“Why Don’t You Try Acting, Dear Boy?”
I had an awkward childhood. Even though I had the benefit of knowing there was something “a little different about me” from a young age, the fact that I *knew* I was on the Autistic spectrum didn’t make it any easier to handle in practicality. I remember, in kindergarten, talking to my teacher during recess when all the other kids were playing kickball or jumping on the monkey bars. I also remember breaking down and crying in art class because I had pinned the legs onto my cardboard scarecrow backwards, making him look like he was in bad need of a “potty break.” But I had a few proud moments in there as well, such as answering all the questions on the school field trips. We’d go to the zoo, and the tour leader could barely get a question out of her mouth before I’d shoot my hand up in the air like an autistic Hermione Granger and shouted out something like “The cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth and can reach speeds approaching 70 miles per hour!” or “The parrotfish makes a bed out of its own mucous each night!” I think I thought I was smarter than all the other students in my year, and (in retrospect) that probably showed. It also explains why I didn’t have many friends.
By the time I was 11, school had become too much to handle. Academically, I was getting fantastic grades in all my subjects, but socially I was becoming more and more distraught. During the last half of my 5th grade year, I was crying on the way home from school every day. I couldn’t understand why none of the other kids liked me, and I would beat myself up to no end when I felt like I had “failed” something, no matter how trivial. My parents decided enough was enough, so for 6th and 7th grade my mom home schooled me. Looking back on it, that was probably just about the best thing my parents could have done. It gave me a chance to recuperate from the exhausting social nature of school and also spared me from the majority of junior high, which I think both Aspies and Neuro-typicals can agree is a pretty shitty period of growing up.
When I was 14, we had moved to a different area of the United States and I went into 8th grade at a small Christian private school. It was not an easy year, but my two years of homeschooling had definitely served me well. Even though I was far from Mr. Popular, by the time I entered high school I found it easier to make a few friends who I could rely on. But I still felt like there were aspects of my Asperger’s Syndrome that continued to hold me back no matter how hard I tried to overcompensate for them. It is probably worth mentioning that I was (and am) a tall kid. I was 6′ at 14 and am nearly 6′ 3″ seven years later. I was tall then, but I was also gangly, probably weighing less than 160 lbs. I never knew what to do with my hands (still have trouble with that now sometimes) and I felt perpetually self-conscious whenever I was around anyone except my family. Oh, and I sucked at sports. I couldn’t catch a baseball to save my life, and I was lucky if I could get 1 out of 20 free-throws in basketball. I enjoyed soccer, but wasn’t very coordinated at that either. I did a season of cross-country to take care of my athletic requirement in high school, but even that was difficult. It wouldn’t be until I was 18 that I developed an interest in fitness.
By the fall semester of my 10th grade year, I was doing well academically (the same as always), making good progress with friends and socializing, and tentatively thinking I wanted to be a writer. I had loved writing poetry since I was 12 and was a huge fan of science-fiction books (particularly Dune, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and many of the Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations). But as much as I loved writing, I was very frustrated with it. I’d get carried away with my words (“verbal diarrhea” as my mom said, half-jokingly, when she graded my homeschooling essays). I had a huge vocabulary, but I often didn’t know how to use it. But from a young age, whenever I was given someone else’s words to read out loud, I had always managed to find my way. “You read that story with such great expression!” my third-grade teacher told me on numerous occasions. But you see where I’m going?
One morning before school started, one of the upperclassmen made an announcement in front of the high school. “We’re going to be holding auditions for Much Ado About Nothing in just one week. Come and let me know if you’re interested. This is a great opportunity for all the students, whether you love drama or you’ve never even stepped on a stage before.” “Huh…” I thought to myself. “Shakespeare, huh. I’ve always liked reading about him and know some of his plays a little bit. And acting? I’ve always wanted to try that. I think I’ll audition.” Later that day, I let the 12th grader know I was interested. “Well hey, good for you man, maybe you’ll get a part.”
At the audition, there were probably about 25 students competing for roughly 20 parts, so the odds were good (that’s my analytical brain kicking in). We did various cold readings from the script and at the time I didn’t even really know who any of the characters were. After reading for Don John, Dogberry, and Don Pedro, the teachers leading the audition thanked me and I left. The next day, I found out I had been given the part of Don Pedro, arguably the biggest male role after Benedick! The Senior (who landed the part of Benedick) seemed less than happy with my role, but that’s another story.
The important thing was that, for the first time in my life, I had found something I was really passionate about that ALSO scared the hell out of me. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to do something like memorize 200 lines of text or perform it in front of 300+ people, but something about the unexpectedness of it (unusually for me) made me want to tackle the challenge all the more. Much Ado about that later…