He Didn’t Think He Could, But He Did….

Well, he did it.  My now 26 year old son with autism graduated from Art School, with a BFA in 2D Animation.  The adventures and the learning were endless, and priceless.  He is someone who learns from doing, who understands reality through his experiences, and works endlessly to figure out what conclusions he should draw from life.  The ambiguities of typical American university life were a little crazy-making, and the journey pretty darn bumpy at times.  But he did it.  Including the Covid part, this latest experience shared by many 18-28 year olds, of going to university in your pajamas in your bedroom on zoom.  For someone who has a tenuous grasp of reality to start with, university during Covid sure didn’t help him stay grounded.

There were lots of moments when I questioned whether it had been at all fair to him to even encourage him to start this process.  It was all he wanted to do, art and animation have long been his passion.  But was it just too hard?  My friend Bob Blue*, an amazing educator, musician and songwriter who developed MS in his later years, wrote a song called The Little Engine That Couldn’t.  I’m sure many of you remember that inspiring little book from our childhood, The Little Engine That Could.  I do, and it was truly inspiring for me.  But the point of Bob’s song is that sometimes we are asking kids to do something that they actually can’t do, and no amount of perseverance is going to change that.

My son really wants to be neurotypical.  And no amount of perseverance will ever make that happen. He experiences autism as a curse, because in his eyes it makes him socially awkward and is the cause of his learning challenges.  He was angry with himself that all of his friends graduated in four years, “the way you are supposed to, like my sister and all of my cousins”, and it took him six years.  It was really hard for him to recognize how amazing it was that he was even at this incredibly well-respected art school, in a department that has produced many grads that go on to work in the animation industry.  Also a school that only 70% of the applicants get into, and has only 50% graduate in the typical 4 years.  So he was by far not the only one that took longer.

My wish for him is that he will accept himself, accept his autism, and learn to find the treasures that are hiding inside.  We’re not there yet.  As much as we try and support him and show him that his autism is part of why he is such an amazing artist, he frets about the things that don’t come easily.

And from that point of view, the college experience was pretty stressful.  Most of the institution didn’t seem to understand him as a person, and didn’t seem to understand autism in general.  From their point of view, they bent a lot to accommodate him and his lack of understanding of social cues. From my point of view….well yes, but that is of course what one does (bends and accommodates) to include people who are wired differently or who have different ways of accessing material and learning and life in general. You accommodate them because you understand that there are multiple ways to learn and maneuver life, not just one.  You admit them to your institution because you cherish the beauty that is created when you have a student body made up of vastly different perspectives.  It’s not a burden to bend and accommodate, it’s just what one does…according to me anyway.

There was no in person graduation ceremony because of Covid, but we were invited down to campus so that he could receive his diploma in person and get a picture taken with the president of the university. As we were waiting in line, maintaining physical distancing for Covid safety, a security guard was directing the line and letting families go in one at a time.  He saw my son, gave him a fist bump, and crowed a great big “Congratulations, my man!  You did it!  I am so proud of you, think of all of those afternoons you were hanging out with me thinking it was too hard, but here you are, you did it!”  Turns out they were on first-name basis.

We went inside, where a second security guard waited, and the same scenario repeated, but this time, she and my son were referencing a number of conversations they had had when he was feeling like he just couldn’t pull it together to go back to class, but with her support, he had made it through those particular days.  She pulled me aside and said, “He is so smart.  Part of his trouble is that he is way smarter and way more observant than everyone around him.  He notices things, and he cares, and most of the world just doesn’t.  He has such a beautiful heart.”  Wow.  It’s pretty rare for me to run into anyone that recognizes this outside of his immediate family.

We continued through the process, he got his diploma, and a third security guard came over to us, gave him a big hug and said, “Dude I am soooooooooo proud of you!  I am going to miss you so much!  Now that campus is opening up again, even though you are graduating, come and visit. You know where to find me.  If you need to talk to someone, just come on down.”

That’s pretty much when I lost it.  I kept it together externally in order to follow socially acceptable American protocol, but inside I was sobbing.

We left the building.  A line of professors from his department were standing there, to cheer each graduate.  We had heard them whoop it up for the student who had walked out in front of my son.  They called out a slightly tepid cheer for him, clapping politely.  Was it just me or was the restrained response a huge contrast to the hearty, genuine well-wishes of the security guards?

We have always noticed that he seems to find his angels, his protectors, the folks that get him and love him when so many others seem to recoil from him.  And he certainly did have angels amongst the professors and the original learning support team as well, they just didn’t happen to be there in that line-up.  On that day, it was the security guards who had his back, who were his cheerleaders.  They aren’t the ones that can write the letters of recommendation to prospective art jobs, but they definitely would if they could.

Thank you to his broader team of angels as well…many of you are receiving this…I hope you know who you are!

*Bob Blue’s website: https://www.bobblue.org/

– and the lyrics to The Little Engine That Couldn’t

THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULDN’T words and music by Bob Blue © 2005 Bob Blue

Have you heard the story about the brave engine
Who climbed to the top of the hill?
If not, please don’t worry; it’s told all the time,
So there’s still a good chance that you will.

There once was an engine (no, not the same engine)
That tried, but did not have success.
The more the poor engine kept huffing and puffing,
The less it could do it – the less!

In Engine School, this engine did all his homework
And tried to do well on each test,
Believing what all of his teacher had told him –
That all they required was his “best.”

The engine that could did so well in that school
That he rarely got worse than straight A’s.
His teachers believed that he studied so hard,
And they all gave him honors and praise.

The engine that couldn’t was not very happy;
He thought of himself as no good.
He didn’t know why Engine School seemed so easy –
Such fun, to the engine that could.

That’s why, when they needed a brave volunteer
For that awful, impossible climb,
He started repeating, “I think I can,”
Thinking he really could do it this time.

“I think I can” wasn’t so right for this challenge.
A much better mantra would be,
“I know I cannot,” since the hill was too steep,
Which one glance would let anyone see.

That “hill” was a mountain!  Last year they decided
To build a long tunnel – down low.
If anyone wants to go up to the summit,
The road is the best way to go.

The engine that couldn’t was still mighty good –
He had no trouble pulling a train,
As long as the places it went could be reached
Via good tracks, and level terrain.

If not, then this wasn’t the engine to use.
There were other ones built for the task.
If asked, it just might volunteer, so
I think it is better to simply not ask.

I don’t think whoever is hearing these words
Is a person in charge of a train.
For all I know, people don’t run them;
They’re run by computers, and hard to maintain.

The engine that could was a fine little engine.
I’m very impressed that he could.
But engines that can’t should admit that they can’t.
They would be better off if they would.


But engines that can’t should admit that they can’t.
They would be better off if they would.



Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to He Didn’t Think He Could, But He Did….

  1. Avatarjean young says:

    Wow, Joanie, what a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’m all in tears. How wonderful that the security guards were there for him, and, no doubt, for many other kids throughout the years, who needed their encouragement and their heart! I hope they know just how important their words were!

  2. AvatarLisa D Heintz says:

    What a beautiful story of triumph, perseverance and all the angels who helped D. along the journey!! How incredibly gratifying it must be to know that others – who weren’t expected to– believed in him.

  3. AvatarJulia Goode says:

    Well, I wasn’t at the event, so I just cried reading what the security guards said. In a world with equal opportunities perhaps those security guards would be leading a classroom. You and Doug should be proud, you have raised a wonderful young man with a college degree!

  4. AvatarMara Beckerman says:

    Not enough tissues to catch my tears. You are an amazing mother Joanie to raise your son so beautifully that he knew how and where to find those who could understand him. Security Guards… Keeping the ones in need secure emotionally. Congrats to your son. My father, now retired, had his own animation studio in NYC while also teaching animation for 45 years at the School of Visual Arts as well. He would have loved having your son for a student.

  5. AvatarBrigid Finucane says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Joanie. Your compassionate and powerful writing always moves me. Congrats all around, and may D always find and be surrounded by angels. xo

  6. So amazing Joanie, you and your family must be so very proud of your child to have achieved so much despite such awesome difficulties. Most of us ‘neurotypicals’, whatever that is, would be delighted to have such a talent. You are so right that we each have different ways of learning – the world would go round if we were all the same!
    Love the story about the security guards – a little bit of kindness goes a long long way. All the best to your son in the future.

  7. AvatarJudy C says:

    Moved to tears. Many kudos to the Calem parents!
    Not 1, not 2, BUT THREE security guards/guardian angels who encouraged him along the way, recognized his beautiful heart and tremendous talent plus expressed so much joy and pride in his huge accomplishment then told him how much he would be missed.

  8. AvatarSharonah Laemmle says:

    Why not?
    I think it would be lovely to post the comment of the most articulate of the security guards! They obviously got to know him well.
    Wishing him great success!

  9. Joanie, first of all, a BIG Congratulations to your son! Thrilled for him and your family:) Having a college graduate is a big deal:) Especially after this crazy year. And especially for your son who’s on the spectrum…Kudos to those security guards who were there for him:)
    Our grandson Theo, who’ll be 18 in August, is on the autism spectrum as well, so I get it. And he’s graduating high school this year with a 94 average. He’s bright and kind and verbal but a bit shy to the outside world. So this is a personal triumph. And he’s going to Hunter College in Manhattan in the Fall to major in Computer Science. Fingers crossed.
    As for your boy:) The world needs talented, dedicated animators, and it’s wonderful that your son knows what he wants to do, I bet he’ll be amazing at it:) Best of luck to him!

  10. AvatarRhonda says:

    Just about cried reading this. Incredible achievement. And Bravo security guards! Wonderful!!

  11. AvatarJudy says:

    I too have tears rolling down my cheeks…..who would’ve thought it would be the security guards who kept Devin buoyant in hard times….people who observe, see what lies beneath the surface, looking out for trouble….they were the ones to truly see him. What a blessing. Yes you and Doug must be extremely proud. I’m bummed that I missed Devin’s online celebration! Huge congratulations to you Devin!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

21 + = 30