Living in The Big City wasn’t something I ever thought I could do. I never thought I would be able to live in a place with 8.6 million other people, all bustling around me at the same rapid pace, surrounded by buildings taller than any I had ever seen and older than any I had ever felt. I never thought that I would have the capability to exist among others in a packed tube car as we travel together, zooming underground across the city, everyone pressing in on me from every side. I never thought that I could do something like live in London, even if it was only for a brief time.
I grew up in rural Southern Maryland, playing in the woods and climbing trees, spending a lot of time with the same few people I grew up with or even just alone and in the quiet of our home. I struggle with loud noises and large groups of people and I start to panic when I can’t escape the presence of buildings and bodies surrounding me. I need space and open air, trees and grass, sunshine and stars, all like a balm on my soul that calms and soothes me.
These things don’t exactly create the perfect picture of a Londoner, do they? I know this, I’ve always known this, and to me it’s always meant that I would never be someone who would be capable of living in a city like London. Where would I even begin? How would I start making a place for myself in a massive city with no room for a small, fearful young woman who isn’t sure where she belongs? I would be eaten alive! There was no point in trying. It was safer for me to stay at home in the woods, away from it all, where I would never have to risk being lost and afraid.
Then, though, then I got a chance to go to London to study children’s literature and to fulfill a dream, and I couldn’t stay away.
Because as afraid as I am of the city, I am also fascinated by it. The history, the culture, the economy, the politics, the immensity of it all—it’s incredible and wonderful and amazing. Even the people, the massive amounts of people, are enchanting. There is so much to learn from living there, even for just three weeks, and my desire for this knowledge was great. I wanted to go, I couldn’t not go, but I was so very afraid.
What if I get lost? What if there are too many people? What if it’s too loud? What if it’s too much? What if I panic? What if I can’t do things like the other people can? What if they chose the wrong person for this honor?
What if I am just not good enough?
When the Fulbright Commission asked me why I wanted to be a Fulbright Summer Institute Participant, I talked about being an ambassador. It meant a lot to me to be an ambassador from the US to the UK, and once I was home, to be an ambassador for study abroad to the UK from the US, but I wanted to be more. I wanted to be a disability ambassador. I wanted to be the kind of ambassador who came from a school where she worked very hard and tried her very best and she was recognized for that, she was honored for that, and she stood as tall as anyone else selected for this great experience not despite of her disability, but because of it. Not despite of the way she flinched away from crowds and loud sounds, but because of the way her mind perceived the world and crafted the words to describe it. I wanted to be the type of ambassador to tell the children I work with every day, the children who are like me, that they don’t have to hide this incredible, wonderful, amazing part of them because they are so beautifully human and that is enchanting.
I wasn’t sure if I could do this great big thing that I had worked so very hard to achieve, but I knew that I wanted to so very badly, the same way I wasn’t sure if I could go to college and be successful, or speak professionally and publically—but these were my dreams, and they were so important to me, and I was never going to give them up. So I decided to try my best, as I always have done, and fully experience the city, fully appreciate my journey in London, and fully live my life abroad.
And, wouldn’t you know it, I did it.
Humbly and gratefully,
Hannah Bear, a proud Autistic young woman