Presumably Fowlers toads. From creekside in our South Jersey back yard.
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.
When the McKinney video started trending I wasn’t in a state to watch so I read the commentary. Now that I have, the whole thing is completely messed up but at least three parts especially unnerve me:
- The completely unnecessary commando-style dive-and-roll that introduces Corporal Eric Casebolt. Some reports describe it as a trip but to me it looks like he’s playing a Hollywood action hero stunt double. Has he just been watching too many of the police videos he’s been collecting on YouTube?
- That none of the other officers saw his derring-do and said “yo Eric, stand down.” Is this something cops just don’t do? And if not, why not? We all know what it’s like to be hopped up on too much adrenaline. I know people do weird stuff when their reptilian brain fight-or-flight mechanism cuts in. It seems that officers should be on the lookout for just this sort of overreaction and have some sort of safe word to tell one another to take a chill.
- The videographer was a “invisible” white teenager. He walked nearby – and occasionally through – the action without being questioned. At one point Casebolt seems to purposefully step around him to put down his dark-skinned friends. The videographer told news reporters that he felt his whiteness made him invisible to Casebolt.
I never quite realized all the race politics behind the switch from public pools vs private pool clubs. I grew up in a Philly suburb with two public pools and very much remember the constant worry that Philadelphia kids might sneak in (“Philadelphia” was of course code for “black”). The township did have a historically African American neighborhood so the pools were racially integrated but I’m sure every dark-skinned township resident was asked to show town ID a lot more than I was. And it’s hard to think it was entirely coincidental that both public pools were located on the opposite ends of the township from the black neighborhood.
There are no public pools in the South Jersey town where I live. A satellite view picks out thirteen private pools on my block alone. Thirteen?!? There’s one private pool club across town. There’s a lot of casual racism around here, primarily directed at the mostly-Mexican farmworkers who double the town population every summer. If there was a town pool that reflected the demographics of the local Walmart parking lot on a Friday night in July, we’d have mini-riots I’m sure — which is almost surely why we don’t have a municipal pool and why wealthy families have poured millions of dollars into backyards.
(My family has joined the Elmer Swim Club, a pool located about half an hour away. While the majority of members are super nice and I haven’t heard any dodgy racial code phrases. The pool is diverse but is mostly white, reflecting the nearby population. That said, I’ve read enough Ta-Nehisi Coates to know we can rarely take white towns for granted. So.)
Last night a huge thunderstorm front with a phenomenon called a derecho swept across South Jersey. Where I live in Hammonton the strangest part of it was a strobe-light effect caused by dozens of cloud-to-cloud lightning flashes per minute, punctuated by lightning strikes. Further east into Atlantic County winds took down incredible amounts of trees.
This morning traveled to Mays Landing, which was scheduled to host a street festival today. A few brave merchants like Brownies Squared opened without power and made the best of it, selling refrigerated goods at half-price. But most of the town was dealing with trees across downed power lines. According to NBC40 Weather 162,000 households are without power – considerably more than were out in last year’s hurricane.
Yesterday the family visited Vineland NJ Mennonite Church.
We were coming after 8:30 Mass at Julie’s church and arrived a few minutes before the worship service while they were doing their religious education program. But the distinction between religious ed and worship was minimal, almost non-existent. Attendance at both was near-universal (about 110 total) and much of the worship itself was religious education. There was a series of 15 minute’ish sermons (delivered by various men), broken up by some four-part a capella singing (beautiful), recitations from a Bible verse they were memorizing and kneeling prayer (a surprise the first time, as they all spin around suddenly to face the back, kneel and pray).
It’s probably one of the most religiously conscientious communities I’ve seen. A lot of the service involved reviewing belief structure. Their book of discipline is very slim, not much more than a tract, but it’s something they use and they spent part of the time reading from it. Much of the worship hour was meant to reinforce who they were, why they were and how they were – to explain over and over why they led their distinctive life. Theirs is a voluntary association for those who agree to follow the authority of the group’s teachings. I suspect that every adult in the room could give a detailed presentation on conservative Mennonite faith and give detailed answers about points of doctrine. At the risk of inserting my own opinion I will venture that the worship service felt a bit dry (as Julie said, there wasn’t a ounce of mysticism in the whole proceeding) but I don’t think the members there would feel offended by this observation. Exciting the senses is less important than reviewing the values and living the moral life.
Visually, the group is striking. Every man in the room wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt buttoned all the way up, dark pants and black shoes; all had short hair and only one or two had facial hair. I was more distinctively plain in my broadfalls and suspenders but the effect of sixty-or-so men and young boys all dressed alike was visually stunning. Like a lot of plain peoples, the women were more obviously plain and all but one or two wore lightly-colored cape dresses and head coverings (I later learned that the exceptions were newcomers who weren’t yet members). Seated was segregated, women on the left, men on the right. Gender roles are very clear. There were kids – lots of kids – all around, and a big focus of the sermons was family living. One extended sermon focused on discerning between providing well for one’s family vs. greed and the balance between working hard for your family vs. giving up some things so you can spend time with them. Kids were present throughout the service and were relatively well behaved.
The church itself was called a meetinghouse and was plain – no crosses of course. People sat in pews and there was a raised area up front for ministers and elders. The building doubled as a schoolhouse during the week and its schoolrooms had a lot of Rod and Staff books, familiar from our own home schooling. A member described the school as one leg of the three-legged stool, along with church and family. If any one part of the equation was lacking in some way, the other two could help insure the child’s moral welfare. School was free for church members but was open on a tuition basis to non-Mennonites. These outsiders were required to make certain lifestyle choices that would insure the school stayed relatively pure; the most important requirement was that the family not have a television at home.
My regular readers will have one question on their mind right about now: did anyone invite us to lunch? Why yes they did! We didn’t even have to prompt it. We knew a couple there – M and J, who run a restaurant in the local farmer’s market, a favorite Saturday morning stop for us. They took us under their wing when they recognized us, sitting with us during worship and then showing us the school. J said that if we came back again we could come over for lunch. Then she backtracked and offered that we could come now, explaining that the church had had recent discussions over whether it was too pushy to ask first-time attenders to lunch or whether they should restrain themselves and invite them on the second visit. Wow, a church that thinks about this?!
So we followed them to their place for lunch. It was a wonderful opportunity to ask more questions and get to know one another. Meals are important. Julie and I had wondered why there were Mennonites in Vineland NJ of all places – and two Mennonite churches at that! Short story is that there had been a civilian public service facility in Vineland for conscientious objectors and Lancaster-area Mennonites decided that “the boys” stationed there needed the grounding of a local church community (apparently other C.O. camps were scenes of debauchery – Mennonite drag racing in Colorado Springs was cited). This became Norma Mennonite Church, which still exists and is another local church I’ve been meaning to visit for years (hi Mandy!). In the 1960s, there was a great round of liberalization among Mennonites, an unofficial abandonment of the distinctives codified in their books of disciplines. Many churches split and the Vineland Church was formed by those members of Norma who wanted to maintain the discipline.
This probably explains the strong focus on the rules of the discipline. For those wanting more of the histories, I commend Stephen Scott’s excellent “An Introduction to Old Order and Conservative Mennonite Groups” along with anything else Stephen Scott has written. The Vineland congregation is part of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church conference, profiled on pages 173 – 176. A lot of the Mennonite issues and splits are echoed among Friends and we’d do well to understand these cousins of ours.
The result is a church that’s big on group practice: the dress, the lifestyle. M. told me that they don’t believe in theology but in Biblicism. He explained that they don’t think the Bible contains the word of God but instead that it is the Word of God and he paused to let the distinction sink in. The Bible is not to be interpreted but read and followed, with special attention given the gospels and the letters of Paul.
So no, I’m not going to go Conservative Mennonite on you all. I have a TV. My profession is web design (they’re not into the internet, natch). I’m married to a praciticing Catholic (I don’t know how they would bend on that) and at this point my brain is wired in a curious, outward way that wouldn’t fit into the normative structures of a group like this. Doctrinally-speaking, I’m a Friend in that I think the Word of God is the Inward Christ’s direct spirit and that the Bible needs to be read in that Light. There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t fit for various reasons, people who I would want in my church (they maintain a hard line against remarriage after divorce and I didn’t even ask about gay issues). But I have to admit that the process and structure puts together a really great community of people. They’re hard-working, kind, charitable and not nearly as judgmental as you might imagine – in practice, less judgmental than a lot of progressive religious people I know. Non-resistance is one of the pillars of their practice and they were genuinely interested in Julie’s Catholic church and my experiences among Friends and we talked a fair bit about Islam.
Normally I’d give a big thanks to the church and M & J here, except I know they won’t read this. I am grateful to their kindness in sharing their church, beliefs and family meal with us.