There are multiple ways that we, as complex and intricate humans, experience feelings of prejudice, discrimination and the lonely sphere of being “the other”. On this blog, we mostly focus on the ways in which students may feel excluded based on their ethnicity, history or language skills. But we cannot forget that the layers of exclusion come together to reinforce each other (a term academics identify as “intersectionality,” as coined by Kim Crenshaw). For example, your gender identity, ethnicity, socio-economic status, language ability, etc. all interact and can define the framework of exclusion in which you operate. As teachers, librarians, parents and socially conscious citizens, we need to be aware of these frameworks, how to identify them and how we can help out a student that may be subjected to taunts, teases and exclusions on more than one ground. What better way to do that than literature!? On today’s ¡Mira Look! post, I want to highlight one of these intersectionalities: special needs and ethnicity.
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork is about a Mexican-American 17 year old with Asperger Syndrome (AS) (a high-functioning form of autism). Marcelo Sandoval has himself a summer job at the therapy school he goes to caring for the ponies. His father, however, not an overly supportive character in Marcelo’s life, wants him to step into the “real world” (don’t you just hate that term?!) and forces him to work in the mail room at his law office. Through the first person narrative in Marcelo, we get an incredible glimpse into the mind of a child dealing with his world, surroundings and fellow people in a way completely foreign to those of us who don’t have AS or other forms of Autism. For example, Marcelo hears or, rather, “feels” music inside his head: “I close my eyes and imagine a cello as big as the earth and a bow as long as the Milky Way and the bow moving sometimes slow and sometimes fast across the cello strings.” This sentence truly conjures up the image it attempts to describe. Can’t you just see and feel the music the way Marcelo does? Throughout his summer journey, Stork allows us to really jump into the mind of Marcelo as he navigates this new space of corporate offices, board rooms and the hustle and bustle of the daily grind. By authoring Marcelo in the first person, Stork helps to tear down that wall that can generally separate us from our characters. We dive in to Marcelo’s world, learning what it’s like to walk through a world with multiple intersectionalities.
My hope is that this book will open up a dialogue between you and your students/children, to discuss “unseen” disorders such as Aspergers. Furthering this discussion, we can help ourselves and our kids see that you can absolutely never judge nor understand where a person is coming from nor what they are going through every minute of the day. Maybe you or one of your readers notices that when they talk to someone that person “looks at them funny” or maybe they don’t understand why it takes a person twice as long to do a language or math problem, but they seem to be a genius on other specific topics. Marcelo helps us understand that world: he must get clues about peoples’ words, emotions, and how he should respond from their facial expressions so he must be very attentive to people’s faces when they talk. This is in part because those with Aspergers can have a difficult time recognizing and deciphering emotions. Marcelo’s specialty is religion: he regularly meets with a Rabbi to discuss theology even though he isn’t Jewish.
Marcelo in the Real World is a powerful and important award-winning young adult book. Aside from being a great, deep read, Marcelo is also a salient tool for your high school classroom. I suggest visiting OASIS (The online Aspergers Support Group) and The Kid’s Health Page on Aspergers to get the dialogue started. Also, you can have your classroom look up famous people with Aspergers. This short documentary (10 minutes) about Aspergers will help you and your students have a grasp on what people with Aspergers go through and this can then help them better understand Marcelo and, indeed, others with special needs.
-Celebrating Diversity and Uniqueness,
P.S. I searched, thought and felt for the correct term to use to describe Aspergers. Some say “special needs”, others say “handicapable”, still others say “mental (dis)order/ability.” I felt “special needs” was the most polite, honoring and inclusive. If I have chosen the wrong term, there was absolutely no harm meant and I welcome your constructive feedback.