Winning Friends: What happens when a girl on the spectrum reads Dale Carnegie
I read How to Win Friends and Influence People in the seventh grade for a book report. It was a particularly lonely time in my life, and when I found the old book on the bottom shelf at the back corner of the library, I hoped it contained a solution. I was willing to work at this whole “getting people to like you” bit, that wasn’t the problem. It was just that I didn’t know where to begin.
It was one in a whole sequence of efforts to make friends.
The first acknowledgement of the problem was a few years prior. I sneaked into the dining room where my mom was paying bills, confessed to her quite frankly that I couldn’t sleep because I did not have any friends, and asked for her advice. She was patient and practical and encouraged me to talk to girls in my class and learn about them as we worked on assignments together.
Subtlety was not my strong suit. I favored the more direct application of this advice. I went right up to one of the more popular girls while she washed her hands in the bathroom. I just said flat out that I noticed she was pretty nice and that I would like to be her friend and play with her sometime. She was kind, said yes, and introduced me a few minutes later on the playground to her neighborhood pals.
I always knew that my life would have been completely different if only I lived in a subdivision, and that day on the playground proved it. There was, if one can imagine, always a little awkwardness about most of these relationships.
By the time Dale Carnegie got a hold of me, it had been a few years since the bathroom mission for friends, and I was still not happy about the state of things, so the concept of a how-to book seemed like a good idea. I also needed to produce a non-fiction book report, so this would count.
It appears to be one piece of schoolwork missing from my detailed school files, but I remember it. This book contained lots of examples of people smiling appropriately, using names as if they are the most beautiful word in the world, appealing to noble motives, and other recommendations and keeping customers, getting a better deal on a automobile, or fixing a mistake of someone else’s without angering them.
What did I learn from this book? I learned how to win friends and influence people. Naturally.
I took copious notes so I could enact these measures in due time. I knew at least well enough to know I could only attempt one thing at a time, or it would be all too obvious if all of a sudden I was turning to my desk neighbors, grinning wildly, asking their names and life histories, admiring their great penmanship, and asking if they’d like to work together on a project to change the school. I was up for it, mind you, but I figured the slower approach was the better (just a little wiser since my grade school days).
One consequence of reading the book was an encouragement of my preteen ambition, which ended up defining much of my future social life — or lack thereof.
The election for Eighth Grade President was between me and the boy I both crushed on and hated at varying degrees throughout any given day. He won, but really only because he gave a dynamic speech. My campaign was much better and my speech was dynamic, mind you — it rhymed and I memorized all of it. But his. His was the sort of thing that goes down in yearbooks, that was referenced for years to come by me and others.
He began loudly and with each subsequent repetition of the word, he got quieter and deeper:
“Power… Power, power, power. Make no mistake, folks, it is all about power… who’s got it and who doesn’t. And I want you to give it to me.”
At this point, he lifted the mike from its holster, flicked the cord out from its embrace like a rock star, and proceeded to sit on the edge of the stage, mike in hand, gesturing wildly to the audience of wide-eyed adolescents.
Whatever he said after that must have been great, because when he plunked that microphone back in its proper place and flashed that brilliant grin, he was met with an uproarious standing ovation. And this is not my memory over exaggerating. The principal had to actually calm the crowd. There may have been the chance of a riot. It was that rousing. My spunky rhyme looked childish after something like that.
I’m not sure exactly what power he received when he was elected Eighth Grade Class President. I think he was behind that dance with the DJ we liked because he played our requests for overly graphic rap songs.
I do remember, however, being asked to be a part of a drug awareness group the day after the election. We managed to organize the most impressive red ribbon week campaign in the middle school’s history, I feel sure someone said. The front hall featured a display called The Road of Life that was chosen to hang in the rotunda of the State Capitol for more than a month.
We even constructed a life-sized Joe Camel hooked to a respirator and sitting in a wheelchair as a sign of impending doom for anyone starting to smoke. When the sitting state senator came for a tour, I made sure and detail for him the real problems I saw with teenage drug use and promiscuity. Another girl in our group got mad at me for this, saying I was tarnishing our reputation with someone important. But, a few days later, he sent me a very encouraging letter written in blue sharpie that I kept in my “Potential References” File under Coverdell, Paul.
As far as I was concerned, that was all just practice for something bigger.
My skills were getting better everyday. I had a casual relationship with at least two people, and usually many more, in every realm of eighth grade society I could identify: the skaters, the athletes, the pretty girls, the smart ones, the trouble makers. This last one I managed by getting in-school suspension for accidentally bringing the photocopies from playing at my dads office. One of them had by younger brothers bare bottom so, officially it was for pornography, but no need to get into particulars.
I was becoming a master of my game. I didn’t share information I came across except to display that I, in fact, had information that I was decidedly not sharing, thus building others’ trust in me. I was trying to learn the humor present in each echelon in order to crack an appropriate joke with the appropriate person at the appropriate time. It was almost a science. I cataloged every interaction, analyzed every glance, and calculated every advance upon new territory. If I wasn’t so busy trying to win friends and influence people, I might actually have friends that I still keep in contact with. But I wasn’t after longevity.
I was after the Ninth Grade Presidency. And boy was that a coup. There were oversize displays, free giveaways, campaign promises complete with action plans, and of course, one memorized speech including an acronym using the letters of the word “PRESIDENT”. The speech focused mainly, though, on all the positive attributes of my classmates.
I painted a vision of our first year of high school that raised everyone’s hopes. They couldn’t help but put me in office after I convinced them that my interests were the same as theirs and that vote for me was like a vote for themselves. It was beautiful.
Dale Carnegie, I thought as I sat the microphone back in its place, eat your heart out.