Nick Pentzell with Matthew Leonard
RESPONSE TO PLANKTON DREAMS
"[T]ito is a great character aan autistic hero," my friend Matthew Leonard typed, perseverating over the "a" in "an," as he reacted to Tito Mukhopadhyay's latest book, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special-Ed (Open Humanities Press, 2015), which is available free online. Relocating from India to the United States, after his intelligence had been tested and affirmed by scientists, at age twelve Tito nonetheless was placed for a time in a special ed. classroom since there was no other place for him to go while his mother worked. Plankton Dreams is his comic, satirical criticism of the experience. Matt and I had rendezvoused at his parents' home in mid-February, and I'd told him I was writing a response-review of Tito's book for Wordgathering. Joe, Matt's father, downloaded the book and began reading it aloud, between pauses for Matt's typed reactions.
Like Tito, Matt and I are essentially-mute men on the autism spectrum who are disconcerted by movement disturbances, body-awareness issues that affect focus/coordination/motor control, sensory hypersensitivity, and impulsivity challenges; we all type to communicate, although unlike Tito (who types independently with supervision to help him focus), Matt and I require varying degrees of hands-on physical resistance to steady the jerks and wobbles of our hands as we tap away at a letter board or computer keyboard. I met Tito once, and I am a fan of his books. This was Matt's introduction to Tito's writing—his "wonderful writing," was Matt's first comment. I agree. Tito writes with brilliance and originality, in a style I admire (and often envy): poetic, philosophical, imaginative, exuberant, as well as insightful about his state of mind and experiences as a person on the autism spectrum.
In Plankton Dreams, Tito adopts a style and tone that are different from his earlier books. Both Matt and I stumbled over its audacity, feeling an initial anxiety over the transgressive nature of Tito's devil-may-care—or, rather, devil-may-be—attitude. Matt commented, "[H]e is more daring than i am. He could get arrested or jailed for that. Even if he is onnly twelvve." We also had to adjust to the self-proclaimed forethought and purposefulness with which Tito conducts his "social experiments" (Mukhopadhyay 9). "[I] am more impulsive than tigto seems to be he thinks more than i do before acting. maybe his stratigic thinking would help. maybe i should try it," Matt said. (In quoting, I've retained Matt's typos to demonstrate how emotional intensity and the speed of expressing thought often create a jumble as we touch letters on a keyboard; Matt is an intelligent man who edits his formal work, but conversationally the desire to express ourselves exceeds our concern for accuracy. His comments were quick, informal, and are—here—unedited. Imagine something similar for Tito's process, thinking at the speed of inspiration but slowing down to the plodding rate of physical movement and frustration of misfiring fingers; imagine how much time and effort he put into the process of writing and then editing—something I appreciate and share in composing this review.)
Like Matt, I'd also wondered about the degree of Tito's in-the-moment awareness of his impulsive actions. For me, impulses to touch people's hands or heads (like Tito does), for example, occur at neural speeds that occlude thought. Thought is what I have to employ to slow my body down enough to become aware I even have had the desire to reach out and give my fingers the experience of contact. Then, to prevent this from occurring again, thought is what I must use to figure out how to anticipate and block a thought-less impulse and to locate the parts of my body that I, or others, think shouldn't be moving. Although sometimes I can trace a reactive impulse back to a sensory or emotional source, there are other times I don't want to admit impulses are not intentional, so I ascribe conscious motivation to them or accept a neurotypical's explanation of motives that may or may not sound reasonable to me. After all, once the touching is accomplished I am aware I was not in control of my body and that I interacted in an atypical or intrusive way. Sometimes in accepting responsibility, I also accept motivation.
All my life, all Matt's life, all Tito's life, rightly or wrongly we have been told not to give into these impulses, yet in this book Tito seems to be directing them at will, in the name of scientific and philosophical research! Perhaps, as Ralph Savarese celebrates in his wonderful afterword to Plankton Dreams, Tito is conscious and self-assured in his neurodiversity and, left in a school system where his intelligence was doubted and no one was trained to work with him at the tenth grade level he'd mastered, he—with forethought—used to advantage the lower-functioning role he'd been assigned and (as Tito claims) concocted a way to learn by instigating situations—his "social experiments"—that would teach him about subjects such as power, pride, personal space, the rigidity of points of view, the "social hesitation" that is dictated by "appropriate behavior" (58), patience, and forgiveness within the special ed. classroom.
I know the Tito who wrote this book in his mid-twenties has reflected and organized his experiences to this end, and it really isn't important whether the actual twelve-year-old Tito did or did not have the intentionality that the character of twelve-year-old Tito has in Plankton Dreams; the character could be a literary device of the author, blending an adult and child's point of view in the manner of so many memory stories about transgressive childhood adventures. What IS important is how this intentionality works. As an "autistic hero," the Tito of Plankton Dreams asserts himself with an almost unbridled freedom. With chutzpah, Tito reacts to unfairness and absurdity in neurotypical culture with a unique sense and logic that is first nature to his neural atypicality. His bravura offers a vicarious thrill: as Matt put it, "i feel safe reading abolugt him and i don'tg take any risk. feels like a colnspirac y that i am joining for fun." However, a hero has a larger mission. I suspect only a handful of us who have experienced special ed. are likely to read this book. The majority of Tito's readers probably will be neurotypicals who are used to exercising intentionality, yet I expect that every reader should be able to find ways to identify with the anti-authoritarian character of Tito in Plankton Dreams. Neurotypicals: imagine yourselves in our place, figuring out inventive ways to escape institutional boredom, learning what it's like to earn a "doctorate in humiliation" when teachers underestimate your intelligence, and experiencing the frustrating "captivity of intellect by one's body." By inviting you to identify with him, Tito also may lead you to question the captivity of your own "social box," and briefly grant you "freedom from customary comportment," allowing you vicariously the opportunity "to sniff a book in public" (8).
Tito subverts his outrage at the indignities and senselessness he finds in special ed. in satirical fashion by casting his (largely well-meaning) oppressors as rule-bound two-dimensional characters who bounce back when boffed. Matt commented that Tito "doesn't mind testing authority figures. i don't mind doig that either. they need a challenge to thekir agenda from time to time." Tito does this in a way similar to the characters in M*A*S*H (especially the more edgy movie and early t.v. episodes), who undermine army authority with pranks that criticize war. Sometimes Tito sees himself at war, hyperbolically calling the neurotypicals in charge of the class the "commanders of Waterloo" vs. his own role as Napoleon (18). He casts himself as "a regular member of the Outlaw Club" (48), whose members (among others) include Adam banished from Eden, Socrates, Robin Hood, Galileo, and Milton's Lucifer from Paradise Lost. Indeed, Tito's own devil frequently whispers in his ear, goading him to humorously protest the absurdity of the world of special ed. with acts that, while unintelligible and outrageous to his teacher and classroom aides, provide Tito with data as he empirically pursues his own education about special ed. dynamics and neurotypical behavior.
For instance, one day Tito wonders, "[W]hat if my body exchanged places with my shadow? … Would I be ignored, as shadows are ignored, or would my new shadowy presence allow the world, for the first time in history, to take all shadows seriously?" At school, in his imagination "a horned man with a red tail" suggests to him, "Thou should exist as Mr. Gardner's shadow," which leads Tito to loom behind his teacher's desk, ignored until he accidentally begins to fart. Tito explains,
It is essential to mix bad moments with good ones. Because of the bad we can appreciate the good. That is why the legendary Lucifer exists: to point out the glory of God. Without disease, for example, who could ever properly regard the miracle of health? Without flies and gnats, who could behold the soaring eagle? It was thus my duty to allow everyone to experience some Luciferlike moments in the special needs classroom (16).
Those of us who exist in the shadowy dis- world of disability are well aware that we often disappear in so many social situations until we accidentally, or on purpose, distract or displease neurotypicals with disappointing behavior or disobedience. This is an unfortunate part of the structure of special ed. dynamics that seems to have eluded the scrutiny of behavioral psychologists, but not the eye of Tito. Tito's anti-hero introduces humorous episodes in which the reader can discover and question special ed.'s status quo. As a writer, Tito encourages this critical reflection with the device of doubling himself: while one Tito conducts impish experiments, another Tito sits apart from the classroom, high above on a cloud, observing the interactions below while "waiting for my wings to grow"—an image he uses throughout the text, perhaps reminding us of the goodness that motivates even a lampooning investigation.
We've all read books and seen movies that are comedies and satires about education and schools, but Tito's is the first that I'm aware of that targets special ed. In his introduction, Tito outlines his aim:
Every educational approach has a life span. What was proper some years back may not be proper today, even though the approach appears to be stable. (Stagnation, after all, is an integral part of stability.) When the world outgrows an approach, however noble the sentiments from which it sprung, it should be changed. Think of it this way: every "right" has a left. Even "right" approaches can be viewed from the left. And autism, my friends, well, that most certainly offers a leftward perspective (7).
Plankton Dreams is a marvelous piece of satirical literature, yet "special" ed., and the whole realm of "special" needs people who are differently-abled, and the "special" parents and "special" people who teach us/attend to our needs/support our endeavors tends to be specially treated as Sacrosanct. Diffability literature is dominated by stories of especially heroic typical and atypical people nobly struggling together to overcome adversity while advocating diversity. There are aspects of this in Tito's book, but there's also a sense in which he's blowing farts at it all. I think Plankton Dreams will make some people uncomfortable. But that's not a bad thing, and I highly recommend that all the "special" teachers/parents/caregivers/specialists who are part of the "special" lives of differently-abled people should read Tito's truly special book and reassess their own "special" work from a "leftward perspective."
To be honest, at times Plankton Dreams made me uncomfortable too. In spite of my admiration, I felt conflicted and stressed while reading it my first time through, and I've struggled over how to frame this response for Wordgathering. Maybe it's a difference in age: Tito the writer is a little over a decade younger than me. Maybe it's a difference in philosophy: Tito the character is Nietschean, while I have been struggling to shed my Romantic skin, which doesn't fit the more Kantian or Rawlsian person I want to be (although Tito also hints at the injustices that a segregated system of regular and special ed. inflicts on everyone involved). I am indebted to my friend Matt for the fresh honesty of his reaction, which helped me shape this essay and to think of the book in literary terms, as well as about its subject and content. My conflict is that I am also indebted to my special ed. teachers, who never dismissed their nagging suspicion that there was more to me than met their eyes. They are the ones who kept trying different communication systems until they found one that worked. They are the ones who encouraged and supported my transition to a regular ed. school as an inclusion student. I have other friends who have benefited similarly. At the same time, I have friends who have suffered horrible treatment in special ed.—one was repeatedly locked in a janitor's closet—or endured decades of boredom; Matt infamously was quoted at a Pennsylvania Developmental Disability committee meeting in the early 1990s as saying, "Special education was a waste of my time." This was and is true for many people.
There were times when it was a waste of mine. However, in regular ed. I discovered that a lot of neurotypical students felt the same way about their schooling. Similarly, a lot of neurotypical students felt defined by their labels/grades and therefore lived down to the low expectations of teachers who couldn't see their way out of these educational boxes. A negative self-image is one of the things too many students learn in school. Tito was fortunate to have an alternative to the image others had of him in the classroom, once he finished his school day and returned home. Ultimately, however, so much of the education any of us receives at school depends on our teachers, regardless of the classrooms in which we find them; there are good teachers and bad teachers in regular ed. and in special ed. (my aunt and cousin are teachers who excel in the latter, even though I chafe at the segregation in their school systems). The key is to assume competence. Tito is right that "[t]here is the typical domain of typical beings who aren't doubted or tested, and who have a real place in education, work, and decision making," but I believe these beings are too often an elite even in regular ed. Our country needs educational reform, integrated and individualized for all, ensuring that no student, "special" or "typical," inhabits a "domain . . . where all is shadow, formless and wobbling, and hope itself lies sodden and submerged" (83).
Leonard, Matthew. Conversation. 18 February 2016.