One of the more popular bumper stickers around Austin (be- sides “George Bush Is a Punk Ass Chump”) said “Keep Austin Weird.” Before we ever moved there, I bought Schuyler the obliga- tory T-shirt. A college town and hippie haven, Austin was the per- fect place to bring Schuyler. It was a place where everyone was weird, which meant no one was.
This was mostly true, we discovered that summer. When we took Schuyler to any of Austin’s many cool parks, she played with the other kids and was almost always accepted immediately. Schuyler was made for summer. We kept her hair short as it had been most of her life, a short bob without bangs that would have fallen into her face without the ever-present little plástic hair clips that she loved. We considered letting it grow out, but her ferocious level of play made that seem like a sad world of tangles waiting to happen. She played harder than ever during the summers and never hesitated to make a new friend to join her in her playground adventures. She always found one, too. Sometimes they asked why she didn’t talk, and we explained that her brain didn’t work like other kids’, but she un- derstood what people were saying to her (which we thought was probably true, although it was hard to know for certain) and she could talk with her hands, which was also true to some extent. The other kids would ponder this for a moment, and then move on.
In a town like Austin, every kid was different in some way. That oirl isfive and has blue hair. That boy has two mothers. That girl can’t speak and talks with her hands. That boy is a Muslim. The kids in the park would process the thing that was different, make whatever minimal social adjustments were necessary, and then move on to the business at hand, usually in- volving taking over some choice bit of playground real estáte.
For the first time, we didn’t catch many parents looking at Schuyler warily, as if whatever she had might be catching. Austin felt like the ideal community for raising Schuyler, and for unlocking the secret of her brain. We took her out as often as we could in order to socialize her, which was good for her but hardly necessary since she remained, as she had always been, the most outgoing and sociable human being I had ever seen in my Ufe. Her monster had taken her speech away, but I sometimes wondered if it had left something in its place, an extra helping of courage and curiosity. Perhaps it had stolen away her shy phase along with her words.
The summer brought a break from school, but when we began preparing for the fall classes, all the oíd familiar warning bells began to go off. We had another IEP meeting shortly before classes started, mandated by law for all special needs students. Just as in New Haven, these meetings consist of the parents, the teachers who primarily deal with the kid, and all the support staff, such as therapists and the school nurse if necessary. The goal of the IEP is to agree on the stu- dent’s course of study for the following year. There are mandated yearly meetings, but a new IEP may be called at any time if deemed ap- propriate. Schuyler had been in school in Manor for less than one se- mester, the previous spring, so getting on track now was important.
Two things became clear at the beginning of this IEP. The first was that Schuyler’s teachers cared deeply for her, particularly her home- room teacher, Michelle, and another, Robin, who saw Schuyler in her mainstream kindergarten class a few hours a week but who also had a special needs son of her own. We liked them both, although Julie teased me constantly about what she perceived to be my crush on Robin. (Well, it was true enough. Nice of Julie to take it so well, though.)
The second thing that became apparent early on was that if this school was going to provide even remedial services for Schuyler that were appropriate, we were going to have to take the lead and guide them precisely through her particular needs. The school district’s special education director was present at the meeting, and I have to say, she was a bulldog for Schuyler. Sweet and pretty and funny on first meeting, Tammy was also tenacious and unrelenting if she sensed hes- itation on the part of any of Schuyler’s team. We watched silently and wide-eyed as Mrs. Malison, the speech therapist, admitted that she was hesitant to recommend more sign language for Schuyler, in large part because she didn’t know sign language herself, certainly not the Sign- ing Exact English method that was being recommended for Schuyler, and she didn’t think she’d have time or the resources to learn it.
“You’re just going to have to find time,” Tammy said. “We’ll find the dasses for you.”
It wasn’t ideal, and I still got the sense that Schuyler was being low-balled on her evaluations, but they agreed that communica- tion was going to be her primary issue. It was decided they should concéntrate on speech therapy to break the hold of polymicro- gyria on her brain and sign language to give her an alternative form of Communications. It was also agreed that potty training would be a priority, particularly since Schuyler was beginning to grasp the concept (and no one was happier than I about that) and it provided an opportunity for more two-way communication with her.
Everyone wanted to help Schuyler. None of us knew exactly how to go about doing so.
At summer’s end, we spent an evening with some friends from work. After a few beers, we found ourselves discussing religión, and in particular the differences between one of my friends’ deeply felt atheism and my own agnosticism.
It’s a discussion I’ve had before, but usually I found myself con- fronting the oíd “agnostics are just wishy-washy atheists” point that í’ve heard so many times. This time, the focus was on the things that the two belief systems do have in common. And they are systems of belief, really; even faith in a lack of something is still faith. And faith is the key. Agnostics and atheists agree on the lack of empirical evi- dence that God actually exists and has a big plan for us all. Believers get past that lack of evidence because they have big-f Faith, the thing they believe sets them apart from the rest of us. I always found Faith to be weak. It is the act of taking nothing and calling it something, and it may be sincere, but by its very definition, Faith substitutes what the believer wants for what he doesn’t know or can’t know.
My point was, the greatest difference between atheism and agnosticism was Faith. The atheist sees an apparent lack of evidence and concludes that God doesn’t exist. But that lack of evidence is still not proof of God’s nonbeing. It is, in its own way, a form of Faith, one that says “I can’t see, therefore I have Faith that there’s nothing to see.”
For the agnostic, the lack of evidence is just as evident, but final conclusions aren’t made because they can’t be made, not without proof either way. With that lack of evidence, the agnostic (meaning of course me because I am not in fact the spokesperson for agnosticism) leaves open the possibility that there may very well be more at work than we can possibly see or understand.
In the place of Faith, perhaps the agnostic has Hope. It’s not something we can substitute for proof the way the believer does, but nevertheless, our hope is a thing that allows us to remain open to the possibilities. There’s a Thomas Hardy poem that I quoted every Christmas Eve on my blog, about how the agnostic is unable to make a blind leap of faith, but on Christmas Eve, he sadly and des- perately wishes he could.