Elmer Swim Club: the heartbreak of autism parents

Elmer Swim Club
Fran­cis at his favorite place in the world: the top of the Elmer high dive

I was ambushed while leav­ing the Elmer Swim Club today by a guy I’ve nev­er met who told me nev­er to return, then told me he’s a vice pres­i­dent of the gov­ern­ing asso­ci­a­tion, and then told me he had papers inside to back him up. Although it was meant to look like an acci­den­tal run-in as we were walk­ing out, it was clear it was staged with the man­ag­er on duty.

The prob­lem is the behav­ior of our soon-to-be 10 yo Fran­cis. He is dif­fi­cult. He gets over­whelmed eas­i­ly and doesn’t respond well to threats by author­i­ty fig­ures. We know. He’s autis­tic. We deal with it every day. There’s no excus­ing his behav­ior some­times. But there’s also no miss­ing that he’s a deeply sweet human who has trou­bles relat­ing and is mak­ing hero­ic strides toward learn­ing his emo­tions. We dri­ven the extra dis­tance to this swim club for years because it’s been a place that has accept­ed us.

Peo­ple at Elmer — well most of them — haven’t dis­missed Fran­cis as our prob­lem, but have come togeth­er as an extend­ed fam­i­ly to work through hard times to help mold him. He’s made friends and we’ve made friends. The swim club’s mot­to is that it’s the place “Where Every­one is Fam­i­ly” and we found this was the rare case where a cheesy tag line cap­tured some­thing real. Fam­i­ly. You don’t just throw up your hands when some­one in the fam­i­ly is dif­fi­cult and gets dis­re­spect­ful when they get social­ly overwhelmed.

The VP was a control-your-kids kind of guy, clear­ly unaware of the chal­lenges of rais­ing an autis­tic kid — and clear­ly unwill­ing to use this park­ing lot moment as a learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty. I tried to stay human with him and explain why this par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty was so spe­cial. The swim coach­es always cheered our kids on despite always com­ing in dead last — not only that, but even put Fran­cis in relay races! There have always been lots of extra eyes watch­ing him and will­ing to redi­rect him when he start­ed melt­ing down. Most of the time he needs a drink, a snack, or some qui­et sen­so­ry time. To be in a com­mu­ni­ty that under­stood this is beyond mirac­u­lous for autism fam­i­lies. The worst thing is to start to scream or threat­en, which unfor­tu­nate­ly is some people’s default. Some author­i­ty fig­ures know how to earn Francis’s trust; oth­ers just make things worse over and over again. At Elmer the lat­ter final­ly won out.

We first start­ed com­ing to this pool for swim lessons in 2009. After six years becom­ing more involved in this deeply wel­com­ing com­mu­ni­ty, I had start­ed to allow myself to think we had found a home. I’d day­dream of the day when Fran­cis would be 18, grad­u­at­ing from the swim team and peo­ple would give him an extra rous­ing cheer when his name was called at the end-of-season ban­quet. We’d all tell sto­ries with tears in our eyes of just how far he had come from that 9yo who couldn’t con­trol his emo­tions. And we were at the point where I imag­ined this as a cen­tral iden­ti­ty for the fam­i­ly – the place where his old­er broth­er would sneak his first kiss on the overnight cam­pout, or where his younger sib­lings would take their first coura­geous jumps off the high dive.

Julie’s mak­ing calls but I’m not hold­ing my breath. What hap­pened is an breath­tak­ing­ly overt vio­la­tion of the club association’s bylaws. But would we even feel safe return­ing? Fran­cis is eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed. It only takes a few hard­ened hearts at the top who believe autism is a par­ent­ing issue — or who just don’t care to do the extra work to accom­mo­date a dif­fi­cult child.

For­tu­nate­ly for us, for a while we had a place that was spe­cial. The Elmer Swim Club and Elmer Swim Team will always have a spe­cial place in our hearts. Our thanks to all the won­der­ful peo­ple there. Here’s some memories:

Update: Our post shed­ding light on the Elmer Swim Club’s trustee mis­be­hav­ior and the board’s vio­la­tion of its own bylaws has now had over 1800 Face­book inter­ac­tions (shares, likes, com­ments) and the blog post itself has been read 9,970 times. Terms like “autism elmer pool” are trend­ing on our incom­ing Google search­es and the post looks like it will be a per­ma­nent top-five search result for the pool. Although our fam­i­ly will nev­er set foot in its waters again, our absence will be a remain a pres­ence. Dis­cus­sions over what hap­pened will con­tin­ue for years.

I share these stats to encour­age peo­ple to talk about mis­be­hav­ior in the pub­lic sphere. It doesn’t help civ­il soci­ety to bury con­flict in the tones of hushed gos­sip. Just as we as par­ents work every day to help our autis­tic son make bet­ter deci­sions, all of us can insist that our com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions fol­low best prac­tices in self-governance and abide by their own rules. Bylaws mat­ter. Park­ing lot civil­i­ty mat­ter. Kids should be held respon­si­ble for their actions. So should trustees.

Carolina Friends School in Durham confronts reports of decades-old sexual abuse


A Friends School talks open­ly about past school abuse:

The alum­nus said he’s upset the prin­ci­pal [Harold Jerni­gan] has not acknowl­edged the accu­sa­tions. But he said he doesn’t regret send­ing his orig­i­nal mes­sage. ‘If you read Quak­er lit­er­a­ture, they spell ‘Truth’ in the upper­case – the impli­ca­tion of divin­i­ty,’ he said, ‘that it is a holy thing to con­tin­ue that search for truth.’

I’m glad this is get­ting out now, but I did a double-take as the accused prin­ci­ple is still alive and liv­ing a few dozen miles from me. He was a lightning-rod fig­ure as prin­ci­pal of at least two oth­er schools after Car­oli­na. I imag­ine the behav­ior con­tin­ued. Updates below:

  • An peri­od arti­cle on his tenure at a Friends Sem­i­nary, a Man­hat­tan Friends school, talked about the unrest of his two-year tenure there. It sounds like he came in and sum­mar­i­ly fired the heads of the low­er, mid­dle, and upper schools. This is the kind of thing one would do if they want­ed to cur­tail accountability.
  • A mem­oir by Quak­er edu­ca­tor Leonard Ken­wor­thy talks about this peri­od at Friends Sem­i­nary: “He moved much too rapid­ly in bring­ing about changes, ask­ing for the res­ig­na­tions of the heads of the ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, plus sev­er­al oth­er shifts, with­in a very short peri­od, even before he took over as prin­ci­pal. Over and over I urged him not to move too fast but he said there were two ways of han­dling such a sit­u­a­tion. One was to move slow­ly over a peri­od of years. The oth­er was to bring about quick changes and then to begin rapid­ly to ini­ti­ate new pro­grams and new per­son­nel. He was deter­mined to use the lat­ter approach.”
  • A 1986 New York Times pro­file of Friends Sem­i­nary had this to say of its for­mer head: “After a shake-up of the staff that led to the res­ig­na­tion or dis­missal of sev­er­al teach­ers, a teacher’s union was formed, and stu­dents went on strike. Even­tu­al­ly, the prin­ci­pal, Harold Jerni­gan, resigned and the school ”reject­ed mus­cu­lar Quak­erism and returned to its mys­ti­cal faith,” in the words of the offi­cial history.”
  • A com­menter on one news arti­cle writes: “Please also know that Harold Jernigan’s behav­ior con­tin­ued on at Atlantic City Friends School, where he was Head­mas­ter. As an Alum of ACFS, I thought that should be made clear.”
  • Car­oli­na Friends School wrote an open let­ter to the com­mu­ni­ty in June.

Update Decem­ber 2014. I have received emails from a for­mer stu­dent who wished to remain anony­mous at this time. I have no way to fact check this but it is con­sis­tent with the his­to­ry and I have no rea­son to think it’s inac­cu­rate. With that caveat, here are some excerpts:

As an Alum­ni of Atlantic City Friends School I am not sur­prised at all to hear about Harold Jerni­gan sex­u­al abuse in the least . Please note this abuse along with more forms of abuse went on at ACFS into the ear­ly 80’s

Sex­u­al abuse was not the only abuse. Abuse of the school sys­tem in gen­er­al includ­ing drugs , abuse of pow­er , mon­ey , teach­ing so bad­ly that curves were used to grade so curved that the high­est grade in a math class Harold Jerni­gan taught was a 42 yet all were passed . Harold Jerni­gan also would lis­ten to class­rooms and lock­er rooms with a speak­er sys­tem in his office even after he promised Teach­ers he would not . Please note if Harold Jerni­gan did not want a stu­dent to pass he would call a meet­ing with all Teach­ers to make sure cer­tain stu­dents would not pass no mat­ter what .

I was a vic­tim of his non sex­u­al abuse but still abuse all the same .

I am only telling you this so some­one puts a stop to this abuse. Back in the late 70’s ear­ly 80’s who would believe a teenag­er . To see this Final­ly come out makes me know there is Karma .

As teenagers in school we would talk amongst our­selves . No one would come for­ward because we knew Harold would hold back our Diplo­mas or not for­ward a let­ter to a college .

You must remem­ber ACFS was attend­ed by either high IQ stu­dents , rich kids that were kick out of their oth­er schools or stu­dents that want­ed to attend a pri­vate school . This made the stu­dent body Easy Prey .

Dur­ing my time at ACFS I made friends with some of the Teach­ers . These Teach­ers are some of my sources ! They knew but need­ed their job

Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tu­al vital­i­ty of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­e­na I’ve seen in a lot of Quak­er meetings. 

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ed his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casu­al his­to­ri­ans of Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quak­er pol­i­cy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integri­ty you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off – polite­ly and suc­cint­ly, but also firm­ly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­al­ly dis­cuss your issues – the peo­ple you want – will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­i­ty enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tent­ly ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­i­ty in my life right now?”

I com­ment­ed about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seriously:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grant­ly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­al­ly sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tu­al community.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ous­ly. And I mean those more spe­cif­ic tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty life. Tes­ti­monies against detrac­tion and for right­ly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tin­ue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­gard­ed. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quak­er process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­ni­ty but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in these pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quick­ly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in oth­er Quak­er venues. It’s a shame. Month­ly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quak­er spir­i­tu­al life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these cir­cum­stances. I cer­tain­ly under­stand the val­ue and need for the Quak­er tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­i­er for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we real­ly build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between puri­ty and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quak­er exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ideals. 

Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quak­er Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers new­ly con­vinced of Quak­er prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect local­ly because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked “Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing, Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spir­it Led, Charis­mat­ic fam­i­ly?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integri­ty we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tent­ly dis­rup­tive, is clear­ly break­ing spe­cif­ic Quak­er tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­ni­ty and intergri­ty, and stub­born­ly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you real­ly don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quak­er tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cess­es, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­o­gy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have these prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port lifeline.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. Maybe we can stop the full depar­ture of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coör­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­i­ty and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quak­er dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quak­er bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ideals: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quak­er min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or dis­func­tion­al (I think I should start look­ing hard­er at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­o­ry). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ev­er comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instructions.

Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Vist­ing 1806’s “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Tak­en from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civ­il and polit­i­cal econ­o­my, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends”

Thomas Clark­son wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quak­er audi­ence. He had no direct expe­ri­ence of (and lit­tle appar­ent inter­est in) any peri­od that we’ve retroac­tive­ly claimed as a “gold­en age of Quak­erism.” Yet all this is why he’s so interesting.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​_​C​l​a​r​k​son), which begins: “Thomas Clark­son (28 March 1760 – 26 Sep­tem­ber 1846), abo­li­tion­ist, was born at Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, and became a lead­ing cam­paign­er against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only oth­er nec­es­sary piece of infor­ma­tion to our sto­ry is that he was a Anglican.

British Friends at the end of of the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry were still some­what aloof, mys­te­ri­ous and con­sid­ered odd by their fel­low coun­try­men and women. Clark­son admits that one rea­son for his writ­ing “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” was the enter­tain­ment val­ue it would pro­vide his fel­low Angli­cans. Friends were start­ing to work with non-Quakers like Clark­son on issues of con­science and while this ecu­meni­cal activism was his entre – “I came to a knowl­edge of their liv­ing man­ners, which no oth­er per­son, who was not a Quak­er, could have eas­i­ly obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symp­tom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry ush­ered in a new type of Quak­er, or more pre­cise­ly whole new types of Quak­ers. By the time Clark­son died Amer­i­can Friends were going through their sec­ond round of schism and Joseph John Gur­ney was arguably the best-known Quak­er across two con­ti­nents: Oxford edu­cat­ed, at ease in gen­teel Eng­lish soci­ety, active in cross-denominational work, and flu­ent and well stud­ied in Bib­li­cal stud­ies. Clark­son wrote about a Soci­ety of Friends that was dis­ap­pear­ing even as the ink was dry­ing at the printers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were writ­ten by Friends them­selves. I like old Quak­er jour­nals as much as the next geek, but it’s always use­ful to get an outsider’s per­spec­tive (here’s a more modern-day exam­ple). Also: I don’t think Clark­son was real­ly just writ­ing an account sim­ply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a mod­el of chris­t­ian behav­ior that he thought his fel­low Angli­cans would be well advised to study. 

His account is refresh­ing­ly free of what we might call Quak­er bag­gage. He doesn’t use Fox or Bar­clay quotes as a blud­geon against dis­agree­ment and he doesn’t drone on about his­to­ry and per­son­al­i­ties and schisms. Read­ing between the lines I think he rec­og­nizes the grow­ing rifts among Friends but gloss­es over them (fair enough: these are not his bat­tles). Refresh­ing­ly, he doesn’t hold up Quak­er lan­guage as some sort of quaint and untrans­lat­able tongue, and when he describes our process­es he often uses very sur­pris­ing words that point to some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Quak­er prac­tice then and now that are obscured by com­mon words.

Thomas Clark­son is inter­est­ed in what it’s like to be a good chris­t­ian. In the book it’s type­set with low­er­case “c” and while I don’t have any rea­son to think it’s inten­tion­al, I find that type­set­ting illu­mi­nat­ing nonethe­less. This mean­ing of “chris­t­ian” is not about sub­scrib­ing to par­tic­u­lar creeds and is not the same con­cept as uppercase-C “Chris­t­ian.” My Luther­an grand­moth­er actu­al­ly used to use the lowercase-c mean­ing when she described some behav­ior as “not the chris­t­ian way to act.” She used it to describe an eth­i­cal and moral stan­dard. Friends share that under­stand­ing when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we fol­low the Spirit’s lead. It may be a lit­tle quaint to use chris­t­ian to describe this kind of gener­ic good­ness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Por­trai­ture” looks at pecu­liar Quak­er prac­tices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quak­er stay in that chris­t­ian zone. His book is most often ref­er­enced today because of its descrip­tions of Quak­er plain dress but he’s less inter­est­ed in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the soci­ety of Friends. He gets pos­i­tive­ly soci­o­log­i­cal at times. And because he’s speak­ing about a denom­i­na­tion that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the tes­ti­monies had shift­ed over time to address chang­ing world­ly conditions. 

And that’s the key. So many of us are try­ing to under­stand what it would be like to be “authen­ti­cal­ly” Quak­er in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the com­ment to the last post, Alice M talked about recov­ered the Quak­er charism (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​h​a​r​ism). I didn’t join Friends because of the­ol­o­gy or his­to­ry. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was some­thing more moti­vat­ing me than just the typ­i­cal paci­fist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deep­er under­stand­ing and a way of con­nect­ing that with a nascent spir­i­tu­al awakening. 

What does it mean to live a chris­t­ian life (again, low­er­case) in the 21st Cen­tu­ry? What does it mean to live the Quak­er charism in the mod­ern world? How do we relate to oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions both with­out and now with­in our reli­gious soci­ety and what’s might our role be in the Emer­gent Church move­ment? I think Clark­son gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

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