by Peter C. Conrad
My father insisted that there was no reason to strive for any goal that was beyond careers that one’s parents had, as there were systemic barriers to do anything else. This fit well within his world view, created by the conditions of his Aspergers Syndrome, highly functional autism. His world was defined by set rules and systems that never changed. One would find happiness in following rules, routines, and order. He made his views clear; that the Establishment had closed all doors. This was not a conspiracy that would take too much agreement and intelligence, which my father did not believe anyone really had.
I had learned that my father’s views were to be accepted, as to argue, discuss, ask pointed questions was to suggest that you did not accept his natural order of things; this onto itself was offensive and invited loud condemnation. Harmless agreement was the only reply to my father’s statements about the natural state of the world.
Yet, as time passed the warning signs of where this would lead appeared as I entered junior high school. The conversation turned to what was possible in the system where the Establishment maintained control over the life paths of us all: my path was determined, as my father was a welder who had struggled from structural work to the higher paid pressure welder, working on pipelines, my highest hope was to be a pressure welder, or to stay on the farm taking care of things. Achievement in school was not based on testing, proven abilities, assignments; no, they already had decided for me that I would be a drop-out. I would be forced out at the end of Grade 10 at the very best. He reasoned with me in Grade 7 that I could demonstrate that I had some degree of control in my life by leaving before the year was over.
My mother had already been active, refusing the school request to test me for autism, IQ, or Mastery testing. I had been placed in a special needs class as she requested, but always had the years work complete by the last week of September. She insisted I was no different than my brothers who had been tested and were known to have low IQ and Aspergers Syndrome.
One evening, my father caught me on our old manual typewriter completing an English assignment I had arranged to do outside of my Special Needs class so I could soon proceed in normal classes, once I had the required testing. My father did not lose his temper; he just stood in the door of my room watching as I finished typing the sentence.
He shook his head and said, “You’re very sick, crazy.”
I listened quietly as he told me anyone like me, typing school work, and handing in completed assignments, was crazy. It showed that I was also very stupid, as all effort in school was a waste. He finished telling me that to save me, the next school day would have to be my last, as he would not allow me to attend.
I said that he was correct in everything he said. There was no way I would consider working hard in a school system that was set up for my failure. He stared with his usual blank expression. This work had nothing to do with passing classes, getting good marks, or even passing junior high, it was in fact to get the evidence that he had always been right.
“What?” He asked. ”I want you to quit now.”
“That would not prove anything,” I said. I explained that I had to have real evidence: that assignments had to really be my best effort, which meant I had to truly work hard on them. If I simply produced assignment after assignment everyone knew was substandard and I got a poor mark, nothing has been proved, except that I received the mark I deserved. That would not prove that the Establishment had a predetermined path for me and that no other option exists.
My father stared, confused. He shook his head and walked out of the room. Although I had not been tested, and remained in the Special Needs room, I was receiving C+ and B marks for assignments and tests that I was allowed to complete for regular classes. A new uncommon issue arose: I had to hide my report cards from my parents, forge their signatures on them and return them to school, as the reports included a few A- marks, completely unacceptable as it was not within the natural order of things in my parents’ world view.
The day did come, in Grade 9, when they heard about the tests in Mastery, IQ, and for autism were given to me, resulting in a new school nickname: Precocious. My father declared the next school day would be my last.
That last day unfolded as planned: after arriving I said nothing to anyone about what was happening. At the lunch break, I announced at the office I had to help my father load supplies at the Coop for the farm, and I may be a little late getting back, but if I did not make it back for the afternoon, that would be because my father wanted to take me back to the farm for the afternoon. They said that was fine. I hurried to the bank and withdrew my savings from selling my cattle. Shortly after 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon the Greyhound bus I was on pulled out on its way to the city.
My older brother and I lived together while I put myself through high school. There was a lot to catch up on, but the rule remained the same: I was always seeking evidence about what was possible. My effort had to be its best, and the results constantly reflected the final work I produced.
As I progressed through my degrees in university, published books, articles, and had short stories produced on CBC radio, the evidence showed few obstacles.
In the months before I entered grad school to complete my Master of Arts degree every other student and faculty member I spoke to laughed, scoffed, and denigrated my plans to find a thesis subject that would lead to a book publication. This was unheard of, as no one has ever completed a Master of Arts thesis that would be accepted by a publisher. Maybe, if I was very good, an article could be published based on a MA thesis, nothing more. I listened to their tired explanations about how the MA was a limited effort that could be seen as only a stepping-stone to the PhD. It was in fact another opportunity to seek evidence.
The first months after completing my MA, it was a struggle placing the thesis with a traditional publisher and even the articles I had produced were not being accepted. The editors of the magazines explained in their letters that they did not accept works from those who had only completed their MA. As the summer of 1987 turned to fall a publisher accepted the thesis for publication, but I asked if the scope of the thesis be expanded from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Saskatchewan to include the provinces of Manitoba and Alberta. They accepted the changes. The contract was suddenly cancelled as they realized that this was abnormal. In a telephone call with the editor, I said my research would continue and I would be in Ottawa at the National Archives and the book would be offered to another publisher. After returning from Ottawa, the publisher was waiting with a new contract. Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West was published in 1989. All of my detractors gave me grudging congratulations for the publication.
More people than I had expected shared my father’s views. One of many jobs I had during my years at university was lifeguard at the swimming pools. I was also an instructor and competitive swimming coach. A had an ongoing conversation with several parents, in most cases, unaware of what they did at the university. One, who kept coming back, was very interested in where I came from, what my family was like. The story of my father and my guiding search for evidence intrigued him. His friendly manner continued until he asked me if I would mind allowing him to share the search for evidence I had always used with his patients.
What patients? He was a clinical psychologist who had many clients that had the same view: all of their problems were a result of a system that worked to keep them from achieving their goals. The task the psychiatrist assigned his patients that they would have to bring to their next appointment ways in which true evidence to support the belief was very effective. The effort they made would have to in fact be real: they had to complete every job or assignment at optimum levels. If this brought failure or set back, they had the beginning of real proof that they were in unfair system that was stopping their progress. Several years passed and the psychiatrists remarked that the reality therapy of seeking evidence had proceeded with surprising results. I the few cases where blocks were identified, the solutions were also quickly apparent as well.
The search for evidence continues to be my guiding philosophy that removes the vast majority of obstacles. It would be too naïve to suggest that hard focussed work would remove all obstacles, but it plays a critical role in defining what the blocks are and alternative routes to goals. Sometimes one has to reconsider the goals they have for themselves. It is never a good idea to think you know where the blocks are or give up on a goal you have set before seeking the evidence that a perceived obstacle exists.