Autistic Freedom (short story)

John clenched his left hand with his right as he stared at one of Gummoe Elementary’s few blackboards.  He steadily looked at all of the proper names which had been scrawled onto the blackboard by an unsteady hand and a stick of lime green chalk.  He then slowly whispered them all to himself: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti”; “Coit Tower”; “Bob Kaufman”; “Harrison Bergeron”; “Alan Kaufman”; “Howl.”  None of these names rang a bell in John’s mind as he dreaded the ringing of the first school bell.  It wasn’t that he detested the education he was receiving at Gummoe Elementary; he just wished he could have stayed in Mrs. Lernstein’s class for sixth grade.  While Mrs. Lernstein, John’s fifth grade teacher, knew exactly how to discipline students and wasn’t afraid to do so, she had introduced John to books beyond Drake the Dachshund, a slightly humorous third grade novel which was essentially a picture book in chapter book format.  John now read everything that interested him, be it science fiction or poetry.  John worried that his sixth grade teacher, a neophyte to teaching named Mr. Edwards, would make him suffer through constant math problems, or at least the daily poor short story.

The classroom was populating and John was off to his personal Mars, an area of his mind which had been condemned by John’s father as the product of attention deficit disorder, although John was part of a family who all loathed and avoided therapists, so John was never officially diagnosed.  His sixth grade teacher casually walked into the room, and the Major Tom of John’s mind flew back to Earth so that John could think while he got a good look at his last elementary school teacher.

Mr. Edwards was a lean man, but not without a borderline potbelly.  His hair was acceptably combed, except on the far right side, where it was as dusty as the back room of a used book store.  He had thick purple glasses which clashed with his green shirt which displayed a nerdy man wearing a baseball cap and smoking a quarter of a menthol cigarette.  Mr. Edwards had clearly tried to censor the man’s cigarette for his class to little success.  He occasionally would smile nervously, and John noticed that several of his teeth were either rotten or missing.  Nonetheless, Mr. Edwards had bubblegum breath in the place of halitosis.  After looking across the class, from Rachel, a redhead who was already dating guys to the envy of some of her sidekicks, to Harold, who was the only student with a potbelly larger than the teacher’s, Mr. Edwards started to speak in a slow monotone which quickly had the class’ semi-professional surfer named Neil snoring.

“Hi class.  I’m Mr. Edwards.  I’ll be your teacher for the upcoming year.  Before we get started on pre-algebra” (John audibly groaned) “I have a poem to share with you which I wrote after reading the works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”  He walked over to the chalkboard and tapped Ferlinghetti’s name with one of the nine pieces of chalk, which was lime green like all the rest.

“Who’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti?” asked Rachel, who was trying to decide whether this teacher was attracted to her like so many of her male classmates, or merely a mild creep.

Mr. Edwards genuinely smiled for the first time in his five minutes of teaching.  “Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the Beat poets,” he told the class in a much quicker monotone.  “He wrote the bestselling poetry book of all time, A Coney Island of the Mind, which you will actually begin reading tonight.  Unfortunately, I only have copies for half of you, as the book is not on Gummoe School District’s syllabus, so some of you will have to share.”

“Share a book overnight?” asked Harold.  “That doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Edwards attempted to explain how the homework would work out, but he could only hem and haw.  He then cleared his throat and began to recite his poem.

“The essence of time locked in a tree

Inside a green apple it becomes plucked

Tree sap, fungus, moss, life and death

Hollowmindedness present only here

Eternal youth from a fountain tree

Bitten violet plum by naked eye man

God’s exclusive produce stand

Immortality laws always seem strict.

“I don’t get it,” said a newly awaken Neil after an extended period of silence, broken only by John’s timid applause.  “I hate poetry, by the way.  When will we get to pre-algebra?”

John once again groaned, as he couldn’t stand Neil’s complaints.  Mr. Edwards didn’t even attempt to answer Neil’s question this time.  He simply walked from the front of the classroom to the space in front of Neil’s desk.  “What do you like to do, Neil?”

“Surf,” said Neil, who was continually yawning and making no effort to stay awake.

“Surfers can be poets too,” said Mr. Edwards, but Neil was already drooling on his desk, eyes half-open but fast asleep.  Mr. Edwards walked back to his podium at the front of the classroom.

“It’s time for recess,” said Harold, but Mr. Edwards didn’t notice.  Harold, Rachel, and several other students began to chant “Recess!” until Mr. Edwards finally grunted and said, “Okay, class is temporarily dismissed!  Come back in ten minutes and we’ll get into pre-algebra!”

Eighteen of the sixth graders literally ran out of the door, followed by Neil whom Mr. Edwards carefully woke up.  Only John stayed inside, so that he could have a brief talk with his new favorite teacher.

“Mr. Edwards!  Your poetry was amazing,” said John.  “Have you ever written a book?”

“I haven’t, but Allen Ginsberg has,” said Mr. Edwards, and he handed John a white paperback pocket book which resided on a shelf on Mr. Edwards’ podium.  “Read it and bring it back to me tomorrow.”  John nodded and excitedly placed the pocket book, which was entitled Kaddish and Other Poems, in his Jansport backpack, right before the bell ended recess and nineteen students slouched into Room 113.

“Now, let’s get to pre-algebra,” said Mr. Edwards, and opened up a teacher’s edition of a textbook entitled Intermediate Mathematics.  “Um…actually, we’ll skip pre-algebra for now.  I have a short story to share with all of you.  Mr. Edwards used one of the several lime green pieces of chalk to point out what was somehow the strangest name on the blackboard: “Harrison Bergeron.”  He then opened up a dog-eared edition of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Welcome to the Monkey House and proceeded to slowly read the flash fiction tale known as “Harrison Bergeron.”  Less than ten minutes later, a total of five students were asleep, but the majority of them were either confused, “weirded out,” or both.

“Can you, like, teach that in school?” asked Harold.

“I just did,” muttered Mr. Edwards.  “Now let’s get to pre-algebra.”  Three more of Mr. Edwards’ attempts to begin pre-algebra and three more pieces of literature, none of them on the sixth grade curriculum, passed, and by the time Mr. Edwards finally got the nerve to teach the schoolchildren about the distributive property and other mathematical functions, the final bell rang, dismissing class.

*                                  *                                  *

John’s father, a big shot attorney by the name of Jack Kohn, was shocked and angered when his son told him about his first day of school.  “All you did was hear literature?  My God, this Mr. Edwards sounds worse than Mr. Nambler or Miss Snicks!  At least Miss Snicks would teach different subjects!”

“That’s not all he did,” said John, trying to defend his favorite teacher.  “He gave me this really cool book.  I’m still trying to understand it, but it’s interesting.”

“I don’t think anyone can understand your teacher’s book, knowing your teacher.  It’s probably a little sloppy fantasy booklet.  Let me have a look at it.”

John unzipped the smallest zipper on his backpack and pulled out Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. Jack gasped as he flipped through the unfamiliar book and found at least ten expletives.

“No decent teacher—ha, that’s an oxymoron—would give this piece of…junk to a student.  I’m going to have a talk with the superintendent—Rodgers, that’s his name.  This book is nothing but lechery.”

“Please, Dad, I’ve never liked a teacher this much,” moaned John.

Jack Kohn shook his head.  “I’m going to do this for your own good, Johnny.  You see, the only thing worse than a teacher is this Edwards, and I’m not going to have a public pervert teach my son.”

“Awww, Dad,” muttered John.

“Do the dishes,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.  “I’d do them like always, but I’m giving myself an appointment with Superintendent Rodgers.”  John nodded, a tear emerging in his left eye, and started to do the dishes for the second time in a month.

*                                  *                                  *

Superintendent Rodgers was a grumpy old sort, surprisingly because everyone who cared about his salary knew how much he was paid.  While he enjoyed publicity to a certain extent, he sought privacy in some matters.  He wasn’t exactly thrilled when a local lawyer, John “Jack” Kohn III, decided to arrange an appointment which conflicted with what Rodgers called his “private time.”

Rodgers got ready for company at a casual pace, but Jack Kohn was knocking on his office door almost immediately.  Rodgers hurriedly threw on a random pair of green jeans and opened the door.  He took a look at the visitor.  Though Rodgers had never personally met Jack, he had seen the man in cheesy local commercials and at one PTA meeting back when Jack respected Mr. Nambler, John’s third grade teacher who currently did time in Gummoe County Jail as a registered sex offender.  Ever since Mr. Nambler’s illicit activities were documented, Jack loathed all public school educators.

“Mr. Kohn, there’s something you don’t know,” mumbled Rodgers as Jack took a seat in the superintendent’s voluminous office.  “Well—you probably do know that this particular school is short on teachers.  No one wants to teach at Gummoe Elementary after—well, you know.”

“Nambler,” snapped Jack.

“Yeah, I don’t like saying his name,” whined Rodgers.  “Anyway, with so few teachers who are willing to teach at Gummoe Elementary, we’ve been…”

“Desperate,” snapped Jack.

“We’ve been less selective,” said Rodgers.  “And I know that Henford Edwards isn’t our most competent teacher.  I know that.  But he’s had a hard life, I mean, he has Asperger’s, and he’s a particularly avid writer, so we’re testing him out for a year, okay?”

“You hired a teacher with Asperger’s?!” roared Jack.  “Let me tell you something, I went to Pepperdine!  You think Pepperdine would have hired an—an Aspie?  I don’t think so!  And that is what separates the successful private schools from your territory, the unsuccessful public schools.  Let me speak my mind for a second here.  I can almost understand the idea of special education students, but special education teachers?!  I mean, God, Superintendent Rodgers!  Although now that I think about it, if American professionals were all enrolled in one metaphorical school, teachers would either be the special ed. kids or the doomed Chicanos.  But back to brass tacks…”

Rodgers sighed.  “Jack, I got a question.  Where are you from?  Originally, I mean?”

Jack gave Rodgers a dirty look.  “I’m from Ukiah.  Why?”

“Well, I don’t know how they do things in Ukiah, but here in Gummoe City, we are sensitive people.  I should have you know that Henford Edwards took five years to learn how to talk, twelve years to learn how to tie his shoes, and forty-one years to earn his credential.”

“That information supports my point better than yours,” said Jack.  “The last thing a school with both boys and girls enrolled in it needs is a teacher who most likely hasn’t been kissed and probably will never be.  Students need to relate to their teachers, and teachers need to relate to their students.  How are kids supposed to relate to a man-child who doesn’t know crap about math and hands out pornographic texts?  Superintendent Rodgers, have you heard of Allen Ginsberg?  Well, while I hadn’t until today, my son brought a smutty book of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry into our house.  Do you know where my son got the smut?  He got it from Mr. Edwards.  Want proof?  Here.”  Jack shoved the pocket book in Rodgers’ face.

“Even Gummoe High School won’t allow Ginsberg in its library,” commented Rodgers, and he scanned the first page.  He realized that he was face-to-face with Mr. Edwards’ name, which was written in the same sloppy green handwriting that had appeared on Edwards’ blackboard earlier that day, and which was familiar to Rodgers through Edwards’ recent application.  “Oh my God.  You’re right!  But I can’t just fire Edwards!”  Disgusted, he handed the book back to Jack, who fit it into the pocket of his pants.

“Yes, you can,” said Jack menacingly.

“Well, I can,” Rodgers corrected himself, “but it wouldn’t be quite right.  I’m going to give Henford Edwards a second chance by sitting in on his class tomorrow, on the second day of school.”

“Fine, we’ll wait a day,” Jack said.  “Goodnight, Superintendent.”  He walked out the door, slouching somewhat due to a bit of disappointment.  Usually Jack Kohn got exactly what he wanted.

“Wait!” yelled Rodgers, and ran out the door to meet up with Jack again.  “I care about the safety of children, so please throw out that horrendous book before your son finds it again.”

“Is that all you have to say?” shouted Jack.  “I was going to do that anyway.  Goodnight, Superintendent.”  Jack got into his black Beamer, paid for a quick carwash, and drove home.

*                                  *                                  *

After receiving a couple phone calls from the disgruntled superintendent, Mr. Edwards was awfully fidgety as he rode his green tandem bicycle (he schlepped books around by strapping them to the back seat) from his shady apartment to school and was much more fidgety when he arrived at school.

He went hysterical when he saw that someone had already unlocked and opened the door to his classroom.  It turned out to be Superintendent Rodgers, who took note of Mr. Edwards’ poor coping skills.  Fortunately, by the time his twenty students arrived, Mr. Edwards had calmed down.  He made no eye contact with the superintendent, and haplessly conducted lectures on Charlemagne (for social studies) and pollutant chemicals such as DDT (for science).  His lectures were tedious, disorganized, and all around mediocre, but were nonetheless adequately written.  However, he failed to impress the superintendent, who he belatedly introduced to his curious group of students.

“Class, please meet Mr. Rodgers.”  The superintendent automatically growled.  He drastically preferred “Dr. Rodgers” as not only had he earned two doctorates, but he somewhat resembled children’s television’s Mr. Rogers, and had suffered much teasing from his colleagues due to the physical similarity back when he was a high school teacher with no doctorates.

“Why, Mr. Edwards!  Isn’t it time for recess?” cackled Superintendent Rodgers and Mr. Edwards instantaneously dismissed the class for ten minutes.  Although John’s father hadn’t told him everything, John was easily aware that his father had convinced the superintendent to check on his teacher.  Deathly nervous and not wishing to take the side of either his father and the superintendent or the hopeless Mr. Edwards, John did something he seldom did: he joined his male peers on the playground and watched them beat each other at tetherball and discuss what substances their classmate Neil had recently been introduced to by his high school dropout of a brother, and which of the sixth grade boys had recently received kisses from their classmate Rachel.  John would rather have finished reading Kaddish, but as long as his father hated Mr. Edwards, he would never see the little book again.

*                                              *                                  *

It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon, and Jack still hadn’t heard any news from the superintendent.  He flipped the channels on his pocket television, but he couldn’t find a single local anchorman to announce the firing of an autistic teacher at Gummoe Elementary School.  Although he had some doubts as to whether Mr. Edwards would be fired, he called up his widowed father, John Kohn II, the oldest living member of the Kohn family.

Though John Kohn II was in his mid-70s and the father and son disagreed on almost all political issues, John II had a liberal bias and John “Jack” III was a conservative Republican.  Jack had rebelled as a teen by becoming an evangelical Christian, but abandoned religion as a twenty-something so that he could focus on those right-wing politics.  While there was never consensus during their frequent political debates, the father and son got along on many other issues.  In fact, Jack’s father had persuaded Jack to become a lawyer, as every Kohn male prior to Jack was a professor at Pepperdine.  Therefore, Jack almost always called his father just to boast of his accomplishments.  This call was no exception.

“Hi Dad, this is Jack!” he said joyously.

“Jack!  Hello!” shouted Jack’s hard-of-hearing father.  “How’s business?”

“Business is booming, but as you might have forgotten, I don’t work on Wednesdays.”

“It’s Wednesday already,” John II reminded himself.  “Wait—didn’t school start yesterday?  I think it is Tuesday then.”

“No, Dad, school started on Tuesday.  Monday was a teacher work day.  Speaking of teachers, I played my part in the firing of a teacher who happens to be an Aspie.”

“What’s an Aspie?” shouted John II.  “I’ve never heard the word before.”

“An Aspie is someone with Asperger syndrome.”

Jack never would have guessed the words that came out of his father’s mouth: “Your mother was an Asp—she had Asperger’s.”

“That’s a lie!” yelled Jack, but he lacked all evidence that his father’s statement was false.  Sally Kohn, Jack’s mother, died when Jack was less than two years old, so Jack’s only remaining memories of his mother were in the form of a photograph.  He thought for a moment.  “Women don’t get Asperger’s!”

“Most Asperger’s patients are men,” John II corrected his son, “but your mother wasn’t.”

“Well, of course she wasn’t a man!  She was my mother!” yelled Jack.  Jack’s father was prone to make the most obvious statements, yet Jack never failed to point out the obviousness of his statements.  Even though his father was beginning to annoy him, Jack began to cry.  Jack hadn’t cried since he was a child, not even during his divorce, and definitely not during his son’s birth.  Instead of crying, he always took action.  He hadn’t won full custody of his son by throwing tantrums and sobbing.  But this time, he didn’t have the strength to take action.  He thought of the mother he had never known, and at the same time thought of Mr. Edwards.  If that poor teacher was actually fired, he wouldn’t ever be able to support a family or even find a date.  He realized that by trying to save the education of his child, he had ruined the life of an innocent, disabled man who would never have another opportunity.

Before Jack picked up his son, he received an answering machine message from the superintendent.  Mr. Edwards had been fired from his position at Gummoe Elementary School for incompetence, and was not to receive any federal money for his disability, as autism was not recognized by the State of California as a disability.

*                                  *                                  *

A few weeks later, Jack and John were taking a breather in the shady yet cozy Gummoe Park, when a homeless man asked Jack if he could possibly spare some change.  While the man’s teeth were yellow, brown, and overall rotten, his breath smelled like Wrigley’s Juicyfruit gum.

“No!” yelled Jack, but John turned to his father and whispered in the lawyer’s ear that this was no ordinary homeless man.  This was Mr. Edwards!

Though Jack detested bums of any sort, he knew that he needed to help vagrant Mr. Edwards out somehow, and he definitely wasn’t starting the Jack Kohn Autism Research Charity Fund.  Instead, he reached in his pocket and handed Mr. Edwards a ten dollar bill.  Mr. Edwards was grateful, and sprinted away.  John noticed that almost all of Mr. Edwards’ rags were in shades of green.  His scarf was sea green.  His sandals were the usual lime green.  Only his jeans were blue.

An hour later, Mr. Edwards returned to the park, which Jack and John were just about to leave.

“I have a gift for you,” said Mr. Edwards, and he pulled out a book.  To John’s delight and Jack’s dismay, the book was Reality Sandwiches, Allen Ginsberg’s follow-up to Kaddish and Other Poems.

John politely took the book and thanked his former teacher.  At this time, John’s class was going through a disastrous swarm of substitute teachers, so John was overjoyed to see Mr. Edwards once again.

Jack waved goodbye to Mr. Edwards, and the father and son left the park.  Unlike last time, Jack decided that he would let John read the poetry book and that he wouldn’t throw the book out.  At least he wouldn’t for this semester.


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