ƨ’ileɒꓘ story

It still leaks through my writing sometimes.  Missing or misplaced letters, even whole words conspicuously absent as if a miniature black hole opened up mid sentence. My grammar and punctuation leave something to be desired too, and all these problems are exasperated when I’m stressed or rushed.  Childhood ghosts that love to pay visits at the most inopportune of times, haunting me with their reminders that my grasp of written language was a war hard fought, and not every battle was won.

As a kid, a mixture of ADHD and dyslexia made learning to read and write feel impossible.  While my peers were in the worlds offered by their chapter books, I was getting lost in the world provided by my own imagination; a much friendlier place at the time than the outside one where my literacy progress seemed to be causing great distress among my guardians and educators.  Things came to a head near the end of second grade, when an art activity to decorate flag with our name went a little ~backwards~.  A meeting was set to discuss that I would not be permitted to move forward the next year with my peers.  The repercussions of that fact pierced even the densest layers of my imaginary world.  Instead of watching my friends sail away from me while I stayed in place, I chose to switch to a public school that had programs for kids like me.


The flag has been a staple of my parent’s home ever since 2nd grade, always stationed across from the bathroom mirror.

Over the next two years I saw psychologists and therapists, attended special literacy classes, got Hooked on Phonics, and made the dreaded daily trips to the nurse’s office for The Pills.  I hated the pills.  I can’t even remember why at this point.  It could have been because of how they made me feel, or with what other kids chose to do with the information that I was on them, or some combination.  Either way, it became my mission to get off them.

Returning to my old school had always been the goal, and by the end of 4th grade they agreed I had made enough progress to rejoin my peers the next year.   I advocated that coming back wasn’t enough, I no longer wanted to be medicated.  I would do whatever I needed to make that happen, and my 5th grade teacher took the reins in planning a strategy to help me.  I never returned to the meds, even over the next three years as I continued to struggle and intermittently fail classes.  Then, in 8th grade, my family moved out of state and I switched back from a private school to a public one.  My new 8th grade coursework was almost identical to the 7th grade coursework at my former school.  Suddenly, rather than trailing my peers, I was slightly ahead.  Although slight, the margin was just enough to afford me the mental bandwidth of learning time management and self imposed structure.  By the end of 8th grade I, for the first time, was excelling at school. And apart from the occasional bump, I continued to do well enough to eventually earn a PhD in avian ecology from the University of Washington.

I would never go on to be a top 10th percentile kind of person, and when it came to applying for undergrad and graduate programs I had more than one institution look no further than my numbers and respond with a hard, “pass”.  In place of the skills that might make me an excellent test taker, however, some things much more valuable to me bloomed.  A sense of creativity born out of those years deep in imaginary worlds.  A willingness to ask for extra help and the ability to say the words “I don’t understand.” Finally, a sense of resiliency.  I can fail or struggle many times and either overcome it, or make the choice to exert my energies in other ways instead.

These benefits and coping tools didn’t come right away though. These were not things I, as an 8, 10, 12, even 15 years old, could have just set my mind on and materialized. I process things differently than most people, and getting a handle on how to make that work within our educational system required tireless effort on behalf of myself, my family, and my educators, in addition to the simply the passage of time.  Time to develop self-specific skills and coping mechanisms.  Time to grow into my brain and realize that my value as a person, as a scientist, are not contingent on my successes or failures but how I respond to them. Time to embrace that it’s not the mid sentence black holes that define my writing, but the way the message resonates with the reader.


I wrote this piece in response to the handful of parents and kids over the years who have identified with my story.  I wanted to offer a more permanent legacy that could be read and shared by those who wanted it. However, I do not intend for this to act as a roadmap for other people because, A) I recognize that not all families have access to the immense resources that my family did, and B) the culture and pressures of primary school has changed tremendously over the past couple decades, and C) the hard truth is that there is no roadmap or magic wand because every child is unique. For example now in my adult life I know plenty of people that benefit tremendously from medication. I know others that decided traditional academia was not a place they could thrive, and now they put their talents and enthusiasm elsewhere. What unites us is not how we learn to cope. It’s recognizing how valuable our stories and our minds are, despite existing in worlds that weren’t made for us.



Filed under Being a scientist, Just for fun

19 responses to “ƨ’ileɒꓘ story

  1. ADC

    As a teacher and parent of a child who saw the World differently, this story just rings my bell. It is a testament, mostly to you and some to others, of your character. Well done.

  2. Marsha

    You are a treasure –not only for sharing your story, but for surviving the archaic one-size-fits-all approach to education. Nice piece.
    Love the flag!

  3. Fr. Robert

    Thank you so much for sharing your educational story. For over thirty years as a teacher I have shared my very similar with my students and their parents. I had a couple of brilliant mentors along the way, understanding friends, and a brother and a mom at home to support me. I trained teachers for awhile, and asked them to be passionate and share that passion. Look for all students’ passions and tap into them. Start from their strengths and move to strengthen them in every way. Thank you! I enjoy your passionate writing very much.

  4. Thanks for this post, Kaeli. So glad you found your own way through the educational jungle to get to where your unique strengths and passion for your subject shine through.

  5. zombiedisco101

    … quite a ride so far; I’d say the crow man is lucky you found him

  6. great post! “every once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

  7. Elizabeth Davies

    Congratulations on your success! I like your flag


  8. Candace Robb

    “A sense of creativity born out of those years deep in imaginary worlds. A willingness to ask for extra help and the ability to say the words “I don’t understand.” Finally, a sense of resiliency. I can fail or struggle many times and either overcome it, or make the choice to exert my energies in other ways instead. In any case, my value as a person, as a scientist, are not contingent on those successes or failures but how I respond to them. And that’s entirely up to me.” Wisdom is here. Love your blog!

  9. Jessica Miller

    I love, love, LOVE this post. As a kid I struggled with dyslexia (and still do), although not severely. I still find in my adult years that it takes me a little extra time to read/write/type certain numbers and letter combinations “correctly” and I constantly confuse right/left and East/West, but it shows my audience that I too am human, foibles and all. Having this (dis)ability/challenge has made me a softer, gentler and kinder person. Thanks for sharing your amazing story!

  10. Lucas Faley

    Don’t knock your writing. Perfect grammar and punctuation doesn’t make a story relatable and your blogs definitely are. My experience is very much the opposite of yours – academics came effortlessly for so long and now in a graduate program I’m struggling for the first time. Still, this story is comforting to me. It’s a great example of how adversity can lead to growth.

    • Thank you Lucas, that means a lot to hear and I wish the best of luck in your new program. Science twitter is a great source of support and I hope you check it out even if you otherwise consider yourself twitter adverse!

  11. Nina

    This is great. Thank you for taking the time to share your story. Being the parent of someone with ADHD (who barely graduated from HS and now has his bachelors degree) and now a kid with epilepsy who silently had absent seizures tha caused her to not learn as other kids do until we realized what was happening, we know first hand that this is achieved by parents who sometimes have to fight the schools for accommodations for their kid, while ensuring that their kid is living as normal a life as possible. For us, we would be no where without a lot of supportive teachers, speech and occupational therapists, and pediatricians who trusted our judgment when we said something wasn’t quite right. I am so glad that you shared your story and more people should who are faced with these issues. The fact that my kids and so many others aren’t alone; the fact that we parents aren’t alone – can have a powerful calming effect. Congrats on your achievements and again thanks for sharing. Good luck with your future.

  12. Pingback: In Conversation With: Dr Kaeli Swift – Stunning art created by, with and for women, trans and non-binary people.

  13. toniwintroub

    My offer to proofread stands. I think your articles are worth it!

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