It was my favorite of Grandpa’s stories, how he faced a charging bull. It is also the story I have found the most valuable. He was quite matter of fact about it. He was visiting a farm with a group of fellow agriculture students, when an angry bull charged him. He said the other students all made such a big deal of how he faced the bull without flinching. To him it was a simple matter of common sense. He knew if he moved, the bull would kill him, so he stood still, faced the bull and walked away unharmed. It had nothing to do with courage he said, it was just common sense.
In my own life I have found again and again that the moments when other people thought I was the most brave, those were the moments when I was most afraid. Those were the moments when I was most certain that if I flinched I would lose everything. Whenever I get complemented on it, I think of my Grandpa and the bull. Was it fake courage that saved him? Can you really fake courage?
Once when I went to observe an autistic classroom, that someone had suggested my son join, I witnessed the worst . . . management I had yet witnessed. To the untrained it might have looked okay, but I was trained and experienced. I knew exactly what they were dong wrong, ignoring good behavior, rewarding bad behavior, showing obvious frustration if the students didn’t understand. And the students definitely didn’t understand. Worst of all they punished those who tried hardest and got frustrated, by threatening to take away recess time.
My heart felt for the poor untrained teacher and aides trying so hard to put on a good “show.” But not enough to forgive them for physically dragging one boy out from under a table where he had gone to hide in pain after being punished for not understanding. He had genuinely tried to comply with the wishes of the teacher and aides but clearly couldn’t understand what the concept of rhyming was. Again and again he tried to give them the “right” answer, repeating their example answers not understanding why they wouldn’t just tell him the answer. Meanwhile the class Bully, yelled, kicked and hit things randomly to terrify his fellow students. Even after he had been put in a “kindergarten chair” (a seat similar to a large high chair where children are strapped in with a tray across the front) he continued to act out, the bully was still able to move himself, chair and all, making even more noise as he kicked and bounced aggressively at teacher, aides and the other students, especially the one who had tried to hide under the table to cry.
Even if the other boys had known what rhyming was, I can not imagine how any autistic child would be able to concentrate with such a disruption. Normal children would not have been able to ignore it. Eventually they had no choice but to take the Bully from the room and take him for a walk (obviously what he had wanted all along.) But oh my! He had jiggled the screws of the chair so that they couldn’t get him out for several minutes. It boggled my mind, the class and teachers had gone from using questionable and controversial techniques (kindergarten chairs and physically dragging a student) to outright safety violations (having a person strapped in to something they could not be quickly removed from in case of fire.) This was the best classroom they could offer my son?
Once freed, the Bully raced around the class room, grinning, yelling wildly, knocking things to the floor and making every single person in the room flinch. Everyone but me, when we locked eyes, he saw no fear. For a split second he stopped rampaging, stepped back and just stood there surprised by my calm, then he took the had of a shaken aide and left.
My guide, the School District’s Autistic Advisor was trembling. I said nothing. There were too many things wrong for me to even begin to know what to say. Besides I would feel I was a hypocrite to suggest that I knew what was best for other people’s children. All I wanted was to have my right, to raise my children as I felt was best, respected. In return I have to respect other parents rights.
Still the moment of meeting eyes with the Bully stayed with me. All the teacher’s and aides were trying to fake courage and failing. I think that with the District Advisor there, they were afraid for their jobs as well as the Bully. As for the boy, I couldn’t blame him for being the way he was. He acted out, he got rewarded for it. People were afraid of him, so he gave them reason to fear.
Would it help them to know the story of my Grandpa and the bull? Or what about those famous words of Franklin Roosevelt, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That was when I realized you can’t fake courage, without wisdom. When the boy looked at me I honestly didn’t care if he attacked me, to me he was just a raging bull, acting on instinct. Not only was I far too shocked by the behavior of the adults in the classroom to bother feeling anything personal about him, but also because I’d faced a raging bull many times before, in the form of my moderately autistic son, and I’d learned never react to bad behavior like it’s anything more serious than falling rain. When rain falls you don’t stand there and yell at clouds, you go inside. And always reward good behavior even if all you can give is a smile. It can make all the difference.
It was my knowledge and acceptance of human behavior that made me appear brave, just as it was my Grandfather’s knowledge and acceptance of animal behavior that saved him. That is how you fake courage, with knowledge and acceptance.