Friday, June 27, 2008

Book News + Gersh Academy Graduation Speech

Got a few bits of news to share: First, I've finally started sending out query letters for my book. It took me a really long time to get to this point; the excuse I would give would be that I had too many others to do. In truth, I was afraid. Writing and sending out these letters means that this has all become real, that it's not just me talking about writing a book and getting it published, but actually going through the motions of finding an agent and a publisher, of sending my project out into the world to be judged.

I've sent out seven query letters in total, and gotten back two responses thus far, both of which were rejections. Which--to put it plainly--really sucks. Don't get me wrong, though; I fully prepared myself for this. Rejection is a large part of the publishing industry, and I'm lucky that I even got the responses that I did. Both agents who wrote back to me were very kind, and offered words of advice and encouragement. All some people ever get is a rejected stamp. So I'm fortunate in that regard. The one agent made a good point, actually; he said that he wasn't head-over-heels in love with my book proposal to see it as part of his list, and both he and the second agent who wrote to me emphasized the importance of finding an agent who absolutely loves your idea and is dedicated to getting it published. I'd much rather have an agent who is passionate and excited about my book, instead of one who is just "eh" about it. So, onward I go, hopefully to bigger and better things.

Second item of business: the Gersh Academy graduation. As I mentioned previously, a few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at a high school graduation for the Gersh Academy, a school in Hauppauge out here on Long Island for kids with autism, Asperger's, and other neurobiological disorders. I wrote up my speech earlier this week and sent it to the woman with whom I'd met, on her request, so it could be reviewed by her and the Board. She also sent me a copy of the graduation program, and that's when I discovered that I had been given the title of Keynote Speaker. Keynote Speaker. Me! How about that?

Anyway, June 27th was the big day. I arrived at the school at 10:15am, and the ceremony began shortly after 11. I was the last person to speak, but you know the old saying about saving the best for last? Well, there you go. Don't think I'm saying that out of pure ego, however. I'm only saying it because almost every person in the audience came up to me after I delivered the speech and told me how inspirational it was. One woman even said that it made her think about how she'd behaved in high school, and whether she could have been a little nicer to those who were different or who didn't run in her social group. The best compliment of all was when one of the graduates told me that he loved my speech. He and the others were whom I was hoping to reach, and it looks like I did. So yay me. :D

In addition to my speech at the graduation marking my first-ever keynote address, my father was able to record it using our new videocamera. The audio is a little wonky in the beginning, but it gets better as it goes on. So, without further ado, here is my keynote address from the Gersh Academy 2008 graduation:

Speech Transcript:

Good morning distinguished guests, family members, friends, the faculty and staff of the Gersh Academy, and of course, the graduates of the class of 2008.

When I was asked to speak here today, I immediately thought of my own high school graduation seven years ago. I remember being forced to listen to a speech given by our class valedictorian, in which she described school events and parties that “everyone” had attended. In truth, her speech excluded me and so many others who had never gone to any of these events, rituals of youth that we were supposed to be remembering fondly yet had never actually happened.

So I knew that I had a responsibility to you, to talk to you about something to which you can relate, something that affects your lives right now, today. I wanted to be able to give you the speech that I wish I could have heard all those years ago. A speech that spoke to me, a young person on the autism spectrum, specifically Asperger’s syndrome. An outcast.

“Finally, the answer” is the motto of the Gersh Academy, which I discovered by perusing your school’s website. But before any answer can be given, first we must know what the question is. You stand here on the verge of adulthood, getting ready to head out into the real world. The team you’ve relied on during your years at the Academy—teachers, therapists, 1:1 aides—is now shifting, and your parents and caregivers will become the primary “team” in your lives from now on. But as you make your way through the world of higher education or the workforce, you will begin to speak for yourself, to tell people who you are. And that is what the question is: Who are you?

When I graduated from high school, I was not Amy Gravino. Amy Gravino did not yet exist. There was only a shell, fragments of self-esteem lying in shattered pieces after being chipped away at for years by my fellow classmates. I was whatever they said I was—if they called me ugly, I was ugly. If they said that I was a freak, I was a freak. I was defined by how they saw me. And though I had my parents to tell me differently, the words of my peers carried far more weight, making any other positive affirmations almost impossible to believe.

The journey of discovering who I am started to take place when I went off to college. Slowly, the pieces were picked up. Slowly, I began to realize that I wasn’t in high school anymore, that I no longer had to be ugly or a freak, and my confidence grew. Slowly, Amy Gravino began to emerge.

Getting to that place, to that point where I started to find out who I was, took a lot of effort and hard work. For so many years, no one believed that I was going to be able to do anything. They said I wouldn’t go to high school, wouldn’t graduate—in short, I wouldn’t amount to anything. I learned at a very young age that the world is not an accommodating place, and I fought for the right not only to follow my dreams, but to even have them at all.

Your years here at the Gersh Academy have benefited you immensely, and perhaps the most significant benefit of your education here is that this school has given you the tools to hopefully one day lead an independent life. That is perhaps the greatest desire of your parents, caregivers, and the teachers and others here who have nurtured you and watched you grow: to see you succeed in life. Success comes in many forms, however, and the support and guidance given to you by this school is dedicated to your personal success.

But the day will come that someone will ask you the question I mentioned earlier: Who are you? This is where perhaps the most powerful tool you can have comes into play: self-advocacy. Self-advocacy is an invaluable asset, not just for individuals with neurobiological differences, but for everyone. Those of us who are a little bit “different,” however, have to work twice as hard to make our voices heard. I can remember well sitting in on IEP meetings in elementary school, surrounded by adults all discussing my future (or the very possible lack thereof). You would think that my presence would ensure an opportunity for me to speak for myself, even for a moment. But I didn’t. No one ever asked me how I felt, or what I wanted. Even if they had, I’m not certain that I would’ve been able to tell them.

Many years have passed since then, and I am happy to say that I have become a strong self-advocate, loudly and proudly proclaiming my “difference,” and I now see it as a strength, a high mark of character, rather than a weakness or flaw. Your disabilities have presented each of you with challenges, and the people at this school have worked with you to face those challenges. Now, as you head into adulthood, you are starting to find your own voice, and becoming a self-advocate, learning the skills to articulate your needs and feelings will enable you to use that voice to tell the world who you are.

The last thought I’d like to leave you with is this: You have worked so hard and for so long to get where you are at this very moment. Surrounded by your friends, loved ones, teachers, and therapists, it seems hard to believe that your life as you know it is about to change completely. But rather than seeing this day as an ending, you must also look at it as a great beginning. I once sat where you are sitting, and as angry as I felt listening to that valedictorian’s speech, my face also burned with shame over the fact that I’d failed at having the “typical” high school experience. I could clearly see what was ending, but I had no idea what was about to begin. Leave yourself open to endless possibility, and take with you the lessons you have learned and the guidance you have received here at the Gersh Academy. I wish you all the greatest of success in your future endeavors, and I thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. Congratulations to the class of 2008. Thank you.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gersh Academy Graduation (*Speaking Engagement*)

I just wanted to announce that on Friday, June 27th, I will be speaking at the high school graduation of the Gersh Academy in Hauppauge, out here on Long Island. I met with Melanie Ginsberg, an administrator, at the school two weeks ago, which is when I was formally invited to speak at the graduation, and I accepted. The speech will be approximately ten minutes in length, and I will be recorded, so look for a video clip of it to appear here in the days following the graduation!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inaugural Post

Welcome one and all to my first-ever official blog. I thought it was high time that I gave this thing a shot, what with all of the exciting events that are starting to happen in my life. I hope that this blog will be a place where I can keep all of you up-to-date on these events, in full and rich detail, which is just how I like to write.

It is my greatest hope that those of you reading this will be able to glean insight into the life of a young woman with Asperger's syndrome trying to find her way in the world. I am proud and excited to take you on my journey as I make my way through graduate school, public speaking, and the process of writing and publishing my book. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for taking the time to be here.

Welcome to my Blog!