Of Cannonballs and Memories

Conversations, crazy sounds, and classroom odds n’ ends.  They all have a funny way of turning into pirate memories in the oceans of my mind.  Last week I ran into a book which instantly reminded me of a particular instance when all three of those things collided.  I wondered if telling the story would help an exhausted and frustrated parent who might, at this very  moment, feel as though they are watching their gifted or twice-exceptional student sail off into an unknown sunset (while hanging like a monkey from the mast, and howling like a Maned Wolf).  Perhaps my story will allow them to see asynchrony in practice.  Perhaps it will illustrate that achievement and cognitive ability are not interchangeable.  Perhaps.  So long as they apply themselves.  Happy Sails!  – IH

I had no business in a classroom, considering I was not able to learn according to those who were qualified to give the able-to-learn distinction to students; and every time I was reminded of that fact, the determinations settled like cannon balls in my stern and hull breaking through my exterior. It was only a matter of time until I sank.

Once math was off my academic table for good (if only she would apply herself in math… well, perhaps she is not able-to-learn math… ah, yes, that’s it…. she hasn’t been designated), the largest and heaviest cannonballs came in the form of Hebrew vocabulary. By Second Grade, it was obvious that I would not be participating in the Scripps Hebrew Spelling Bee (if one existed, which it did not, but that didn’t stop Jessica and Alana and Rivka from acting as though they already had a trophy on their bed stand).

It also did not stop the world from telling me to apply myself. The fundamental principle of success in the 1970s and 1980s: apply yourself. And if one does not apply applicable applications when said applications are applicable then one is most likely doomed. (Say that fast five times. I could. But I couldn’t write it in Hebrew).

Words running left to right and right to left, up and down and over and out. I understood everything I heard but my brain took the lessons, all of which needed to be read and written, threw them up in the air and let them fall. Standing at center, I’d spin helpless while frog and fence, rainbow and rabbit tracks, pregnant woman and upside down cup, and my favorite unicorn swarm around below, a jumble in my mind of letters, symbols, and nonsense.

Apply myself. I was too busy reading to apply myself in Hebrew or Math or Really Anything. The contradiction my reading presented was lost on me. I was not-able-to-see-it.

I was too busy reading.  Reading.  Reading.

I don’t mean I stumbled through a few words here or a Richard Scarry city scene there; no, at the Hebrew and Math Breaking Point of Second Grade I was reading my sister’s books: Watership Down, Big Red, Nancy Drew, and Madeline L’Engle. When her books ran out or when she wanted to punish me, I read my mother’s books: V.C. Andrews, Jean Auel, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the local library and secretly devoured Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Adams, and any cover which was not turned face forward by the librarian and would not, I was sure, find its way into my mother’s hands.

By day I was inept, unable, and sinking; but by night, by recess, and by nobody was looking (which was most of the time), there were plenty of signs that my mind was seeking more stimulation, more information, and more input. This was all despite being completely closed to growth in a classroom. And classrooms looked very different at that time.

“I would just tell her to do the work,” said my second grade teacher with his left hand in the waistline of his pants which were pulled up to ribcage.

My parents nodded. Of course, tell her to do the work.

“She isn’t studying and so she’s failing.”

My parents nodded. Of course, she isn’t studying so she’s failing.

“I mean, look at her,” he said gesturing to me.

They looked at me.

I was sitting in my seat; last seat in the row nearest the cubbies. The rest of the seats were empty because this meeting was special. He didn’t say I was special. Sometimes you can be too weird for special. (In that un-specialness possessed, I suppose I was, ironically, very special, very singular, very exceptional, and very distinctive… sorry, I digress… we are talking about my serious inability to handle vocabulary).

They were all looking at me. I was not looking at them; instead, I watched my fingers poking up like a squid seeking sailor through the ink hole in my desk.

My parents nodded.

“I’m sure you’ve done all that can be done,” Teacher said, “Not everyone is wired to learn.”

He leaned back in his wooden chair, which moaned in protest to his teaching style, and his left hand resumed position to indicate the meeting was over.

My parents nodded.

Lying across the back seat, I looked up at the streetlights through the back window. I squinted opened squinted opened squinted opened. At squinted opened fifty two, I looked toward the front seat and saw my mother’s face staring back at me, her frown palpable, as she wondered at her blinking, squid-fingered, Hebrew failing daughter who was not wired to learn anything at all.

I went back to squint open squint open squint open and thought about Kafka. Waiting to help me change and to give me a new distinction of able-to-learn, Kafka’s words (secretly) buzzed between mattress and wall. Frustrated and exhausted parents nodded in the front seat, hoping tomorrow I would apply myself; while I, strange and peculiar, singular and exceptional, weird beyond special, dreamed of Kafka while I blinked my large, bulging eyes over and over and over in some sensory-seeking mission to understand my instinctive pull toward streetlights.

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