Category: teaching


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.

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“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’ve been wanting to continue posting about what I was like growing up, hopefully to help people understand Asperger’s syndrome better.  But I’ve been a little nervous about writing this part, because it feels a bit like bragging.  It’s honestly not my purpose to boast, though, and I hope it will make sense once you’ve read the rest.

Hans Asperger described the children he studied during the 1940s as “little professors,” because they tended to study a specific interest in great detail, and then repeat the facts they had learned to anyone who would listen.  They would use formal language as if they were delivering a lecture, an effect that can seem comical coming from a young child.

I definitely had the “little professor” trait.  I learned to read when I was quite young– I honestly can’t remember not being able to.  My favorite sort of books to read were reference books that used pictures and symbols to communicate information along with words.  I would spend hours reading these books over and over again.

What sorts of things captured my interest?

  • Road maps.  A long while ago, I posted a funny story about how one year I said my favorite Christmas gift was a Philadelphia road map.  I was fascinated by the symbols used on maps for different types of roads and the names of the roads themselves.  I could watch for the road names on signs when I was riding in the car and figure out where all of the places we visited were.  At home, I would spread the map out on the floor and use highlighters to trace paths on it.  When my youngest brother Andrew was born, I told my grandparents how to get to the hospital when I went with them to visit my Mom for the first time.  I was four years old.
  • The states in the U.S.A. and the countries of the world.  I had an old atlas in my room that I turned through until the pages were falling out. I liked how each country was marked by a change in color and had its own flag.  Finding all of the countries on each map was like a game, especially in the case of tiny ones like Liechtenstein.  Before long, I could draw a map of state or country borders from memory.
  •  The bones and organs of the body.  Another of my favorite books was a human anatomy book; it was like a map of the inside of the body.  I liked learning all of the strange names for bones– vertebrae, phalanges, scapula, femur– and I could feel where they were inside me.  I read about the path that food takes through the body after you eat it.  I learned about the circulatory system (heart and blood vessels) and respiratory system (lungs).  I liked how I could ask my Dad, the doctor, any question, and he would know the answer to it.
  • Astronomy.  I loved learning facts about the planets.  Each one has its own day (Jupiter’s is 10 hours; Venus’s is 243 days) and its own year (Mercury’s is 88 days; Pluto’s is almost 250 years).  On some planets, I would weigh just a couple of pounds; on others, I would weigh a ton.  Then there were the constellations– 88 of them, just as many as there are keys on a piano.  I had a wonderful book by children’s author H.A. Rey that taught me how to recognize the brightest constellations in the sky, but I wanted to learn about all of them, even the ones without any bright stars, like Lacerta the lizard and Camelopardalis the giraffe.
  • Math.  Before I was old enough to start school, I did math workbooks for fun.  Really!  I enjoyed books that taught arithmetic by lining up rows of circles or squares so I could see what 9 + 5 or 3 x 10 looked like.  I would spend hours drawing squares so I could see what a hundred looked like– then a thousand.  (It didn’t occur to me until just now that I seem to have been a very visual learner.  Strange, because I’m actually diagnosed as having a non-verbal learning disability.  Are diagrams and maps considered verbal or non-verbal information?)

I’ve been thinking about why children with Asperger’s display the “little professor” behavior.  Some of the writing I’ve seen on the subject argues that these children are merely “parroting” information they’ve heard or read and don’t really understand the complicated subjects they are talking about.

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I’m working on Flash homework right now, so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to comment, but I came across a fascinating site yesterday.  It’s an autobiographical account by a 35-year-old woman with Asperger’s syndrome about her experiences as a young child, going to school, growing up, and looking for a place in the world:

My Asperger’s Syndrome Story

Like me, she grew up before anyone knew about Asperger’s, which in her case led to a lot of misunderstandings and hardships when her behavior just didn’t seem to make sense to those around her.  Some parts of her story are very sad, but I think she tells it very well.  There’s a lot in it to think about, as it relates to both children and adults with autism.

I’ve been wanting to describe a little more about my own experiences growing up (a process I’m not done with yet!).  Reading this account again makes me thankful for parents, teachers, and classmates who were willing to let me do my own thing or overlook my weirdness at times; I was spared a lot of unnecessary hardships because of the kindness of others.

I hope I can post more soon!

Every once in a while, I have an experience that drives home the fact that my mind works a bit differently from what’s considered “normal.”

I’m taking a class in marketing this quarter.  (When I was registering for classes, I thought it was a required course, but it turned out that it wasn’t!)  I wasn’t sure how well this course would go, not because I thought the work would be hard (thankfully there are no essays in this class), but because I have an antagonistic relationship with marketing in general.  Every marketing method seems to be all about manipulating people’s thoughts and actions in a way that’s often intrusive and sometimes outright deceptive.

Here’s an example.  A while ago, I was sorting through the mail.  About 50% of it is what’s considered “junk” mail, things trying to get you to buy something.  Because there was an election coming up, there was also a lot of political junk mail looking for money or votes.  There is mail that’s very important to keep track of, like bills or bank statements, and every once in a while, there’s a letter from a person.  I can usually pick those out because the address is hand written rather than printed.

Sometimes, I can tell pretty quickly which pile a piece of mail goes into.  But a lot of the creators of junk mail, political and otherwise, try to fool you.  For instance, one of them was using a printed font that was trying to look as if it was hand written; I could only tell the difference by looking very carefully at individual letters and realizing that all of the E’s looked exactly alike.

That’s marketing.  And it achieved its goal.  I looked at that envelope longer than I did any of the other junk mail, because it was harder to tell what it was.  It may be an effective strategy, and it’s far from the most intrusive thing that marketing does, but it still bothers me because it’s deceptive.  The company that printed that envelope knew that handwritten text seems more genuine and trustworthy because it implies that someone took the time to write it with a pen.  In reality, they printed thousands of envelopes just like this one, but they wanted to give a false impression.  Maybe someday soon, a computer will be able to cheaply simulate the variations of human handwriting so that all E’s will not look the same, and it will be even harder to tell the difference.

Okay, so sorry for complaining about something so minor there, but that’s one of the reasons I don’t like marketing.  I like for the labels on things to be correct.  Marketing does not seem very friendly to people with Asperger’s who like to categorize.

Anyway, I was in marketing class last week, and my teacher was talking about all of the psychological factors that go into the presentation of a product– shapes, colors, space, sound, and even smells can be used to try to grab people’s attention in ways they won’t notice.

The teacher explained that all of us have filters in our brains that are always working to allow us to concentrate on one thing while filtering out the things we’re not focusing on. He said that we usually aren’t aware of all of the things around us until they are pointed out.

I thought about the sounds I could hear in the room.  Besides my teacher speaking, I could hear the rustle of clothing from students fidgeting.  Some were picking up and setting down the plastic bottles they had brought to drink from, and some were tapping the floor or the legs of their desks with their shoes.  I could hear the more muffled sounds from out in the hall as groups of students came and went, sometimes stopping to have conversations.  Under it all was the steady hum of the projector hanging from the center of the ceiling.

“For instance,” said the teacher, “you don’t notice the noise that the thing on the ceiling is making, but now you suddenly notice it, because I pointed it out.  Isn’t that weird?  Especially those of you sitting right under it.”

Students seemed to react as if they hadn’t heard the noise until now, looking up at the projector.  A chair in one of the neighboring classrooms made a loud noise as it was scooted across the tile floor.

“Or like how a chair just made a noise there, but you didn’t notice it because you weren’t listening for it,” my teacher said.

I really wanted to tell the teacher that my filter was broken.  Then I remembered the first thing he had said about these mental filters:  “If we didn’t didn’t have them, we’d go insane.”

I wonder if this explains why I don’t like marketing very much.  Everything that’s for sale is screaming for the attention of people who filter most things out, but my filter is broken, so I hear it all (or at least more than the marketers expect me to).  I notice it the most in places like bookstores.  Every book’s cover is trying to stand out against all other books’ covers.  Some use bright colors, some use intricate designs, some are stark and minimalist, some are oddly shaped, some use disturbing images, and some use shocking titles.  The result is a garish cacophony that can be a bit dizzying from my point of view.

Hello again!  It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted here.  This post has actually been in draft form for several weeks.  A major reason for this is that I’m dealing with a few more items being added to my list:

  • With school starting, my online tutoring job has begun.  This is my second year of working from home, reading students’ English papers, answering their questions, and offering suggestions about what to work on in future drafts.  I have a light schedule in terms of hours, but I still find it causes me a lot of stress because I have a hard time writing the critiques quickly enough.
  • I have just started taking some classes myself on the subject of Web programming.  I’m expecting to learn a lot of computer languages that will hopefully give me more skills to add to my resume and help me get a full-time job in Web design or Web administration.  In preparation, I’ve been having to deal with getting the paperwork all in order with the school to start paying for and taking the classes.
  • Football season has started!  🙂  As I do at the start of each new season, I’ve been having fun making schedules for various college and pro teams and working on my football history website.  Even though this is a fun activity, it requires time and energy like anything else, so I have to figure out how to fit it in.
  • I am working on making CD recordings of the sermons of a former pastor and close friend of mine who passed away a while ago.  He was a very good teacher, and it’s great to get to hear so many of his sermons, most of them from before I met him.  I’m also glad to help make sure these sermons are preserved for others to hear.
  • At my current church, I’m part of a team multimedia slides with Bible verses and sermon points on them for the congregation to read for each week’s service.  I’m glad to have the opportunity to help with this, because I enjoy working from computers and I can mostly work from home.  I’m thankful that our leader is being very patient and encouraging in dealing with the little steps that have to be added through trial and error when a lot of people are working together.(For a while, I wasn’t getting his e-mails because my spam filter was grabbing them for some reason.  Another time, I got confused because I couldn’t remember what he looked like and got him mixed up with someone else at church.  (Therefore, when I asked someone “Is everything all right with the presentation?” he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about and said “I think so.”  As it turned out, everything wasn’t all right and the presentation didn’t work that day.)
  • There is a little bit of work to do each day around the house, whether it’s sweeping the floor or helping my mother with a project on the computer.  Recently, I was watching over the house and the dog while my parents were on vacation, and thankfully, they left a list for me to keep track of what I needed to do every day.
  • There are some things I need to do because they are good for me– exercise and reading, but I usually don’t want to.
  • I still really enjoy playing the guitar; I just figured out how to play a great song by the Christian group The Waiting.

I feel strange admitting that this schedule feels overwhelming to me, because it’s a very light schedule compared to what most people have to keep track of.  It’s as if I require more space around each of the things in my life than most people, because it takes me longer to “change gears” and collect myself for each task.

The fact that one of my more stressful tasks, the online tutoring, comes close to the end of my day means that I rarely feel at ease enough to devote spare energy to writing this blog, even when I’d really like to.

I hope that I will be able to get better at this somehow, as it’s a pretty basic requirement of adult life.

I’m back from vacation!  Thanks for checking back here, everyone.  Between me being tired out from traveling and my computer experiencing connection difficulties, I’ve been kept away from posting a bit longer than I had expected to be.

I figured I’d talk about a children’s show that was a blessing to me when I was very young.  I don’t know if this specifically relates to Asperger’s; I think it probably did help me with some of the anxiety that comes along with AS– but it did so in a way that I imagine must have been helpful for a lot of children, whatever their situation.  That show was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I used to watch on PBS.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the program, it was created by educator, puppeteer, songwriter, and ordained minister Fred Rogers and ran from 1968 to 2001 in the United States.  It had a very simple format; in every episode, Rogers would arrive at his television house singing the song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he put on his sneakers and sweater.  He would speak gently to his TV audience, as if they were there in the room with him.

During the episode, he might have a conversation with one of his friends from the show’s world (like his mailman, Mr. McFeely) or visit an interesting real-life location like a museum, hospital, or fire station in a taped segment.  He would also usually work on some sort of craft project in the kitchen.

Each episode included a visit to the “Land of Make Believe,” with characters that included both live actors and puppets (many of them voiced by Rogers).  Usually, the make-believe story related in some way to the subject the episode focused on (for example, music or what to do when you feel angry).

At the end of the episode, Mr. Rogers would tell his audience “I love you just the way you are” and sing a song called “It’s Such a Good Feeling” as he put on his jacket and shoes and left until the next day.

One of the coolest things about being a 3-to-4-year-old in Pittsburgh was that Fred Rogers himself was from that city, and a lot of the places that he would visit on his show were in Pittsburgh or close by.  In one episode, he went to a planetarium; in another, he went to a dinosaur museum.  My parents took me to the same planetarium and museum and I got to see the exact same things and places that Mr. Rogers had pointed out– with my own eyes!  That’s pretty high up on the coolness scale for the age that I was then.  🙂

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