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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 4

"The Stubborn and Willful One"

written by

Elizabeth McLinn

Life can be a struggle for many people in day-to-day activities when they are capable and balk at accomplishing tasks set forth for them. Then there are those strange individuals like me who somehow lack the neuron balances to enable such advantages of spatial memory, left and right, upside down and right side up. We appear perfectly normal and blend with those around us and strive to disguise our inabilities by being invisible, if not disruptive. Until perhaps a decade ago, only foreign medical journals offered a notion that Dyslexia was a perceptual and sensory issue. There was no conceived treatment or remediation for something that was not exactly visual or auditory, but was somehow in this realm along with coordination, spatiality, stuttering, and several other anomalies. I have read various plans for dealing with dyslexia in the United States and, in this day and age, find these to be sadly lacking except dyslexia exists with the note: “See, something is being done!” and almost meaningless, but well-meaning, solutions.

When I was perhaps seven or eight years old, I was very tall for a girl and clumsy. That is a mild description of being uncoordinated with long gangly legs and arms which seemed to possess separate brains. I could not remember directions with more than three parts (such as color it, cut it out, fold it, and glue it) or I would mix up the order.

At one point, my mother exclaimed, “You are stupid, stubborn and willful!” because I could not recall the sequence of events to refute my older brother’s lie about an incident. He was the favorite of the brood of eventually seven offspring and could do no wrong, especially around me with my stuttering and inability to recall exactly what happened when. The phrase, “stupid, stubborn, willful”, was repeated many times over the years. I quickly revised it to chant “I might be stubborn and willful, but I am not stupid” to myself every time this was said.

I could not read at age eight like my peers. Most of my letters and numbers were written backwards and upside down. The word “the” might haunt me even today, if I am tired, to be written as “eht.”   Every night I had homework and my mother would often work with me, unaware of my real deficiencies in perceiving what everyone else saw. I would frequently hide in a slatted front bedroom closet with simple Dr. Suess books and privately struggle to understand the words beyond what I read in the Dick and Jane readers. I envisioned “saw” for “was” and vice versa among other errors which translated into gibberish. A capital letter was a clue in a name, but neither of these was a name. There was no clue until I tediously pointed to each letter left to right (if I could decide which was which) and whispered them aloud. Math was another immense challenge, simply because math is done right to left in columns, which is the exact opposite to reading. My brain screamed, “Make up your mind!”

Added to these difficulties was my stuttering. I was sent to a speech teacher for perhaps two years but this never improved the tendency to massacre words such as “murder” or “bury”.  I did mostly fix “st” or “s” at word endings, but not the “ur” sounds. Mispronouncing words was common. Further, I was introverted to a large degree, except around my brothers. My tall frame with over-permed frizzy hair and two rabbit front teeth hardly helped my status. In fourth grade, I was diagnosed with far-sightedness and given pink rhinestone cat-eye glasses, which remained with me as I entered college. Money was scarce enough that if a necessity was not ruined, then it could be repaired. Vanity was a luxury.

Mrs. Root, my fourth-grade teacher, found a method for me to tell left from right, and therefore rectify issues with reading and mathematical processes. She also realized I had similar difficulties with Social Studies in reading maps and, more so, compasses. She informed me my head was north and feet were south and my hands left to right spelled “We”. Social studies with frequent coloring became my favorite subject. With repetitious written practice, I memorized words visually and tactilely. I still plodded tediously slow in reading, pointing to each word on the page to avoid the swimming letters, words, and lines. Embarrassment by being on the spot or the center of attention was enough to have me shaking and stuttering uncontrollably.

I slowly learned to read and memorized words as a survival mode. I was a visual learner. Words floating in the air required memory, knowledge of thoughts spoken, and accurate reception. Tactile learning, as in writing, was also an asset, but I had to learn how to spell first or copy as I muttered the words to myself. My father’s occupation as a newsman helped in this regard, because he usually brought home first prints of the daily paper to proof-read and passed out copies to us older children to proof-read. No one wanted to cross my father with unethical practices for fear of being exposed in an editorial or fired. One of his favorite sayings was “The pen is quicker than the sword.” Definite misbehavior was never an issue with me, but I did utilize many nervous quirks from bouncing crossed legs, pounding my fingers on the desk top or whatever surface was available, tapping my pencil or feet and similar tactics. I quickly realized I could do most of my release behaviors so long as I made no noise. I tried very hard to blend in with the other children.

The rural philosophy instilled in my parents consisted of bearing many children to have labor on the farm. My parents, in this same frame of mind, had seven children. By the time I was ten years old. Expenses multiplied far faster than incoming monies from the garden, flower bulb, Christmas tree sales, and my father’s full-time plus newspaper income.

In those days, Special Education did not exist. One succeeded or failed. I teetered on that edge, but knew I had to latch on to any crevice because my father’s kids did not fail.

My father’s parents traveled from Philadelphia to stay with us for a week or two once or twice a year. Grandpa was a Welsh/Scottish immigrant who never lost his accent and adeptly entertained us with finger plays and nursery rhymes. Try as I might, I could not independently repeat these either verbally or with my fingers. I also had no musical attributes. The sum total of these domestic activities did play a role in my education survival.

My parents had purchased a hundred-year-old four room house when I was about three. My parents mowed to make a yard and created a very large garden at the top of a hill in which strawberries, peas, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, corn, and beans were planted. Within a few years, they had the bottom land planted, too. We children were recruited increasingly for various tasks such as weeding, hoeing, picking produce, and so forth. My parents discovered the assets of growing pine trees to sell as Christmas trees, cut on site. Canna bulb beds were planted in the spring and dug in the fall as another cash crop. What I am driving to express with the descriptions herein is that we always had something to do outdoors. Us older children were awakened before dawn in the summers to help collect produce for my father to deliver to Johnny’s Market for credit to be used for meat. After my father left for work, we tended designated areas by hoeing the weeds loose. My home life played a large role in my literary and mathematical success, because it instilled a strong work ethic, whether we hoed the weeds, picked strawberries, planted, buried the garbage, or helped sell Christmas trees. Consequences for not accomplishing assigned task were enough to discourage most of us from ducking the job.

Most of my dresses (required in public and school then), were donated by the boss’s teenage daughter or sewn by my mother. She began to teach me to mend holes in clothes with the Singer sewing machine when I was in fifth grade. I was fascinated with the stitching the machine made as I watched my mother sew clothes and reverse tops to sew the curves to fit over shoulders. I learned to make my own clothes that actually fit my tall body with broad shoulders, long legs, and long arms. In a bizarre fashion, I believe sewing reinforced directional connections in my perception.

Years passed with a tenacity to work late at night and rise early to finish school work. I compulsively wrote “ang” for “and” (g was an upsidedown d), b’s and d’s were interchangeable, “5’s and 2’s, 9’s and 6’s. “The” was compulsively etched as “eht”. Papers were returned with these prolific errors noted in red. A few of my grades grew to be “S”, but most remained “M” as I finished Elementary School and progressed to Junior High School and High School where little changed except for more minus marks attached to the letters. Junior High and High School brought the advent of Physical Education. I did not become more coordinated with age, but more awkward with my long limbs. I was guaranteed to be chosen last for teams. I was almost fifteen years old when my father abruptly resigned from his job rather than adhere to the publisher’s new strict editorial guidelines. That spring, the beloved house and property were sold and we moved to a very small tract house in Northern California where my father had secured a new advanced position.

The new high school reviewed my Missouri grades and decided I needed to be in the lowest of the three-leveled classes. I lasted a mere three weeks before I was reassigned to the top classes, because my hand was continuously in the air for every question. I was instantly a genius. The subject matter actually had been a total review of my earlier classes. Word circulated that I was the new fearless Newspaper Editor’s daughter. The first quarter exceptional grades were shocking as were the first semesters’ marks. I, the ultimate stutterer, had been enrolled in Spanish. Air or oral learning in itself was not suitable for my success. Although I refused to surrender, this subject could not have been more hopeless to someone with struggles such as I had. Strangely, I had an “A” in not only Spanish, but English, and Physical Education. I resolved the New Year would have a change in my effort in these classes. In Spanish, I exhibited a marked lack of energy in the quality of my work and class participation as in the others. My Spring Quarter grades succinctly reflected reality. My parents, now spoiled by my astounding school success, reprimanded me and ordered that I work harder. Now that a reality had been accomplished secretly between the teachers and myself, this was not a problem.

Other classes on my daily schedule were Algebra, Biology, and History. These challenged me from the beginning. Most students hated the older Biology teacher. I was driven to avoid his rage and desperately studied the book and the notes he required students to copy. We had been assigned a science project that fall which required research, an experiment, paper, and display poster. I chose smoking and reduced this to “The Effects of Smoking on the Unborn” using Zebra fish. I was overwhelmed with the research, virtually living in the school library until it closed, searching for relevant literature other than, “How to Quit Smoking.” My father drove me to the town library, county library, and finally to the University of California at Berkeley a few times to search medical journals. My biology teacher was increasingly impressed with my efforts in class and meeting the deadlines for research. He encouraged me further, questioned my methodology, and finally approved my project. The results were mixed. I enrolled in Biology II the next year and repeated the experiment once more with chicken eggs and met success. My science project won a top prize and was forwarded to the district Science Fair in San Francisco. I was awarded the top Junior Award for Science that year in my class of over 400 students.

Algebra aggravated me as much as a puzzle that I had to solve and required excessive time to comprehend advancing concepts, but I religiously copied all notes from the board and completed assignments on time. Chemistry was a new kind of torture that I grew to love. History was a much easier subject with copying board notes. English, a combination of grammar, writing, reading aloud, speaking, and reading, was another subject demanding my full attention. Generally, I had “B” grades overall.  I continued to struggle with reversing letters in simple words, but I could easily spell large words others could not. I latched onto patterns. If I wrote something, I remembered it.

When I was 16, my father decided to tutor me in driving after I finished Driver’s Education. My father had me drive on back roads. Eventually, he decided I should drive on the very wide avenue by the newspaper offices. He told me to turn left at the gas station. Mounting a hill, I perceived no gas station and then at the last minute, I had to check my left wrist. I did indeed turn left at 45 miles per hour to screech to a stop beside the gas pumps. My father’s face was bleached white. He drove home and the lessons ended.

In June, 1969, I graduated 35th in a class of over 400 students and won two small scholarships to enable me to study nursing at Sacramento State College. I entered Sacramento State (later renamed California State University, Sacramento) 80 miles from home in a state of controlled terror. Tediously, I traced routes to my classes on the large campus that first semester and still became lost. I survived. The second semester was more frightening because I had to begin my work study job at the college library. I researched accessions and potential purchases for the Science Department. I attained enough “A’s” and “B’s” to make the Dean’s List.

My sophomore year began with my being hired as a library assistant. I determined I was going to support myself and bank the student loans. I figured out ways to complete my course assignments in such subjects as Physics, Physiology, and Chemistry then volunteered for extra hours at work.

By my junior year, a dorm friend talked me into renting an apartment with her. I bought a five-speed bicycle for transportation. This bicycle was my very vital transportation for the next three years. I rode everywhere in Sacramento day and night, instilling in myself the concept of always driving on the right side, turn lane rules, and hand signals. This self-training eventually assisted with driving after a friend patiently tutored me to obtain my driver’s license at age 26.

By mutual consent, I left nursing. I enrolled in elective classes. One of these was Cultural Anthropology, which I enjoyed immensely. Two years later, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology (Cultural) and a minor in Psychology. I was listed on the Deans’ List five of nine semesters and had obtained a Grade Point Average of 3.2 (out of 4.0.) When I graduated, I possessed more funds in the bank than I owed in student loans, but my chosen profession—that of a Museum Curator—ceased to exist with the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Following a couple of years employed as a hotel do-it-all, babysitter, house cleaner, fast food server, I was hired by a new financial institution. I survived in that profession as a Teller, New Accounts Clerk, and Loan Processor for eight years. Decades passed as I reared three children, divorced, and was told to find a trade to support my family. I returned to college, Drury University in 1997, to pursue Certification in Teaching and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.  After years of substituting, I was hired as a Special Education teacher at a small school in 2008. The position was perfect for me as I manipulated ways to present materials to enable my troubled, abused, and neglected students to succeed with dignity. Many students reminded me of myself, struggling to find the Point A everyone else easily identified. Lacking skills that can be attained is not an excuse for ignorance or failure unless there is no effort. I designed “How To” sheets to explain math operations. Many of my students were able to succeed in regular math classes thereafter. I drew diagrams to illustrate Biology. I taught there for nine years until administrative politics threatened to destroy me. I resigned at age 67 and then retired. I love substitute teaching students today at an Alternative School. These individuals had been banned from regular classes where they had no chance of success and became disruptive. Some were like me, where no one could understand their outrageous floating world of learning.

I really was not stupid, but indeed I was stubborn and willful one day at a time. Dyslexia does not have a cure, but one can develop methods to enable coping with this perception difficulty with a little understanding and attention to the individual’s learning strengths. These remediations require an awareness of learning styles, plus repetition, patience, sensitivity, motivation, and the ability to laugh at oneself. The last is vital, because no one is absolutely perfect.

ES McLinn is a retired teacher. She taught abused, neglected, and traumatized boys Remedial Math, Biology, Biology II, and Ecology for over 9 years. Today, she enjoys walking with her dogs on trails, gardening, designing flower plantings, reading, and writing. She is also a substitute teacher at a local Alternative School.

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