The year I turned 30, I found out I have ADD. And OCD. And some kind of learning "glitch."
And a door opened.
But let's step back a bit, first.
My early elementary life in a traditional public school setting was fraught with failure.
First, it was learning to read.
I just couldn’t do it.
But then my mother's friend unlocked the reading door for me through tutoring, although I continued to have "comprehension" issues.
To this day, don't ask me to answer a multiple-choice comprehension test. I'll get it wrong. I just can't come up with the one right answer for anything, and always seem to be looking for the meaning between the lines (more on this in a bit). Fill-in-the-blank is even worse.
But talk to me about what I read, ah, then I have plenty to share.
Maybe I don't really have comprehension issues after all. ;0)
Then it was those blasted math facts.
This time my mom got me over the hurdle by working with me every night herself. And somehow I got through it.
But something wasn’t quite right.
My grades were ok. And they got better (I even had a few quarters in there with straight A’s).
But I absolutely hated school.
Now, a large part of that was being a social misfit…and maybe I’ll talk about that at some other point (or not, my “socialization” by public school is not something I like to revisit), but there was more to it than that. Something didn’t click for me.
Eventually I moved on to middle school.
And to high school.
And finally, I wasn't so much of an outcast, socially---I guess I met enough other "weird" people to hang out with? That'll happen when you go to a high school with over 2000 students and a graduating class of over 400.
But I still hated school.
And part of that came from that fact that no matter how hard I worked, I still couldn’t get it right. You see, I would spend hours reading my school assignments, going over and over the material, and still I could not find the answers in my head when it came time to answer those multiple choice questions on the test.
History was the worst. All those dates.
I would find myself closing my eyes and mentally opening the textbook, flipping to the page that I knew the answer was on, and reading it to answer the question. All in my head.
An aside: This is how I discovered that I have a "photographic" memory.
Another aside: While having a photographic memory is a pretty cool trick (and surprisingly helpful in many situations), it doesn't necessarily make it easier to to retrieve information you have learned. It just means that you can see the information in your head. Think about that for a minute. When I forget what was on the shopping list (you know, the one I left sitting on the kitchen counter?), I can (sometimes) call up an image of the list in my head. But, I don't know what's on the list until I read it on the image in my head. And sometimes the picture that I see in my head is incomplete.
It's a different kind of "knowing" something. And it's great for some things, but lousy for taking multiple choices tests.
But this problem was invisible. Grade-wise, I did fine. In fact, I graduated from high school in the top 10% of my class. The perfectionist (remember the OCD?)in me wouldn’t allow me to fail (although I did receive my share of deficiency reports mid-quarter, seems I just needed an extra kick in the pants to work harder).
And I trudged along, getting by in couple of subjects, doing quite well in a few others. I rocked in typing and word processing. Total hands-on. But I also did quite well in English and art. Anywhere I could use my hands or explore (even if it was only mentally) was a good place for me to be.
Eventually I moved onto college, where I did really really well. Except for all those multiple choice and fill-in the blank tests in History 101.
I hated History 101.
In college I wrote lots of papers. And took essay tests. And had conversations with people. And I started to understand that knowledge wasn’t really about regurgitating information onto a test..
Another aside: This brings me to another point, and this is something that I didn't discover until this week (the year I turn 40!), I'm also right-brain dominant.
Whew! 50% of all people are. Maybe I'm not so weird, after all?
I still had (have) problems. My college books are full of under-linings. I mean margin-to-margin, page-after-page under-linings. In order to understand what I was reading (my degree is in English and Philosophy, so I did a ton of reading), I would have to read, reread, and finally read and underline. I didn't know it at the time, but I think I was making a visual imprint on my brain.
Not perfect. But it helped. I didn't spend much time partying. Not when I had to read everything about 3 times to make it stick. Not when I had hundreds of pages to read.
But that's only the reading half of it.
You know those light-bulb moments, the instant where you come to a realization and everything just clicks for you? You finally get it?
Insights don't need to necessarily be something big and dramatic. Realizing that your nails need to be trimmed is an insight. But then, so is realizing that "b" makes the /b/ sound.
Insights (lightbulb moments) are what bridge the gap between teaching and learning.
You can try to teach your child all day long that certain letters make certain sounds. But, you can never force him to have the "aha" moment where it just clicks in his brain.
You can't make him have an insight.
And you can't make him learn.
That can be frustrating for teachers when children just don't seem to be "getting it," right?
And doubly frustrating for the kids who don't seem to be able to get it.
Now, imagine that you've had the insight, you get it, but then you forget it.
And so someone teaches it to you again, you finally get it, but you forget it again.
You might get it easier each time, but still, you're handicapped by having to have the same insight over and over and over again.
And eventually you get so tired of forgetting everything that you learned that you start trying to keep it all at the top of your brain at once…because you just don’t know if you’ll be able to retrieve the it otherwise.
Or you write yourself incessant notes.
Or drop everything to write a blog post about what you’re thinking this moment so you can read it later and maybe remember..
This is part of my learning difficulty.
Nobody forgets how to ride a bike, right?
After spending most of my childhood riding here, there, and everywhere, I did.
Nobody forgets their own phone number, right?
I can only remember my phone number by visualizing it on the keypad. And I've had the same phone number for over a year.
There are other things that I can’t necessarily communicate, little bits, little pieces of my learning puzzle.
I have lived with my learning differences my entire life. But it wasn't until the year I turned 30 that I knew there was a reason for my flakiness. Because I did think I was just flaky. Sometimes I thought I was mad.
And a door opened.
I couldn't change the past. I couldn't even cure myself. But I knew, finally, that I wasn’t to blame. And that there’s something unique about my “wiring” that makes some aspects of life a little more difficult, but that I also have particular gifts.
I’m not just a screw-up. I haven’t failed. I was just being who I am.
That’s pretty liberating.
And so, when I look into my oldest child’s eyes and see his tears of frustration,
and when I grade his math work and recognize the same struggles I faced myself,
or feel myself getting a little frustrated myself after explaining long division, again,
I weep for him, because I know something of difficulties he faces, difficulties that I would spare him if I possibly could.
But I’m thankful that we are learning about his difficulties when he is 11, not when he is 30. And that I can help him through this.
Read more about our learning adventure: