Autistic Freedom

By Ben Simon

1

John clenched his left hand with his right as he stared at one of Gummoe Elementary’s few blackboards. He gazed at all of the proper names scrawled on it in an unsteady hand with 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 stood, dreading the start of a new school year. It wasn’t that he detested the education he was receiving at Gummoe Elementary; he just wished he could have stayed in Mrs. Bernstein’s class for sixth grade. Sure, Mrs. Bernstein, John’s fifth grade teacher, had been strict and unafraid to discipline her students, but 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. Kaulman, would make him suffer through uninspired short stories, or worse, constant math problems.

The rest of the class was filing in and John drifted off to his personal Mars, an area of his mind which had been condemned by his father as the product of undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. 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. Kaulman 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 bookstore. He wore thick purple glasses that clashed with his green shirt, which displayed a nerdy man wearing a baseball cap and smoking a quarter of a menthol cigarette. Mr. Kaulman had clearly tried to censor the man’s cigarette, with limited success. He smiled nervously, and John noticed that several of his teeth were either rotten or missing, though his breath smelled like bubblegum instead of the halitosis John was expecting. After looking across the class from Rachel—a redhead who was already dating, much to the envy of some of her sidekicks—to Harold—the only student with a potbelly larger than the teacher’s—Mr. Kaulman started to speak in a slow monotone which quickly had the class’ semi-professional surfer named Neil snoring.

“Hi class. I’m Mr. Kaulman. 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. I wrote this after reading the works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.” He walked over to the chalkboard and tapped Ferlinghetti’s name with a piece of chalk, lime green like all the rest.

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

Mr. Kaulman smiled, less nervous this time. “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, so some of you will have to share.”

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

Mr. Kaulman attempted to explain how the homework would work out, but quickly gave up. 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 awoken Neil after an extended period of silence, broken only by John’s timid applause. “I hate poetry. When will we get to pre-algebra?”

John once again groaned, frustrated by Neil’s complaints. Mr. Kaulman 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, yawning.

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

“It’s time for recess,” said Harold, but Mr. Kaulman didn’t notice. Harold, Rachel, and several other students began to chant “Recess!” until Mr. Kaulman 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. Kaulman carefully woke up. Only John stayed inside, lingering to have a brief talk with his new favorite teacher.

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

“I haven’t, but Allen Ginsberg has,” said Mr. Kaulman, and he handed John a white paperback. “Read it and bring it back to me tomorrow.” John nodded and excitedly placed the pocket-sized book, entitled Kaddish and Other Poems, in his Jansport backpack.

“Now, let’s get to pre-algebra,” said Mr. Kaulman after recess ended, opening 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. Kaulman used one of the several lime green pieces of chalk to point out what was probably 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. Kaulman. “Now let’s get to pre-algebra.” Three more attempts to begin pre-algebra and three more pieces of non-curriculum literature later, Mr. Kaulman finally got the nerve to teach the students about the distributive only to be interrupted by the final bell.

2

John’s father, a big shot attorney by the name of Jack Kohn, was shocked by his son’s description of his first day of school. “All you did was listen to stories? My God, this Mr. Kaulman sounds worse than Mr. Nambler or Miss Snicks! At least Miss Snicks taught more than one subject!”

“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 sloppy little 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 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.”

Jack Kohn shook his head. “I’m going to do this for your own good, Johnny. I’m not going to have a public pervert teach my son.”

“Awww, Dad,” muttered John.

“Do the dishes,” said Jack, getting up from the table. “I’ve got to book an appointment with Superintendent Rodgers.” John nodded, trying to stop the tears that were forming in his eyes.

3

Superintendent Rodgers was a grumpy old sort who wasn’t exactly thrilled when a local lawyer decided to arrange an appointment that 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 still respected Mr. Nambler, John’s third grade teacher who was now doing time in Gummoe County Jail as a registered sex offender. Ever since Mr. Nambler’s illicit activities surfaced, Jack had developed a loathing for 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 much like saying his name. Anyway, with so few teachers who are willing to teach at Gummoe Elementary, we’ve been…”

“Desperate,” filled in Jack.

“Less selective,” said Rodgers. “And I know that Henford Kaulman isn’t our most competent teacher. I know that. But he’s had a hard life. The man has Asperger’s, but 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 Pitzer! You think Pitzer would have hired an—an Aspie? I don’t think so! And that is what separates the successful private schools from your sludge. I can almost understand the idea of bringing in special education students, but special education teachers?! I mean, God, Rodgers!”

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

Jack gave Rodgers a dirty look. “Ukiah. Why?”

“Well, I don’t know how they do things in Ukiah, but here in Gummoe City, we are sensitive people. Henford Kaulman spent five years to learning how to talk, twelve years to learning how to tie his shoes, and forty-one years earning his teaching credential.”

“That information supports my point better than yours,” said Jack. “The last thing a co-ed school needs is a teacher who most likely hasn’t been kissed and probably never will 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 who doesn’t know crap about math and hands out pornographic texts? Superintendent Rodgers, have you heard of Allen Ginsberg? Neither had I, until my son brought Ginsberg’s smutty poetry into our house. And do you know where my son got it? Mr. Kaulman. Want proof? Here.” Jack shoved the 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. Kaulman’ name, which was written in the same sloppy green handwriting that had appeared on Kaulman’ blackboard earlier that day. “Oh my God. But I can’t just fire Kaulman!” 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 Kaulman a second chance. I’ll sit in on his class tomorrow and keep an eye on things.”

“Fine, we’ll wait a day,” Jack said. “Goodnight, Superintendent.”

4

After receiving a couple phone calls from the disgruntled superintendent, Mr. Kaulman was awfully fidgety as he rode his green tandem bicycle from his shady apartment to school, the twitching worsening the closer he got to school.

He was borderline hysterical when he saw that someone had already unlocked and opened the door to his classroom. Of course, it was Superintendent Rodgers, who took note of Mr. Kaulman’s poor coping skills. By the time his twenty students arrived, Mr. Kaulman had managed to calm 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 mediocre, but were nonetheless adequately written. However, he failed to impress the superintendent, who Kaulman belatedly introduced to his curious group of students.

“Class, please meet Mr. Rodgers.” The superintendent automatically growled. He preferred “Dr. Rodgers” for two reasons: he had not only earned two doctorates, but he also somewhat resembled the Mr. Rogers and had suffered much teasing from his colleagues due to their unfortuante physical similarity.

“Why, Mr. Kaulman! Isn’t it time for recess?” barked Superintendent Rodgers, and Mr. Kaulman instantaneously dismissed the class for ten minutes. John’s father hadn’t told him everything, but John was easily aware that his father was to blame for the current situation. Deathly nervous and not wishing to take the sides, 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. John would rather have finished reading Kaddish, but he knew he would never see the little book again.

5

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 announcing the firing of an autistic teacher at Gummoe Elementary School. He had some doubts as to whether Mr. Kaulman would be fired, so he called up his widowed father, John Kohn II, to distract himself.

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 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 him to become a lawyer. When Jack called his father, it was almost always to boast of his accomplishments. This call was no exception.

“Hi Dad, it’s Jack!” he said joyously.

“Jack! Hello!” shouted his 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?”

“Yes, it did. Speaking of school, 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!” Sally Kohn, Jack’s mother, died when Jack was less than two years old, so Jack’s only memories of his mother were based on photographs. 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, which Jack never failed to point out. 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. He was a man of action, not emotion. 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. Kaulman, whose livelihood he had most likely ruined. .

Before Jack picked up his son from school, he received an answering machine message from the superintendent. Mr. Kaulman 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.

6

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. The man’s teeth were yellow and rotting, but, his breath carried the familiar smell of 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; it was Mr. Kaulman.

Jack detested bums of any sort, but the heavy feeling of guilt in his told him he needed to help vagrant Mr. Kaulman out somehow. The idea of starting the Jack Kohn Autism Research Charity Fund was out of the question, of course, but he managed to reach into his pocket and hand Mr. Kaulman a ten-dollar bill. Mr. Kaulman smiled, thanked him, and sprinted away. John noticed that almost all of Mr. Kaulman’ ratty clothes 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. Kaulman returned to the park just as Jack and John were leaving.

“I have a gift for you,” said Mr. Kaulman, approaching them and pulling something out of his pockets. To John’s delight and Jack’s dismay, it was a book: Reality Sandwiches, Allen Ginsberg’s follow-up to Kaddish and Other Poems.

John politely took the book and thanked his former teacher, wishing the man was back in front of the class instead of the disastrous string of substitute teachers they were currently suffering through.

Jack waved goodbye to Mr. Kaulman, and the father and son left the park. This time, Jack decided, he wouldn’t throw the book out…at least, not yet.

Ben Simon is a writer from San Luis Obispo.

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