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Send in the Idiots  

(Article published in the May 23, 2007 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

This piece had to wait until after May 14 lest, on the basis of the title, it be mistaken to be about Philippine elections.  The subtitle, “Or How We Grew to Understand the World” clearly shows that it is not. It is a first person account not of a bloody but instead of a much more sanguine exercise. It is an anecdotal narrative, yet undoubtedly repeated countless times elsewhere by others, of the author’s drive, as well as that of his four former nursery school classmates to develop  within the constraints of a make-up, not of their own choosing, in a world that all too often appears both confusingly different and unfairly differentiating.

  The English language, unfortunately, fails to convey the specific nuance in the subtitle.  The word “we” can mean either the inclusive first person pronoun that embraces both the speaker and his audience or the speaker and his group apart from the audience.  “We” in the subtitle, includes only the author and those like him, exclusive of the audience.  In Pilipino, which is more precise in this instance, the subtitle’s “we” means “namin”, not “natin”. Moreover, “Grew” should really be “Grew Up” since the book traces how five children  after twenty years reached or, more precisely, found their places in mature society.

  Send in the Idiots opens with a description of a day in a class of nursery students in only one (at that time) of the few schools in New York that had a designed program for what is now known as, in this age of politically correct speech, “special children.”  The classroom teacher was a Ms. Russell.  Some of her students didn’t speak.  Some did not hold their parents’ hands when crossing the street.  One, named Craig, kept repeating the same sentence again and again as Ms. Russell read out the headlines of the daily newspaper. Ms Russell agreed to go through that routine every day at the request of one of the students named Elizabeth.  The sentence Craig repeating was “Send in the Idiots”.

One boy in the class insisted on sitting on the white stripe in the multicolored rug in the classroom and would not sit anywhere else.  That boy was Kamran Nazeer, the author.  Send in the Idiots is superficially where Kamran, Craig, Elizabeth, Randall and André found themselves more than twenty years later.  At core, however, it is really more about how they got there.

  The book is as atypical as its author. It does not say in a straightforward way just exactly what its message is.  The purpose, so the author says, is like a quest, “I will tell the stories …of how [his classmates and the author himself] have emerged into adulthood….I hope to see more clearly not only the substance of their lives but the nature of the world that lies beyond their reach.”  He does appears  to concede that autistic persons do live in a world of their exclusive own.

  In the Epilogue, however, he articulates what is, now after many years of research and scientific study common currency, namely that, with proper interventions from caring family and friends as well as competent professionals, the “exclusivity”, or the “autos”, or selfness of an autistic person can, to an acceptable degree, be overcome and the autistic can be as much a part of society as the Sonia Rocos of this world are.

  From the classroom scene, it fast forwards to twenty years from Ms. Russel’s classroom: Kamran worked “for the UK Government, preparing advice for ministers as well as writing speeches.” Andre who was good at math, reading, geography, fossils, the periodic table, the difference between Indian and African elephants, atomic weights, etc, studied computer science and was working on a project developing artificial vision for computers and robots.

  Randall was a courier in a delivery company. He woke up at 4:30 every morning, got on his bike after taking a breakfast of two pieces of fruit, raced to his supervisor, always the first to arrive, early enough to help his boss sort out the day’s deliveries.  Together when dispatcher and courier were done, they had doughnuts and coffee together, mostly in comfortable silence, in quiet confidence of the other being there.

  Craig, who was what developmental psychologists call “high-functioning”,  was a free lance speech-writer for several democrats in the US; he had the skill that many of the losing senatorial candidates in the Philippine elections just held would wish they had.  Moreover, unlike most speech writers whose work ended when they have written the text, Craig was often asked to help prepare briefs for the question and answer sessions that usually take place before or after the speech with journalists and members of the audience. 

   Elizabeth was on the other end of the spectrum.  She had to live with her parents and was dependent on them.  But, independently of them, she devised her own way of getting from their home to the public library and back. Unknown to them too, she learned how to ride a bicycle.  With her parents’ support, Elizabeth played the piano and wrote poems. 

  After twenty years, things appear to be where they ought to be; Indeed, as Kamran concludes his work, “The Idiots don’t need to be sent anywhere. We’re in the right place.”

  That is not to say, however, that an autistic person gets to his right place without any difficulty.  The stories Kamran tells of his classmates and himself more than demonstrate the aches and pains of the struggle of getting there.  There is the pronounced need to achieve what he calls “local coherence”, meaning the desire to restore in one’s mind some comforting order in the surrounding confusion. For typicals, it comes in the form, say, of Charlie Brown’s blanket, or Ferdinand Marcos’ anting-antings.  But, because of their neurological make-up, autistic individuals appear to have more need for it rather than others.

  There is also the condescension they receive from well-meaning “typicals”, the “oh, poor you” mentality that for many typicals is but a subterfuge to hide their own inadequacies.  Furthermore, the autistic individual is often made to fit the boxes and pigeon-holes (e.g. “genius” like Albert Einstein, unable to do his own income tax return; or “exceptional”, like Bill Gates, but “horrible person”) that the typicals have constructed for them against their wills, no doubt.

  The book leaves unanswered several questions; but many of them have been answered by subsequent research by others.  But, out of curiosity, one continues to ask where young Craig picked up his now famous line.  Kamran, who was born of Pakistani parents, was most likely too-British by the time he wrote this his first book to hazard a guess.   Not bothered by the same constraint, I think Craig picked it up from some Neanderthal in New York, who on finishing his task of cleaning, opened the door of the classroom and told Ms. Russell her class may then come in.  That guy should be kept behind bars as a menace to society.