It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. As though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens.
There it is again in the after-school period. The hallways have just quit echoing with the tintinnabulation of the class bell, the clanging of slammed lockers, and agitated hollering of teenagers exploding from scholastic confinement. A few minutes after the last student has been scooted off to their busses and the staff members have checked to make sure that “no student is left behind” (in the literal sense), we gather in the hallway to update each other with the necessary news bulletins / gossip about who-did-what. It takes several minutes for the staff to successfully transition from one period to the next, as we work through our concerns about the fallout from the day’s emotional and behavioural problems exhibited by our students.
Once that’s sorted, there’s a lovely 45-minute lull for drinking hot drinks while they are still hot (or cold drinks while they are still cold), and (because we have students in six secondary grades and even more levels of math textbooks) strategizing about who is working with whom on the next day’s assignments. The teacher prepares the assignment pages, and the other paraprofessional and I catch up on the grading.
In the first minutes of quiet, I find to my brief annoyance that some of the noise ringing in my ears is nothing more than my tinnitus, which had been masked by the day-long stream-of-consciousness babbling of ADHD students, the monologuing of Asperger’s students, and the repeated exclamations of the student with Tourette’s. Then there were the other kinds of verbiage, the obnoxious sort, like the cussing and arguing of students just-plain acting out, the ranting of ODD students, and the babbling-followed-by-the-ranting of bipolar students. (Really, I wouldn’t know how to deal with a classroom of twenty quiet kids. Fortunately I don’t think I’ll ever have that problem.)
I sip my mug of hot Earl Grey, take a deep “cleansing breath” to regain my focus, and pull out my grading pen, the appropriate Teacher’s Edition textbook from the stack, and my pale green sheet of paper that I use to mask off part of the page to more easily read the equation answers.
Then the dialog begins. The other two staff members casually pick back up the conversation they have been engaged in off-and-on since before classes began. It’s not a particular topic, just chit-chat between two co-workers that usually has nothing to do with work. Hours earlier I had volunteered a couple of supportive comments during conversational lulls, but neither of them had been picked up. Were my offerings actual captions, the words would have been still laying lost and unwanted on the floor, crumpled and torn by muddy shoe prints, and partially kicked underneath desks.
After recognising that this is more casual conversation that is not related to work and doesn’t include me, I return to the grading.
I don’t consider my jobs to be my major source of social life. Nor do I expect to have a high level of personal connectivity with all the other staff members. Not every conversation needs to include me.
And yet … hours go by with this dialog operating like a tennis match. Somehow it’s a two-player game, but no one is interested in mixing up players. I’ve been there outside the court, fingers curled around the chain-link fencing, staring in. I’ve made overtures to join in – after all, I brought my racket and a can of tennis balls – but they’ve not been accepted.
It’s not a big deal, except that it’s hour after hour, day after day. It’s not that my overtures have been actively refused, or identified as stupid or rude. I’m simply being ignored. Yesterday one person moved from the desk at the corner of the room to a seat between me and the third staff person, and turned away from me to chat.
Perhaps I make much ado about nothing. Not every conversation needs to include me. I can accept that. I neither need nor want to be in every conversation.
Then one day I arrive at the room where the staff members take lunch, and began unpacking my lunchbag. One of those staff members pops into the room, looks around, makes eye contact with me, and announces, “Nobody’s here,” and then leaves. I don’t expect to have a high level of personal connectivity with all the other staff members.
But neither do I expect to be invisible, to be dismissed as a Nobody.
I don’t think it’s malicious; neither of these two people exhibits malicious qualities in their other behaviours. I don’t even know that it’s intentional, that they are both consciously and consistently trying to “extinguish” conversational overtures from me by not reinforcing them with responses. Granted, my conversational style is sometimes idiosyncratic; because of my Auditory Processing Disorder and/or ADHD, at times I have trouble perceiving when someone’s pausing versus when someone’s done talking. Then again, I observe other people running over each other’s words on a daily basis, but they continue to chat with each other.
Other staff members chat with me about things. We ask each other questions, and offer ideas and positive feedback. We talk about school-related issues, and events in our personal lives. I do have conversational skills, and I do have rapport with most of my co-workers.
But I have over the past month become much more wary and reticent. I strain to observe others’ conversational volleys, to identify how they are giving verbal and nonverbal signals to each other, and what those may mean. Doing so requires a lot of active mental effort, especially when there are background conversations going on, as it is difficult for me to sort out and follow and understand the words of just one person’s voice among many. (This is the disabling part of my APD – multiple conversations are like a blender that chops up sentences and mixes them together into an unreconstructable confetti. Background noise means my comprehension is reduced to half of what I hear, leaving me to puzzle out what someone may have said by context.)
I don’t consider my jobs to be my major source of social life. Not being included in the daily chit-chat between two people is hardly a crushing blow to my world. But neither do I expect to be invisible, to be dismissed as a Nobody. It shouldn’t be an issue.
But it is. I am with these two people most of my work day. I’m not in an office “cube farm” where I have loads of paper or computer work to focus on. Instead, I am spending hours in a classroom with two other people, who only speak to me to give directions about the students. The students are there to interact with, but they are not my peers, and my attention with them is directed toward instruction and helping them manage their behaviour.
If they were merely absorbed in discussion for a day or two it wouldn’t be an issue. But I am being ignored, snubbed, for days and weeks on end. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me? My social life is certainly not under our supervisor’s purview.
It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. It’s much worse this time for having happened many times before. This time I’m not a “weird” little school girl being snubbed by other school children. I’m an adult who is finally aware of why I have some difficulties. I’m not an incompetant loser who can’t hack the job – I’m a necessary and valuable employee who received top marks in all categories of my last evaluation. I go out of my way to think of extra things I can do for the students, and bring home-made treats to staff meetings.
But there I am sitting there, silently minding my own business. I reply when either person tells me something, and several times a day I provide information they need to know, or enquire if I can be helpful doing this or that. And the conversation goes on, and I am become invisible and inaudible. I feel as though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens.
I can’t bear to stay trapped in this invisible box of silence, like an involuntary mime. I must advocate for myself against this snubbing, however volitional or unconscious it may be. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me?
In sociology, an outcast is someone who is stigmatized because they have committed some transgression, or are behaving outside the social norms. The group collectively shuns the outcast with the goal of correcting their behaviour or to remove them entirely (to protect the collective identity of the in-group). Being ignored by two people from a group isn’t shunning – it’s just snubbing. I don’t even know why I’m being so assiduously ignored. It’s not so much a lack of rapport; there are other staff members with whom I don’t chat much, but they don’t give me keep me at arm’s length and give me the cold shoulder when we’re in the same room.
Combatting such lack of action is like fighting fog. There’s nothing good to be gained by negative actions on my part, neither confronting the people nor complaining to others. After much consideration I’ve decided to address the issue by trying to improve my relationship with each individual, by providing more friendly, supportive conversation and actions when it’s just the two of us, or when we are in larger groups. I’m hoping to change the dynamics on a one-to-one basis.
So far my efforts have been rebuffed, and I continue to be ignored. I can’t bear to stay trapped in this invisible box of silence, like an involuntary mime. I must advocate for myself against this snubbing, however volitional or unconscious it may be. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me?