bad to me.  It made me feel miserable.  It wasn’t easy for me to talk back then, so I didn’t say anything.  I just gave him the money.

It happened day after day for many weeks, but I didn’t tell anyone.  Then, I met a new friend named Derek Roman.  Derek was a little taller than me, and he was a great athlete.  He was always a nice kid.  One time when James took my lunch money, Derek was standing next to me, and he heard James.

“Give me your lunch money, Nate.”

Derek got close to James and talked to him. His voice was irate.

“Don’t you take anyone’s lunch money ever!”

James tried to get away from Derek.  He didn’t say anything; he wouldn’t be mean to Derek.  Derek made James feel anxious and afraid.

James never bothered me again.  I would try to go up and talk to him, because he used to be my friend.  When Derek saw that, he would get angry at me.

“Nate, do we visit James?” he would say.

That was 10 years ago, and I really think of James many times.  I think of many good things about him, like when he came to my end of the year party after my third grade year ended.  I look at pictures of James at the Whole Foods Market cooking school during the beginning of my fifth grade year.  That party was for my 11th birthday, and we all made pizzas.  I call him “Chef James” when I look at the photo album of that day.

But he’s still a bad guy who went from being my first friend to being my first and only bully.  I think of Derek sometimes, too. He came to an antique car museum with me on my 12th birthday. Derek Roman was a good friend and my hero.

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About Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.
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4 Responses to Cyber-Summer School

  1. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for your stories and your blog – we have a 3-year-old w/hyperlexia (among other things! He’s been reading since before age 2) and your story gives us hope. We can’t find a specialist to diagnose our son with anything other than “high functioning autism” at this time and each day we make strides in communication with our son, we feel it’s a miracle. 🙂 We’re proud of our little “genius” but we definitely have our challenges. 🙂 Thanks again, please keep the posts coming. 🙂 Congrats on your bright college boy and thank God for supportive and educated parents like yourselves.

    • Stephanie,
      We also had a hard time getting a diagnosis until, through a fluke, we were pointed to the Center for Speech and Language Disroders in Elmhurst, IL. While were able to take advantage of CSLD twice a week (we lived nearby), many parents brought their kids there for a one time diagnosis. Here’s their number: (630)530-8551.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. gr82chat says:

    Ok.. 2nd post and I’m in tears. Good job 😉 It always amazes me how other perceive our kids on the spectrum to lack emotion. I know that what might look like disconnect at times is more likely a response to being overwhelmed. I wrote this a couple of years ago. That is my son in the picture. http://www.autismandempathy.com/?p=713 🙂

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