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My Silent Teacher MAG
My earliest memories are of a beautiful but silent sister. Sidney was born two years before me, a healthy, seemingly normal child. I only learned this through my parents and others, because I knew a very different sister. At age two and a half, her development suddenly stopped and she became withdrawn and quiet. A year of intensive therapy changed nothing and produced the shattering diagnosis of severe autism.
I remember a nagging fear: Would I also lose my ability to communicate? It was no idle nightmare; the possibility and terror of having another regressively autistic daughter was hard for my parents to hide. However, I soon relieved their fears, attaching names to objects and assembling words into sentences. My ability and desire to communicate increased while Sidney's skills remained the same.
Only after entering kindergarten did I begin to understand the vast gap between us. I had always thought that some children spoke and learned to read, while others did not. Now, I understood that it was only my sister who didn't.
In my six-year-old eyes, she was embarrassing, maybe even a freak. She was “weird,” made funny noises, spun around incessantly, flapped her hands, pulled my friends' hair, and ripped out her own. Sidney always seemed to find a way to make me cringe. This embarrassment plagued me through elementary and middle school, peaking one day when my best friend at the time whispered to another friend, “Spencer's sister is weird and is going to hell.”
That stopped me short. While my religious views were not yet fully formed, I was certain that a benevolent God would not condemn my sister because of a weakness not of her making, and that other people should not either. My sister was not weird or embarrassing rather those kids were just cruel and petty.
I finally understood that their opinions should have no impact on how I felt about my sister or me. I no longer cared that they only saw Sidney as a synthesis of her disabilities, because for me, my sister embodies what most of us strive to be. She never passes judgment; she is patient, kind, and loves unequivocally. I realized that I needed to figure out who I was – and who I wanted to be – away from the toxic influence of those I once held in high regard.
I began pursuing more of my own passions. Mountains of finished books grew at my bedside as I no longer hid my fervor for reading for fear that I would be called a bookworm. My growing awareness of what Sidney's limitations meant for her helped drive my profound appreciation of language. I learned to revel in my ability to use the most precise word to crystallize a point in a classroom discussion, or to use a clever turn of phrase in a mock trial closing.
Oddly enough, despite the absence of a natural aptitude for the game, I also played soccer and enjoyed it. My sister's example served as a new lodestar – Sidney was never fearful of rejection – so I began playing for me, and not for the approval of my peers. With this new confidence I also became a successful tutor.
Sidney was also instrumental in helping me discover and appreciate my love for photography. One way she conveys her thoughts is through the Picture Exchange Communication System, which uses simple visual images instead of words. It is very useful in helping her get what she needs, and it inspired me to find a visual way to communicate.
When I entered ninth grade, I began exploring photography, and was entranced by the camera, with its flexibility as a tool and its ability to “remember” events with an accuracy that my eyes and mind could not duplicate. I honed my skills, taking every photography class at school and gaining practical experience with my school's newspaper and yearbook. Sidney has shown me the power of visual communication, and photography has taught me to communicate in a completely new way.
Next fall, Sidney and I will head out into the world, leaving the home we grew up in together, but we're going to very different places. I will go to college, while she will move into an assisted-living home. For the first time in our lives we will be apart, and the prospect of losing our symbiotic relationship is very unnerving. My challenge as I enter this next phase of my life is to retain the lessons I have learned from my unusual, silent teacher. I need to ensure that even as our worlds diverge, the core of who I am because of her remains constant and true.