That ugly judgement thing–prejudice

For a very long time–most of my career–I worked in an everyday world peopled by individuals with mostly-invisible disabilities. Conditions like deafness, blindness, mental handicap, autism, attention deficit, auditory processing disorder, just to name a few. Some disabilities, such as M. S., Down’s Syndrome, or paraplegia, were visible. Most teachers, and sadly most students, knew there were always some children (particularly at certain developmental stages) who made fun of special needs children. Imitating a gait, a voice, using a gesture like that of Donald Trump when he made fun of a journalist. Most of us, adults, and most other children are repelled by such things, and in good schools they are of course dealt with. Parents, too, good ones, teach children about individual difference and honoring individuality. We all have seen examples of what I’m talking about, and most everybody reading this would never dream of condoning or engaging in such behavior. Yet, there’s one area, one really specific area, where many people (scores) that I know well engage in EXACTLY the same sort of judgmental, discriminatory, abhorrent behavior without even knowing it. Intelligent, even brilliant, people. That area is judging adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder for behavior due to their Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ostracizing them for it.

Most of us would never dream of saying to a blind family member, “Go out and get a job! The city was advertising a need for a couple of dozen bus drivers. Why are you sitting home? Go get your licence and apply for one of those jobs!” The idea of doing such a thing would be ridiculous, right? How could you expect someone to willfully overcome a physical disability in order to engage in behavior which is natural and accessible to a nondisabled peer? Yet, all too frequently I hear this sort of thing in relationship to another invisible, physical disability: Autism.

My husband is on the Spectrum. He prefers the terminology, “My husband is autistic.” This is harder for me, because I’m neurotypical, but he feels his autism is such a HUGE part of who he is, it takes front-seat in his self-image. That’s important. It matters. ASD is pervasive. It involves the body, the mind, the soul. I am so proud of my husband, he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. Every day, he goes out into a terrifying world. He chooses that. It would be much easier to stay behind closed doors. He gets made fun of. For his weight, the way he dresses, the way he speaks, his grooming, his shoes, his interests, etc. etc. etc. To think that he doesn’t know this or that each incident is not painful is to choose not to think. When he was very fat, people (right in our own family) felt free to discuss his weight, right in front of him. Some would even mutter, “Mike needs to push back from the table,” behind his back, never thinking hard enough to recognize that this physical issue might have something to do with ASD. Others openly discuss Mike’s “job situation” at social events, wondering aloud why he wasn’t working full time while in college. The fact that he was able to complete an AS, a BS, an MS, and is working on a PhD didn’t matter: he’s a grown man. He should be working, too. Yet, these same people would never DREAM of walking into the local elementary school and expecting students with autism to participate in THEIR work-a-day world just like nondisabled peers. Of proclaiming, “Johnny! Get up in front of the class and read. Susie, you don’t need that laptop! Pick up your pencil and get to work!”

About a year before she passed away, I had a frank discussion with my mother about this. We’d talked about ASD a bit over the years, as Mikel and I have a twenty-four year old son, Jacob, with ASD, too. Mikel was diagnosed after our son, about twenty years ago. Mother was saying that, at family gatherings, people sometimes ask her why Mikel isn’t working (at that time, he was in graduate school full time), and she didn’t know what to say. Here’s what I told her.

“Tell them that he is taking the time after three years in the Army, a career saving lives as a professional firefighter and paramedic, a dozen years working full-time from home on the stock market so he could be there for our growing family, he is taking the time to pursue an education. Tell them he is amazing. Tell them he has autism, and that he is the bravest person you’ve ever known.” She got it.

Mikel is a fabulous cook. He’s a smart guy, smart enough to know that his autism is the reason family members don’t visit our home. It saddens him for me, and for our children. But, he has friends, and so do I. That’s huge. Good friends. There ARE people–and some pretty incredible family members, too—who see exactly what I cite, above. Mikel’s bravery. His heart. And they couldn’t give a fig that he wears the same thing every day, or gets loud when he talks about music (which he loves) or surfing, or that he’s a great cook but a messy housekeeper.

I stumble sometimes, too, with my expectations. I remember a remarkable moment, when our oldest son taught me just what kind of person we had raised. We were all getting ready for Mikel Jr.’s wedding, and I was arguing with my husband that he must wear dress shoes with his suit. Our son came out of the bathroom, where he’d been putting on his tie in front of the mirror, and said to me, “Mom! Dad’s wearing his flip flops to my wedding! Dad wouldn’t be himself without them, and I want MY DAD at MY WEDDING!”

Our son, Jacob, sometimes has robotic talk (so does Mikel) when he’s disregulated. I’ve seen grownups with brilliant I.Q.s and liberal views openly mock him. It makes me sad. I think about all these things I’ve witnessed and wonder what others go through. What sorts of situations could be eradicated without that horrible, invisible monster, prejudice?

Mikel just finished a year working as a paraprofessional in the suspension room at a local high school. Today, he found out he had to let his boss know he’s not coming back next year. His graduate school program is ramping up, and he has to do some residencies out of town (his field is medicine). At the school he was working at, the administration went through nine teachers this year in AE (the suspension room). It was pretty difficult, as you can imagine, but Mikel stuck with it. Because when he took the job, he promised he’d finish the year. I am so proud of him, even as I steel myself for those remarks, those questions, those judgments. He may go back to working in the public schools after he completes his Doctorate, or he might work in a hospital or health department. Whatever he chooses, I’m grateful to be on this journey with him, to witness his heart, his mind, his work ethic. And I have a feeling he will always be the bravest person I’ve ever known.

I write this to remind us all, Autism is a life-long disability. Don’t stay open for persons with ASD when they are children only to close your hearts and minds to them when they are grown. Please.graduation




In Memoriam: The Late Mike Martin in his own words–I Killed Black Beauty from Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story

Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.



I killed Black Beauty

It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.

So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”

After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”

I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum?  I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”

He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”

I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”

Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”

I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”

My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.

It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.

But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”

“Are you Mike?”


“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”

So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.

The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.

Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”

Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace.  He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.

We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”

            Oh my God, No!

Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.

I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”

Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.

“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”

Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it.  We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.

Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”

I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is,      How do I explain this to Tom Curren?

Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”

The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say.   The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.”  Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week.  The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.

“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.

The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”

He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”

That’s a real gentleman.

That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.


Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.



What works

This week, as I prepare to grade my very first class of senior English students, ever, I’ve been thinking about what works. For them, for me: for us. A few days ago, a colleague came up to me in the hallway during class change (she rushed out of her room as she saw me rushing past) said, “I love you! You’re wonderful!” And, gave me a big, warm hug.

Naturally, I had no idea what she was talking about, and said, “What’d I do?”

“Your blog! I started reading you. I love what you write.”

While it was a wonderful thing that she took the time to say this–and, I especially enjoyed the heartfelt hug–it started me thinking. I haven’t been writing much, lately. And, I thought about why. I’m busy. And, I thought about what is going on where I work.

Anybody who’s read my educational writing knows I am the first one to be blunt, to call it like I see it. I’ll tell you this: where I work, right now, is educational bliss. I can’t help it, I analyze. Why? It’s a bit of a mystery.

I teach at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida. I’ve taught at LOTS of schools, starting with student teaching waaaaay back in the day at P. K. Yonge Laboratory school in Gainesville, Florida, in the 1980’s. From there, I came to Pierson Elementary, in Volusia County; then, Sterling Park Elementary, in Seminole County; back to Volusia and kind of up-the-ladder into administration (not my preferred m.o.); to eventually work at UCF in the medical school as an educational training specialist with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities–I retired from there. In between, I taught high school in North Carolina, and at the University of North Carolina, too; as well as doubling up at UCF and working for the English Department. I realize all this job-hopping seems a little weird to most people, but for somebody in Exceptional Student Education, it is normal behavior. (Did I mention teaching inpatient students for VCS at the Children’s Crisis Stabilization Unit for three years?)  You, as an ESE teacher, are responsible for your  own sanity, and movement is necessary for that. I love ESE, I do. Right now, I teach general education. Gen Ed. I have plenty of ESE students in my classes, and am at my most fluent meeting their educational needs. But, I am in love with what I am doing, right now. And, I turn in grades tomorrow. Did I really type that?! Yes. I did.  I told Dr. Sparger when he hired me that my dream is to be Kate Maroney in front of the class, eyes glowing, sitting on the stool breathlessly sharing from Jane Eyre. He got it. Immediately. I may never be able to live up to that ideal English teacher of mine, but I’m there. I truly am.

I know this is a long-winded post, but what I am really thinking of is all the things which work at this wonderful school I’m blessed to be working at. Is it perfect? By no means. Are the students, teachers, or administrators better somehow than other people? Uh, no. But, something works. It absolutely has to be deliberate. I’m (I won’t say just–I never felt more vital or valued as an educator) a teacher; I’m blissfully unsubject to the machinations of administration. But. But; the culture of respect, the culture of facilitation, the culture of meditatively, enthusiastically seeking knowledge is unparalleled in my experience.

Today, I had dozens of students thank me. Today was the last day they could turn in some rather challenging assignments. Book reviews. I taught them to write book reviews, and they all had different books. They boldly backed their opinions with specific details without revealing storyline; several openly became readers! That’s not me, folks. That’s a school that still has room for teacher design and creativity in the curriculum. How they do it is a mystery I’m happy to remain blissfully ignorant of. I’m there, people. I’m in teacher heaven. (And, that little left-over state-department-of-ed-bureaucrat in me wonders, “How do they do it? Can we bottle it? Can we share??? Shhhh, Kate. Enjoy.”)

Jacob Cumiskey, backstage at graduation, Spruce Creek High School, 2011. (photo credit, Daytona News Journal)