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.
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.