Category: school


A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people.  There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.

But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives.  Let’s ask a different question:  What are the strengths of an Aspie personality?  Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?

I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt!  People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.

I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.

Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.

With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:

1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.

Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts.  It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.

In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload.  It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time.  But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.

All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk.  So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you.  If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched.  (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)

Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much.  On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.

But she does seem to appreciate time alone.  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people.  When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby.  Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.

At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors.  He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial.  They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar.  Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.

Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated.  “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts.  Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy?  It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself.  Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.

It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.

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My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

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The class had completed our trip around Europe, and I knew I’d remember the places I’d seen for a long time.  I had enjoyed being able to help out my professors in a behind-the-scenes way by keeping track of the digital photos.  (A big bonus for me was the fact that I didn’t have to write a report about the trip!)

I had a few souvenirs– some tea from England, postcards from France, a little plaque with an anchor on it from the catacombs.  (Nothing against Germany; I just didn’t have time to pick anything up there!  Instead, I left my umbrella there by accident.)  And I had a handful of coins, maps, and brochures from each country.

I had been worried that people would be annoyed with us because we were Americans, but almost everyone I interacted with was patient and friendly.  I thought it was touching to hear the expressions of sympathy from all of these countries for the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks.  I saw on the news that the guards at Buckingham Palace in London even performed the Star-Spangled Banner!

Of course, the U.S. had grounded all flights the day of the attacks.  By our departure date on Saturday, the planes were in the air again, but the airports were having to work through a backlog of postponed flights and treat every flight with increased caution under a lot of stress.

We got our things packed and went to the airport early, ready for a long day of waiting.  We prayed that God would help us to get home safely.  Dr. B. warned us that no one should mention anything about bombs, terrorism, the Middle East, or New York, or even think of joking about anything related to them.  (Probably good advice, but being obsessive-compulsive, I’m always afraid I’m going to be the one to blurt out something inappropriate in a situation like that even though I don’t think I ever have.)

We listened to music, played cards, talked quietly.  Some of my classmates worked on writing their reports.  The flight before ours took off for the U.S. but was directed to turn around and come back to Italy after a couple of hours.  We boarded our flight, not knowing if we were going to get to take off.

I am so thankful– our plane did take off, and we were allowed to make the entire flight.  The flight before ours had been sent back, and we later learned that the flight after ours was as well.  But ours wasn’t– we arrived at the Newark airport on time.  I looked out the window and could see the site of the World Trade Center, smoke still rising from it.  Once we had landed safely, the passengers applauded.

Getting off the plane and through customs was a slow process, but everyone seemed willing to be patient.  The airport workers looked tired– I’m sure the last week had been awful for them.  I wondered if any of them had lost someone they knew in the attack.

We waited at the airport from afternoon until late evening.  Our flight from Newark to Ohio ended up being postponed, then canceled.  Finally, Cedarville arranged for a bus to drive us home from New Jersey.  Exhausted, we piled onto the bus for the last leg of our journey.

We were driving through the countryside of Ohio as the sun came up, and I could see American flags on most of the houses and mailboxes as we passed.  We got home in time to go to church on Sunday and sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

I was so relieved to be back home and able to tell my family about everything we’d done.  The trip had been full of memories that I would always keep with me.  And the next time I had to cross the street in Cedarville, it didn’t seem as scary.

Well, it’s about time I got on with my story!

I slept very soundly that night on the train as it took us over the mountains to Italy.  When we arrived in Rome the next morning, I saw newspapers with pictures of the World Trade Center and headlines with the words GUERRA and AMERICA.

I think the news had the effect of making strangers more likely to talk to each other.  Seeing that we were from America, native Italians and fellow travelers alike expressed their sorrow over the lives lost and asked if the situation was likely to delay our return home.  We had to tell them that we didn’t know.

In the meantime, there was a lot to see in Rome.  The other cities we had visited were old, but Rome was ancient!  We didn’t have to go to a museum to see artifacts from Biblical times.

I don’t remember the exact order we took in touring Rome; the days are a bit blurred together.  But here’s a list of some of the highlights:

— We visited the Colosseum, site of the Roman Empire’s bloody games.  Even though the ancient Romans didn’t have access to the building materials and technology we have today, it’s my understanding that we still make use of many of the same construction principles they used in building our stadiums and arenas.

One thing I found particularly interesting about the Colosseum was the versatility of its design.  The floor of the arena itself is gone, and you can see the maze of passageways and rooms underneath, but originally, they could have used platforms to lift people and animals from the tunnels up into the arena for a grand entrance.  And apparently, the arena could be flooded in order to stage miniature naval battles.  That’s something even a multipurpose stadium like Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh never did.  (Thankfully, they never had fights to the death there either, though.)

— We stopped at a rather nondescript grassy field with a large, dusty oval track.  I wouldn’t have noticed much about it if Dr. B. hadn’t stopped to explain that this was once the site of the Circus Maximus, where the Romans held chariot races and other public events.  He also said that while you usually hear about Christians fed to the lions in the Colosseum, it was likely that far more Christians had been martyred here.

— We visited some ruins thought to be the remains of a prison where the apostle Paul was held.  He wrote some of the epistles while he was imprisoned in Rome.  I tried to imagine what the place might have looked like as a dark, cramped cell.  Some arches, columns, and walls were still standing, and I could see the outlines of the rooms, but now the place was open and full of sunlight, more like a courtyard than a prison.

— A guide took us through some catacombs, the system of tunnels and tombs that the early Christians used to meet in secret and hide from Roman persecution.  (If I remember correctly, the tunnels and burial chambers were around long before the Christians began to use them, but they came in handy.)  The walls were marked with symbols like the cross, the fish (which became a Christian symbol because the letters in the Greek word for fish, ichthus, are an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”), and the anchor (which may refer to a verse in the book of Hebrews).  I remember specifically keeping an eye out for the anchor, because the Christian musician Michael Card had recently released an album about the book of Hebrews, “Soul Anchor,” and in the album notes he mentioned that the anchor was at least as prevalent as the cross among early Christian symbols.

— So far, I had visited England, France, Germany, and Italy.  But I also got to visit a fifth country– a country so small that’s it’s inside a city, and most maps of it include all of its buildings!  Vatican City, the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, is the smallest country in the world.

The most memorable thing I saw there was the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s amazing painting covering the ceiling.  In the middle is the famous depiction of God’s creation of Adam, their hands just a few inches from touching.

Almost everyone has seen photos of this painting, but what isn’t easy to see without being there is that the chapel ceiling is arched, not flat.  That had to make painting it a lot harder, but Michelangelo actually used the three-dimensional shape of the ceiling to his advantage.  Some of the architecture from the walls continues seamlessly into the painting, making it look like the room is taller than it really is.  At the top, it looks like you are looking up into heaven.  Pretty clever!  Michelangelo made a painting with perspective effects for people on the floor even though his view of it was from a couple of feet away, with paint dripping in his face.

— The climate in Rome was a huge change from cold and rainy Berlin.  It actually got very hot, and it was tiring to be out in the sun.  The remedy for that was to buy gelato from a street vendor.  Gelato is a bit like ice cream, but more flavorful, like fruit sherbet.  It is really, really good!

— The hotel we stayed at was just across from a little pizza place.  Pizza originated in Italy, but American pizza is actually quite a bit different, from what I understand.  This was an American-themed pizzeria, so it was like a taste of home!  There was even a picture of the New York skyline on the wall.

The pizza there was flatbread, cooked on a griddle in a big rectangle.  You could ask for a piece of any size, and you paid for it by weight.  The proprietor was happy to see us come back each night– we told him that we might be eating there for a while, since no one knew when we were going to be able to get a flight back into the United States.

I’m almost done with this story– one more post should do it!

(Sorry about the long delay between posts; I had a great deal of this one written a few weeks ago, but I forgot to save my work before my computer’s batteries ran out, and whenever that happens, it takes me a while before I feel like writing again.  I am also planning to get back to posts that deal more with Asperger’s syndrome again once I’m done talking about my class trip.  Anyway, thanks for reading my story; let’s go on!)

On Monday, we got on a bus and set out for Munich, which is about 350 miles south of Berlin.  Some of my classmates were excited about the prospect of seeing the Autobahn, Germany’s famous highway system that has no speed limit under certain circumstances.  (The speed rules on the Autobahn have gotten more strict in recent decades than they once were; it now uses electronic signs to adjust the speed limit and number of open lanes based on the amount of traffic and to warn of accidents blocking the road.)

As one might suspect, riding a bus on the Autobahn is not very different from riding a bus on a highway in the United States, except that the speed of the cars passing us may have been faster.

I talked with some of the other football fans in the class, sharing the results and scores of the games I could remember seeing the previous day.  I observed that while obviously soccer is the most popular sport in Europe, Germany seemed to be the country most receptive to American football, based on the fact that all but one of the NFL Europe franchises had ended up moving to Germany.  (NFL Europe no longer exists, though, so obviously it didn’t catch on that much.  The teams were all pretty terrible anyway, being made up of players who were trying to make it onto an actual NFL roster.)

About 50 miles out of Berlin, we stopped at the smaller town of Wittenberg.  It was there that Martin Luther, a priest and teacher of theology at the university, published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and started the Protestant Reformation.

I saw the church building where, according to one of his students, Luther nailed his document to the door so that everyone could read it.  There was a paper printout of the Ninety-Five Theses stuck to the door still.  Of course, it wasn’t the same door as was there in Luther’s time.  In fact, the entire building had burned down and been rebuilt at some point over the intervening 500 years.  I was reminded of the old story about the farmer proudly declaring that he owned the very hatchet that had once belonged to George Washington– only the axe head had been replaced three times and the handle four times.

Still, it was amazing to see the spot where such an influential moment in church history (and world history, really) took place.  I thought about the story of Martin Luther’s life.  After surviving a terrifying thunderstorm in which he cried out to God for help, he vowed to become a monk.  But he found that nothing he could do– hard work, sacrifice, even punishing himself– could take away his fear of having to answer to a perfect, holy God.  Every selfish thought, every careless word, every wrong motivation was an offense against God, who required perfect obedience arising from pure love.  Luther would spend hours confessing his sins until his fellow monks were weary of him. He was terrified that he would leave some forgotten sin unconfessed, and the more closely he scrutinized himself, the more sinfulness he found.

Luther found comfort in reminding himself of Christ’s sacrifice for his sins.  A Bible verse that greatly influenced his thinking was Habbakuk 2:4 (which is quoted in multiple places in the New Testament), “The just shall live by faith.”  Luther could never earn salvation by trusting in his acts of repentance; rather, God had provided the perfect sacrifice in Christ and called Luther to look to Him in faith.

Years later in Wittenberg, a traveling friar named Johann Tetzel was raising money for the church by selling indulgences.  For doing the good deed of donating money to the church, the purchaser of the indulgence received a guarantee that the punishment for his or her sins would be lessened.  People could also purchase indulgences on the behalf of relatives or friends who had died, in order to shorten the time their loved one would need to suffer for their sins in order to become fit to enter heaven.  Tetzel was a fiery preacher and a good salesman, and he was very good at stirring the emotions.

In his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther argued that Tetzel’s preaching was in conflict with the teaching of the Bible.  He didn’t disagree with the importance of repenting of one’s sins– in fact, he stated that “the entire life of believers” should be “one of repentance.”  But Tetzel’s promises were leading people to trust in their own deeds and the effectiveness of the indulgences he was selling rather than in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Luther quite boldly took the leaders of the church to task in his document, accusing them of allowing Tetzel to preach these things because it was an effective way to raise money.  His stand caused him to make enemies in the church, and it would end up putting his life in danger, but Martin Luther continued to write about trusting in God’s grace for the rest of his life.

Inside the Wittenberg church, our New Testament professor led us in singing Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said.

We made it to Munich that evening after stopping for dinner at a restaurant that had something similar to a buffet.  The bread in Germany is so good!  I used my nonexistent German skills to ask for food by pointing to it and saying “Das, bitte”.

I think I was trying to say “This, please,” but I may have been saying “The, please.” and I probably wasn’t even using the correct form of the article.  My phrase book basically said “der, das, die— use whichever one you want.  People will still know what you mean.”

Also, they will probably not confuse you for a native speaker of German!  The servers were very kind, smiling when I would say “Danke schön.”

We attended two church services while we were in Germany, but I’m having trouble remembering the exact details of when and where they were.  One service was in German, in a large, old church building.  Since I didn’t understand a word of the sermon, I didn’t feel guilty about not getting much out of it.  The hymns were pretty, but I didn’t sing along since I had no idea what I’d be singing if I did.

The other service was a worship meeting at a church that had a lot of visitors from other countries.  It was much less formal, but it was in English.  We sang worship songs and heard a couple of personal testimonies; there wasn’t really a message– it was actually more of an announcement of how they weren’t going to meet at the same time anymore.

Some other random memories of exploring Berlin:

— There were big, colorful painted statues of bears all over the place.  Based on a Web search I just did, the bear statue custom has since spread to many cities around the world, but it apparently all started that very summer, 2001 in Berlin.

— I really like drinking soda (or pop; whichever word you prefer), so I thought it would be a bit tough to get used to drink refills not being free at restaurants in Europe like they are in the United States.  (Really!  In the U.S., you can just go back and refill your cup of soda by yourself in a lot of place!)

But I survived somehow.  ; )  Actually, I discovered a new favorite soda thanks to my trip to Europe:  Fanta.  There was a grapefruit or other citrus-flavored variety that I tried in France, and then in Germany, I discovered orange Fanta, and it ended up supplanting orange Crush on my list of favorites.  I was surprised when I came home and found that they had sold Fanta in the U.S. too all along.

— We visited a department store, with multiple floors and everything!  These seem to be pretty much gone in the U.S., replaced by miniature versions in malls.  I found a computer with Internet access and used it to check on how the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing in their season opener.  They were losing 21-3 in the second half to Jacksonville.

— German is cool because it has an extra letter that English doesn’t have, the eszett: ß.  It’s basically a double S.  The place I saw it the most was on road signs, because the German word for “street” is straße (strasse).

Previously, I had only ever seen the eszett in a shape that looked like a rounded letter “B,” like this:  
But most of the street signs in Berlin used a different shape: 

The eszett on these signs looked a lot like the letters “fs” combined into one symbol, and I realized where the letter had come from.  English used to have two ways to write the lowercase letter “s.”  The most common way made it look a lot like a lowercase “f.”  The short “s” was only used if it came at the end of a word, or if it immediately followed another “s.”  So, for instance, on the Bill of Rights, the end of the word “Congress” looks like this:

Does that look familiar?  If you merge the two letters together, you get the eszett from the Berlin street signs.  If you smooth the letter out so it can be written quickly, you get the more common ß.

I know this is probably stuff that everyone in Germany learns in preschool, but it was fun to figure out, at least for me.

— Sadly, the only German words I really retained from my trip were the basic numbers.  I learned them when I was playing a fun card game with my classmates.  It was like Uno, in that the object was to get rid of all of your cards.  But we kept adding rules to it until it was almost impossible to keep track of them all, and every time someone was caught breaking a rule, they had to draw more cards as a penalty.  One of our rules was to say the value of the card in German.

We visited two Berlin museums, the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and the Pergamon Museum.  There were a lot of incredible and beautiful artifacts; I ended up taking a lot of pictures (not the one shown here; this is one I just found with a Google image search).

The Ishtar Gate

The most amazing thing was the Ishtar Gate, which was built in about 575 BC in Babylon under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is almost 50 feet high, made of bricks that are glazed blue and gold.  In the wall are raised images of lions and dragons.  “Daniel walked through this gate,” said Dr. B. with a little tremor in his voice.  The prophet Daniel was led captive from Jerusalem when he was a teenager to serve in the king’s court and spent the rest of his life in a foreign land.

Seeing the impressiveness of the gate made me think about the bravery of Daniel and his friends to trust in the power of the God they could not see rather than the power of the king, which was on display all around them every day in Babylon.  They remained faithful, even when threatened with death, and even when faced with the passage of many years far from home.

On Friday evening, we returned to the train station and set off on an overnight trip to Berlin.  This was the first time I had ever been on a train that had sleeping cars.  Our path took us through Belgium, so I guess you could add that to the list of countries I have been to, but I don’t think it really counts, since I was on the train and probably asleep at the time.

As with the other cities, we started our time in Berlin with a guided tour.  We stopped at the Reichstag Parliament Building, which was famously damaged in a fire in 1933 that the Nazis used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties in order to go after their opponents.  We saw the Brandnburg Gate, and we saw the site of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. (“I am a Berliner!”)  In honor of the speech, a few of my classmates then bought jelly doughnuts, also called “Berliners,” from a street vendor, and we shared them.

(A commonly told story is that JFK’s speechwriters used the German article improperly, and as a result, the President ended up stating that he was a jelly doughnut rather than a citizen of Berlin.  I have since read that is not true and they in fact got the statement correct.  Still, the jelly doughnuts were good!)

We could also see a small remaining part of the Berlin wall, every square inch of it covered with colorful graffiti.  I remembered the world atlas from my childhood, with the separate countries of West and East Germany, mirrored on a smaller scale by the city of Berlin.  I had seen the tearing down of the wall on the news, and I was impressed at the importance– this meant the maps would all have to be changed!  (Yes, I admit that I was a bit obsessed with maps.)

Berlin was full of history as the other cities had been, but there was a difference.  Whereas London and Paris were dominated by centuries-old buildings, the center of Berlin had more modern skyscrapers, a little more like an American city in some ways.  Our tour guide told us that this was because so much was destroyed during World War II.

We saw a very moving memorial in the public square where the Nazis had burned thousands of books written by Jewish authors, or that were deemed contrary to Nazi ideology.  The memorial is a plate of clear plastic set in the cobblestone ground, easy to miss unless you stop and look down.  Through the window in the ground, you can see rows of white bookshelves, all empty.  Our guide pointed out that, in the early part of the 20th century, Germany produced many Nobel Prize winners, great scholars, and scientists.  Many of them were suppressed, killed, or driven away because of the Nazis (some to America)– it is impossible to calculate how much was lost.  Then there is the memorial’s engraving, a quote by poet Heinrich Heine (loose translation): “Where they burn books, they will one day also burn people.”

The overall sense I got from the tour was of a city and country determined not to forget the lessons of its history, but also not to dwell on them.  Other countries, like my own, can very easily fool themselves into thinking “Well, something that bad could never happen here,” ignoring the many bad things that greed or the desire for power brings about in every country in the world.  The memorials in Germany are a reminder that it can, and did happen.  But at the same time, Berlin did not strike me as a depressing place.  On the contrary, there were lots of new building projects going on and a healthy sense of city and national pride.

Germany is a beautiful country, and there is even some country inside the city!  At one point we were riding the bus through Berlin, when suddenly we entered a dense forest.  I figured that we must have left the city, but our tour guide told us that we were still within it.  There is a huge forest inside the city limits of Berlin– pretty neat!  We would get to see more of the German countryside later on, as we were set to visit a couple of other cities.

Tuesday was another travel day.  We took the Eurostar train directly from London to Paris.  I remembered reading about the completion of the Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) when I was a kid, and how some Britons weren’t keen on the idea, since they rather liked being on an island.  One of my classmates had a bit of fun with the train staff by asking them “Are we in the Chunnel now?” when we passed through a small tunnel less than 5 minutes after leaving the station.

Apparently the train attracts strange characters, but we didn’t see this guy (naughty language/British humor warning).

The trip provided us with time to practice a few simple French phrases.  My Mom and Dad had gotten me a French, German, and Italian phrasebook, and I wanted to at least try to make an effort to communicate in the proper language.  I tried to use the phrase “un bon vin blanc” (a good white wine) to remind myself how the nasal vowels were pronounced.  I made sure to practice saying “Excuse me” (Excusez-moi) and “I’m sorry” (Pardonnez-moi) in each language, because I was sure I would make plenty of mistakes and would require people to be patient with me.

I think the most complicated thing I ended up actually saying was “Je voudrais…” (point to food) “…s’il vous plait.”  (I would like [that], please.)  Thankfully for me, I didn’t run into a situation where I couldn’t get by speaking English– everyone I interacted with spoke English much, much better than I spoke any other language.  It was humbling to be in a culture where to be multilingual was normal and expected, and to realize that I would not be much help to a visitor who didn’t speak English, since it was the only language I knew.

We arrived in Paris that evening.  I think we spent a while waiting at the station for our bus and doing things like getting currency exchanged.  It was getting late by the time we got to our hotel, which I’ll say more about in the next post.

“Before you came along, we Bagginses were very well thought of.”
“Indeed?”
“Never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.”
“If you’re referring to the incident with the Dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your uncle a little nudge out of the door.”

— Frodo Baggins and Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings

Ten years ago today, I was a college junior on a plane heading across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe with a class of Cedarville students and our two Biblical Archaeology professors.  I was excited, nervous, and tired all at once.  I wasn’t the sort of person who went on trips like this, I thought.  I found it intimidating just trying to cross the street in tiny Cedarville, Ohio.  Whenever I could, I drove home to my parents’ house for the weekend.  So how did I end up setting off on a two-week tour of another continent?

It started with a course I took my sophomore year about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  We studied the organization and major themes of these books as we also learned about their historical and cultural background– the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  What made the class special was our professor, Dr. B., who taught with great enthusiasm for the subject matter.  He summarized the prevailing opinions of scholars, along with his own theories on questions like which Pharaoh was the ruler of Egypt during Moses’ time.

It was a demanding course– struggling with the final essay had me in tears at one point– but there were two things about it that I really liked.  One was our weekend field trip to visit the museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Both museums had 4000-year-old artifacts from the civilizations we had been learning about.  One of the students would ask Dr. B. a question about one of the artifacts, and as he answered it, a small crowd would form.  Before long, we had a large group of people following us, but Dr. B. wasn’t fazed at all.

Being from the New Jersey area himself, Dr. B. seemed at home in a city environment where a little boldness is necessary in order to be noticed.  He made sure we saw all of the major New York landmarks, taking us on a ferry ride and eating at a little restaurant that specialized in New York-style cheesecake.  I decided to be “bold” myself and order a slice, even though I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it, since I didn’t like cheese.  It turned out to be one of the best desserts I’d ever had.

I also found that even though I didn’t know what to do with free time, most of my classmates did, and it was a lot of fun following them, listening to what they talked about, and laughing with them.

The second thing I really enjoyed about the Pentateuch class was working on a Powerpoint presentation for a group project.  I hated written assignments, but this was different.  I found myself pouring a lot of work into making a set of timelines showing the reigns of various rulers and the rise and fall of civilizations.  I could plan out every aspect of the graphic:  One pixel horizontally represented one year.  I used different color combinations for the different civilizations– sandy yellow for Egypt, clay red for Mesopotamia, blue for Israel that matched the color of their present-day flag.  It was more work than I needed to do for the assignment, but it didn’t feel like work.

So, anyway, I finished the Pentateuch course and went on with school as normal.  Then one day I saw an e-mail announcement about a spring course in Biblical Archaeology taught by Dr. B. along with a New Testament professor, Dr. H.  This course would focus on the historical and archaeological record for the entire Bible, and it would include a repeat of the New York trip from the Pentateuch class.  But the big deal was that it led into a trip to Europe at the end of the summer to visit museums in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome!

My initial reaction was “That sounds neat, but I don’t think it’s for me.”  Two weeks was a long time to spend so far away from home.  What if I hated it?  The trip wasn’t cheap, and it would be a waste if I didn’t enjoy it.  I never did things like this, but for some reason, I printed out the e-mail and showed it to my mother.  She told me that it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, and if I had any interest at all in going, I should consider it.

The deadline for signing up for the trip came and went, and I was fine with that.  Other people went on this sort of trip, not me.  And that seemed like the end of the story until Dr. B. called me to his office.

“Nathan,” he said, “why didn’t you sign up for the Biblical Archaeology trip?”  I told him I just wasn’t sure I wanted to go.  He told me that he didn’t want affordability to be the reason I couldn’t go, because he had a job for me that would allow me to come along as a teacher’s assistant.  He told me that he was really impressed with the PowerPoint presentation I had done for the Pentateuch class, and he wanted me to help him put together the PowerPoint files for the new Biblical Archaeology course.  He also wanted someone to come along on the trip to take digital photos of the artifacts in the museums so that they could be incorporated into the course material.  I could do that instead of the paper the students would have to write on the trip, he said.

With an invitation like that, how could I say no?  Some people talk about God “opening a door” for them to make a decision– well, this seemed to qualify if anything did.  I decided to be bold again and give it a try.

So that’s how I ended up meeting the rest of my classmates (about forty in all) in a Cedarville parking lot in the very early morning on August 31, 2001.  We sleepily rode the bus to the Columbus airport, caught a connecting flight to Newark, New Jersey, and finally took off for Heathrow Airport in London.

At the time, all I could think about was how good it would feel to get home after it was all done.  And it was!  But I’m also glad I had the experience.

If this sounds interesting, be sure to check back here tomorrow; I’m planning to add a new post every day about my memories from each day of the trip!

I drive from Danville to Bloomsburg, along the same path the school bus took me for twelve years. The trees crowd in beside the road, and it feels so quiet– I’m amazed at how little traffic there seems to be. I guess I’ve gotten used to Cincinnati. But this definitely still feels like home.

I’m going to the park for my 13-year class reunion. Why 13 years? Because we’d never had a reunion before, and we wanted to have one. I worry a little that I won’t recognize some of my classmates. That could be embarrassing.

But as they arrive one by one, I know them instantly without a doubt! This so rarely happens to me anymore even with people I know well. It really feels nice.

Eight of us were able to make it out of a class of 26. I’d say that’s pretty good, considering how many of us have spread out all over the country and how many are busy with family and job obligations.

I get to meet their spouses and children, and I do my best to remember their names, but it will take me a while. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn some of them from Facebook.

We talk while the children play on the playground– there are so many stories to tell. I stand in between two conversations, listening to both and smiling. My friends are so very much the same people I knew from school. They’ve been to some amazing places and lived through some tough times, but God has preserved what is good in each of them.

I don’t think I have a lot to add myself. My experience is still mostly as a student. I’m still trying to find a career, still hoping to start a relationship with someone.

I probably seem a lot like I did when we were all in high school. I lagged behind socially then– at a middle school or elementary level– and as a result, I didn’t interact much with my peers. Now, I’m probably up to a college or high school level socially, but I don’t always feel fully a part of the adult world.

When someone asks me what I’m doing currently, I stammer and pause for a bit as I try to answer. A nasty part of me is telling me “You don’t belong here. You don’t have anything to talk about,” but I know that’s not true. We go out for drinks, but I haven’t developed a taste for beer or wine, so I order soda. I hope they don’t think I’m looking down on them by not sharing a drink– it’s such a symbol of friendship.

Before I came to the reunion, I was worried a little about negative thoughts like these, but they are no match for the joy I feel. I sit and listen to all the stories as my friends share– about meeting their husbands and wives, about funny or sad things at work, about pregnancy and childbirth and picking names for children and the unpredictability of two-year-olds. I imagine that my parents had conversations like this about me when I was little. I hear how God has blessed each family and prepared them for the things He brings into their lives. Everyone’s story is different, but also the same.

I realize that I have grown in thirteen years. When I was a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive a car. Today I made two trips by myself, and I enjoyed them. Even though social interaction is tiring, I am seeking it rather than avoiding it– planning my weekend around it and learning how to get enough rest in between so that I can be fully present and part of the conversation.

I wonder if my classmates know what a blessing they have been to my life– both those who are there and those who could not come.

At times, others find it hard to believe that I have Asperger’s just from observing me. I think some of this may be due to personality– my strong desire to avoid confrontation has likely kept me from clashing with others.

But there was another big difference in my life, the people around me. In so many of the stories I read online about people with Asperger’s, their years in school are not remembered fondly. Stories of bullying seem almost universal, and in a lot of cases, the best advice people can offer is “Wait until you graduate; it will get better.” I read about people who still deal with the effects of bullying decades later.

I wonder if my classmates know that they are proof that it doesn’t have to be that way– that kindness can have just as much of a positive impact on a life. None of us knew about Asperger’s, but anyone could see that I was different in some ways, lagging behind in others. But I wasn’t given grief for it. I was just given friendliness, time, and a safe place to grow.

I hope they know.