The first time I tried to advocate for myself, it did not go as I’d hoped. I won’t say that it was a complete failure, because the good news was that I still observed some important things. The bad news was that gaining that data made me feel like I had even more problems than before I’d started.
And so it goes. Or, went.
Here’s what happened. I’m nine, maybe just turned ten years old, and I’m in my fourth year of primary school. This would in a few months prove to be the beginning of a long scholastic slide downhill grade-wise, due to the fact that remembering to take home the homework, do the homework, and return the homework would prove to be a skill that was seemingly beyond my capabilities (for reasons no one could fathom; it was assumed that I was just being lazy or stupid, if not both). But that’s later, because at the time of our story, I was still a bright girl with a large vocabulary and an avid interest in any subject but spelling. So far so good.
My teacher, a Miss VanHouse, had something known as the SRA reading lab to use instead of the usual primary readers. This was a large box full of cards, organised into a multitude of different reading level categories, with each category assigned to a different colour. The student would read the story on the card (fiction or nonfiction, usually several paragraphs long), and then answer the multiple-choice questions printed on the card along with the story. After successfully completing a certain number of cards, the student then advanced to the next reading level. Much as I loved learning new facts, the questions were beyond inane.
I didn’t mind doing the assignments. My beef was that the teacher had put me into the middle reading level, when I could quite easily read at the top reading level. Even providing her evidence of this by completing a couple of the top reading level cards to 100% accuracy didn’t change my assignment. I was still doomed to spend weeks and months slogging through card after card, answering all those multiple-choice questions, and doing work that was way below my ability. I understood enough about teaching to know that students learn things by having work that’s just a bit difficult, not by doing lots of work that’s way too easy. That rankled me. She was the teacher; she should know that, too. And she should have been willing to change my assignment given proof of my abilities. Well, that’s what I thought.
Years later it occurred to me that she may have put me in the middle because she didn’t know what else to do with me. She couldn’t have shown “favourtism” by letting a student not work on the same assignment as the others. I might have been a good reader, but I couldn’t possibly be one of those special smart children. Obviously I wasn’t a profoundly gifted child, because  no one had identified me as such (everyone knows that genius children are good at everything)  I didn’t have my multiplication tables memorised (ditto)  I was prone to interrupting with questions (everyone knows that genius children have perfect manners) and  I wouldn’t have kept forgetting my assignments (ditto). Well, I’m not a genius. Just a bright kid with specific difficulties.
One of those specific difficulties was the whole advocacy issue. The big hurdle in learning to advocate for myself was the utter lack of training in how to do so. I was in fact, frequently discouraged from doing so. It was drilled into me (by family, friends, teachers, and a great many Important People) that:
- saying that I was good at doing something was considered being vain and boastful, and saying that I was bad at something was considered being honest (these first two rules applied mainly to girls, at least in the part of the space-time continuum for my childhood)
- asking for things I needed was being needy
- asking for things that other people didn’t get was being greedy
- doing things for one’s self was being selfish (as opposed to self-centered)
The message was that I should be grateful with what I had and accept that everyone else knew better than I did what I needed and wanted in life. (Should you feel ill, O Gentle Reader, your air sickness bag is located in the pocket of the seat in front of you.)
What I learned from my first foray into self-advocacy was that:
- people are just not as rational as we would like them to be
- presenting people with “facts” isn’t enough to change their minds
- people will judge you on a variety of factors, some of which are outright spurious and others of which aren’t correct
- there are frequently a number of factors preventing a person from making progress, and many of them are invisible
- the world is full of foolish people
- making the foolish people angry doesn’t get you anywhere
- banging your head on the school desk doesn’t stop the knots of frustration, and in fact damages your credibility.
The most difficult parts of self-advocacy are not, as many people suppose, the initial part of overcoming one’s inertia, and fear of venturing into the unknown. Any thoroughly-annoyed person can usually make that first step. Rather, the difficult parts are discovering what sorts of hidden (bureaucratic) hurdles are in your way, what sorts of prejudices people have, and how to deal with people’s emotional blocks to rational discussion.
“I can’t stand this proliferation of paper work. It’s useless to fight the forms, you’ve got to kill the people producing them.”
~Vladimir Kabaidze, General director of the Ivanovo Machine Building Works, Moscow, to the Communist Party Congress, 1985