Chapter One - The Argument Begins
Then, Now and a Few Thoughts As We Get Started
Had it not been for a thing called school, I would have had a near perfect childhood. I got up 180 mornings a year for over a decade and checked into my own private Hell. By the third grade, I realized there was no hope or help for a kid like me. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never learn to read and write.
Life outside of school was fun. At age eleven, I went to work at a gas station owned by my father, not because I had to but because it was a good idea. I didn't disagree with that assumption then, nor do I now.
Our family life was chaotic and dysfunctional with no set schedule for anything. There were, however, a few hard-and-fast rules:
Dad's Six Strict Edicts:
1.) "If you're not twenty minutes early for work, you're late!" Being late for anything was greatly frowned upon, and one of the very few things that aggravated my father.
2.) If we were making a rare trip to church, a funeral, wedding or any other event that called for dressing up, we weren't getting out of the house unless our shoes were properly shined. "A man can wear a tailor-made suit costing thousands of dollars, but if he doesn't bother to shine his shoes, people will think he's a joke," Dad said.
3.) There was to be no room in our hearts for hate. No explanation needed.
4.) Edict four was reserved for Mom. Never go to Kipp's Market with curlers in her hair.
5.) Real men always hold the door for ladies. No exceptions, ever!
6.) And perhaps his most fervent edict was the one he reminded us of daily. "Always, always, always, have a Plan B, because most people, including us, don't get it right the first time.”
Dad tolerated a lot, forgave almost anything, and was seldom a hard-ass. That is, as long as we arrived promptly with shined shoes, free of hate, and went out of our way to demonstrate that as long as the men of our family were roaming the Earth, chivalry was alive and well. Oh, and for the love of God, when Dad asked, "Hey, what are you doing there buddy-boy?" our explanation better have included a backup plan, or we were in for a lecture on the importance of Plan B!
And Then There Was Mom:
Mom comically referred to Dad as "The Old Boy" when chatting with close friends and family. Likewise, he called her "The Old Girl." While those terms of "endearment" were welcomed and even encouraged, the phrases of "My Old Lady" or "My Old Man" were out of bounds and thought of as disrespectful.
My parents were opposites and anything but typical. "Unorthodox" was their default position for a parenting style. I look back on that as a good thing. I know that structure is considered ideal for a kid, but the spontaneous nature of our household taught me to think on my feet.
My sister, Diane (I called her Susan in my first book), and I didn't grow up together. She was eleven and a half years older than I. She was out of the house and married when I was only six.
However, I gained valuable intel into my sister's younger years by eavesdropping as Mom told her best friend Nancy the stories of "what a little sneak" Diane had been under her watch. I didn't know that side of my sister and simply saw her as a frequent and friendly visitor to our home.
My brother Craig (I called him Carl in my first book) was two and a half years older than me. He was the meanest of bullies but I was able to use my problem-solving skills to keep him in check. Our mother described Craig as a "devil-child." Diane may have started the process of wearing down Mom, but Craig adequately finished the job.
Mom's maternal reservoir was barely a trickle by the time she got around to raising me. I know she loved me, even if only slightly-north-of-obligatory, at times. I loved her, too, but I tried very hard to stay out of her sight, off her mind, and absent the geographical reach of her right hand. The last thing anyone in our little town wanted was to piss off Thelma, and I included myself on that list.
Just like Dad, Mom Had a Few Hard-and-Fast Rules, Too:
1.) "Don't ever wake me up when I'm sleeping unless the G.D. house is on fire."
2.) "If someone starts a fight with you, it's your job to finish it if you can. If they are bigger than you and you can't, come and get me, even if you have to wake me up, and by God, I'll bring the finish!"
3.) "If I find out you got in trouble at school, you're getting your ass fanned double with the belt when you get home!"
4.) Four was a rule she made for herself; Dad was never allowed to see her without her false teeth.
I got along famously with Dad, embraced his edicts and made them my own. Like me, he was dyslexic but didn't know it until later in life. He found out when I did. However, throughout his younger years, he had the confidence to recognize his talents, but keeping with McAlisterville social norms of the 1950s 60s and 70s, he kept that information under wraps. For as smart as he was, like many dyslexics, he failed to realize that his strengths and his weaknesses originated from the same place.
I was a happy kid in many aspects of my life, but at the same time I was a kid being eaten alive by anxiety. Despite my best efforts and regardless of my father's dreams for my future neither I nor my family seemed to have the tools or understanding to secure my formal education.
In 1980, I came within minutes of quitting school, but out of respect for my parents, I denied myself the luxury of dropping out. I finalized my social promotion through the local educational system and graduated. I hold the dubious distinction of finishing 104 out of my class of 104. Yep, I walked across the stage and picked up a high school diploma while lacking the ability to read it with any more skill than one would expect from the average second grader of the time. I spent my early adult years as an angry young man.
I'm in my mid-fifties now and must say that life is pretty darn good.
My choice for living accommodations is a simple and uncluttered loft apartment. Like my home, the car I drive to my favorite breakfast haunt is solid and uncomplicated with an impeccable warranty and a reasonable payment.
Don't get me wrong, while I’m a very happy and optimistic man, I remain a student of-life in need of betterment and many more life lessons. No one, including me, has immunity from the human condition. I own many personal faults and realize that sometimes my life isn’t fair. Two things I practice without fail are:
1.) Never take for granted moments of sheer joy, such as coffee with a friend, anything that makes me belly laugh, and playing with a dog in fluffy snow.
2.) Look for the good that comes out of a bad situation. It’s always there. It may not counterbalance the bad, but I never discount anything good. In the late 1990s, I watched a close friend die a slow horrible death and wanted to throttle an older gentleman who said, “Something good will come of this.” I was so angry with him at the moment for saying that but came to realize my grieving taught me a great deal about how to live and what has true value in life. It was a gift from her to me that I hold dear.
Like Uncle Bob, Difficulty Doesn't Usually Call Before Visiting
The last two years have brought unexpected challenges. I’ve had a few accidents that caused health setbacks after I underwent a rather serious surgery. I knew I should have fixed that loose stair tread, but instead it fixed me, a broken right hand. A few months later, an icy set of concrete steps at St. Rocco’s Church led to a hard landing some fifty feet below with multiple broken bones including ribs. You will probably never be afforded a choice, but if you are, take a broken leg or arm over broken ribs.
Only a month or so after that, I was mauled by a dog.
You might remember me speaking of my wife? She and I have chosen to go our separate ways. I cherish the years of laughter and our many great adventures. I will always remember her fondly and wish the best for her. Nonetheless, the divorce was a terribly painful and sad ordeal for both of us.
Those challenges humbled me, and were hard on my finances. Admittedly, I went through a time of serious self-doubt.
Words From Abe Helped Me Through
I love words, and words got me through it as I kept reminding myself of what Abraham Lincoln said, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
I made up my mind to be happy.
I ask myself, “Was it all just a streak of bad luck?"
Yes, I believe it was.
No one escapes those chapters in their lives when everything seems to go wrong all at once. Everyone’s apple cart gets turned upside down from time-to-time. I’m not special, nor am I different in that regard. I accept the thought that it was my turn for a big challenge. Moreover, I’m thankful for the good that came from the bad in the form of strength gained from what I thought I couldn’t face. I’m glad to now be on the other side of those difficulties.
A lot has happened between childhood and today: good stuff, bad stuff, love, loss, triumphs, and humiliating personal failures. The good experiences and achievements go in the "happy" column, while the bad moments and failures get racked up in the "win" column. That's right, I wouldn't trade them for anything; I subscribe to Experiential Learning, and what an alternative education it has been.
I'm pleased that I not only survived my youth, early adult years, and my most recent test of fortitude, but am very thankful for the survival training.
My time as a boy inside of the brick and mortar school was unnecessarily brutal and unproductive. No kid should ever experience academic neglect. While I can't change the past, I can reflect on it with a writer's eye, and do that thing I love: write. Life revisited is my stock-in-trade as I sit down to practice my craft.
As a little fellow, for as confusing as my life was, I strongly felt that I was in training for some sort of mission, but totally unaware of exactly what it would be. Surely the instructions would come from a mysterious caller in the night, clad in a black trenchcoat and sporting a wide-brimmed fedora, or in the form of an audio tape that would self-destruct in a matter of seconds. Perhaps Superman himself would deliver the details! Could it be, that like most little boys of my era who watched Saturday morning cartoons, I just wanted to be on a mission so badly that I conjured delusions of grandeur to convince myself I was worthy of such an assignment?
The confirmation finally came in the summer after fourth grade, albeit terribly vague and open-ended. In spite of my scholastic misfortunes, my dad had a discussion with me while walking on the beach during our annual summer vacation in Brigantine, N.J.
"I see an aptitude in you, Nelson. Promise me that you will use your gifts and talents to make the world a better place," he said.
What a conundrum: personal validation of my worthiness for a mission without any orders, instructions, or set plans from Headquarters!
Today, still operating on that loose directive from Dad, I'm satisfied to think of myself not only as a capable problem-solver but moreover what every American by our birthright should be, a seeker of social justice in the employ of humanity. I must admit that I still harbor tremendous disappointment that the gig comes without a red satin cape. Oh, and talk about being bummed, the simple law of gravity has grounded me from achieving unaided flight. I so wanted to fly, damn it!
X-ray vision or super-sonic speed would help, but instead, I was granted a tutor at age twenty-nine who bestowed literacy upon me and all the responsibility that goes with it; I became a writer.
Set My People Free!
As far as words go, I like and don't like, "hope" and "help." There are lots of words I have mixed feelings about, and of course, it all depends on the context. Don't get me wrong, "hope" is a fabulous word as it relates to desperate circumstances such as battling a serious illness or when trying to transform the impossible into the possible. Hope is powerful when it is all we have. That's when I'm hope's biggest cheerleader.
"Hope," as it relates to a solvable problem is different. In such a case, "hope" can become the pawn of ignorance. Ignorance will have hope masquerade as a lukewarm, highly uncommitted, “don't call us, we'll call you,” kick-the-can-down-the-road, maybe-baby. Too often we throw our hands up in the air and "hope," when what we need to do is roll up our sleeves and get started on a solution.
When shopping for shampoo, I pluck bottles from the shelf and skim the back label. If I read "helps" to control dandruff, I quickly move on to the next product. My $7.95 demands a sudsy concoction that will control dandruff. Navy blue is my color according to friends; scientific evidence exists here in the 21st century to support the fact that I should be able to wear a sweater of that hue without the social anxiety associated with a flaky scalp.
And what's this nonsense about mouthwash that '"helps" to kill the germs that cause bad breath?' What do they mean by "helps" to kill? Is someone or something else needed to finish the job? Are we expecting reinforcements? If I use this product will half-dead germs be crawling around my teeth and gums causing even worse breath? Will they ever die or is it like the Hotel California in my mouth? "Help" sounds an awful lot like "hope" to me. Buy our product and hope it helps? When we reduce "hope" to a maybe-baby, then "help" in the same context is nothing more than a half-hearted try in cases calling for decisive action.
The dyslexic student needs and must have tailored instruction, curriculum, and access to technology that teaches to their individual strengths and style of learning if they are to realize their potential. Without the proper educational tools in the hands of skilled teachers, we can hope and help all day long; regardless of our good intentions, we are committing a horrid injustice against children who are looking to us for what they need to succeed in life.
Dandruff and Dyslexia
Yes, it's the 21st Century and, not only have we conquered dandruff, we have learned ingenious methods for instructing dyslexic kids!
As dyslexics, we are thought to rank right up there among the most innovative troubleshooters in the world.
When it comes to the business of solvable problems (in this case educating dyslexic kids), we no longer need hope, help, or a maybe-baby. We have the right stuff at our disposal and brilliant teachers chomping at the bit to have at these kids.
We'll get around to speaking at length about a word I truly despise, "DYSLEXIA!"
How About The Words "Encouragement" and "Inspiration"
I met Lori in seventh grade. By the eleventh grade, she wasn't much taller than when we first became friends. In spite of the fact that she barely broke five feet, Lori was a giant on the basketball court. Everyone assumed that to be a Lady Tiger Baller one had to stand a head taller than the average girl on campus. Fortunately, Lori was far more interested in basketball than stereotypes. We all watched with amazement as our darling, petite class redhead blurred down the court and sank another basket.
I wasn't a sports fan, but I sure was a Lori fan. I was fascinated by her approach, lay-up, and how she handled the ball with her small hands. I got goosebumps watching how she instinctively turned her seeming-disadvantages to her advantage. She looked like a caffeinated red squirrel (I mean that in the nicest way, Lori) as she dodged and weaved around much larger players.
It wasn't some crazy sixth sense that allowed me to see her secret weapon that I felt other fans didn't notice. I saw a coach in the background who broke with tradition to embrace Lori's unique style. I spotted that because I knew what it looked like. I had a coach, too, but it wasn't for sports.
The memory of Lori on the basketball court has always been a go-to inspiration for me when trying something new. I think of Lori when others might question whether or not I'm qualified or a good fit. My mind immediately goes to the "Red-Blur" as I imagine her walking into sign-up day for the Lady Tigers basketball team.
Note To Teachers, Admins, School boards, Parents & So On
You may read this book and think no kid in America is getting services for dyslexia. Au contraire! I am happy to report that there are kids who are receiving fabulous support and are doing just fine. There are places in the US where teachers, parents, and admins come together and create a culture where dyslexic minds learn and thrive in a way that is refreshing.
Then there are places in America where there is no more "help or hope" for dyslexic kids than when I was a student.
The Dreaded Cliche and Metaphor
My skin is thick, and I have a highly skilled editor. If you are a writer and can handle criticism, hire a fabulous editor like mine—if you can't, hire someone to stroke your hair and tell you, "everything will be okay, honey." With that said, if you haven't already noticed, my mind, like many other people with dyslexia, thinks in pictures, imaginary voices having two-sided arguments, patterns, metaphors, comparisons, and even the dreaded cliche. I have asked my editor to give me a little leeway in the use of these mind tools.
I want to take you inside my brain so that perhaps you can arrive at a better understanding of the landscape inside your kid's head.
Speaking of words I don't like: dyslexia.
"Dyslexia" is from the Greek, translated "Dys" means "bad," "abnormal," and/or "impaired."
"Lexia" means "language."
Thank God this word is in a foreign tongue that the majority of Americans don't understand. It's certainly counterintuitive to good self-esteem. No one will debate that feeling good about one's self is central to productive learning. That said, here is the rub: the many gifts associated with dyslexia are nearly impossible to unlock without solid self-esteem.
Forgive Me, Father, for I Cheat at Scrabble
Because I wish to start using a word other than "dyslexia," I'm making up my own words and phrases just like when I play Scrabble!
Who am I to think I can change a well-established word? I'm not saying you have to use my new words and phrases. Feel free to continue saying dyslexia if you wish. I won't be offended, nor will I judge you for using the word. I understand change is hard, and it takes time. I guess this is as good of a time as any to tell you that I am changing some phrases, too, but only where my personal vernacular is concerned. I have no intention of forcing it on anyone or getting angry with someone who doesn't embrace my terminology. I respect that we all have the full protection of the First Amendment regarding free speech.
This is about me, and what words I try not to let come out of my mouth. In my everyday life, dyslexia is now like the artist formerly known as Prince. In describing myself and others in my writing, I am changing the word formerly known as dyslexia to "difstypro." Dif-sty-pro is from the English and translates to "Different Style of Processing." I think the word difstypro fits nicely into the emerging community of neurodiversity.
Admittedly, difstypro is a big word and hard to remember. So, in the interest of simplicity, I may shorten difstypro to its more user-friendly abbreviation of "pro."
Using pro in a sentence might sound like this:
- "We utilize an Orton-Gillingham-based curriculum for instructing our pro students. Orton-Gillingham is a 100-year-old curriculum that is as effective today as ever. Our pro students love it because it is fun!”
- "We have quite a number of pros in our student body and recognize their natural talents."
- Sir Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, and Dr. Toby Cosgrove are a few examples of high-achieving pros."
For the rest of this book, the words difstypro and dyslexia will, at the very least and whenever possible, be interchangeable. When you read words such as dyslexia or dyslexic, know that I am cringing as I write them.
I will never again use phrases such as "slow reader," "struggling reader," or "learning disabled."
I no longer wish to say "diagnosed with dyslexia." Instead, I am using the phrase "identified as difstypro."
I may or may not allow an identifying label to be placed on me as long as I and everyone else agree that the label does not translate to less-than.
Being Different is Good!
Since the beginning of time, humanity has struggled with diversity. Overcoming the tensions associated with our differences speaks to the best of who we are as people. Our diversity is at the very core of our greatness. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, lifestyles, cultures, skill sets, languages, abilities, aptitudes and talents. Now (drum roll please) we are looking at diversity in a whole new way that includes brain type. Yes, we are talking about NEURODIVERSITY!
It only makes sense that everyone has a brain type, just like everyone has a blood type or hair type. Neurodiversity celebrates many different types of minds. However, for the purposes of this book when I use the word neurodiverse I am referring to people with a difstypro/dyslexic mind.
Human Diversity Is A Cause For Celebration!
I possess a difstypro mind, and that is only a problem for me if I am denied the use of tools and technology that I depend on to communicate or if I am placed in a situation where someone denies me my right to write with my voice or read with a combination of my eyes and ears. I have no problem reading with my eyes alone if I am familiar with the text or the text is relatively short. Likewise, I can handle light-duty writing without my voice as long as I keep my smartphone handy to help me out with spelling.
Every now and then I run into a situation where someone tries to block my access to the compensatory tools I need, and that is when the A.D.A. (Americans With Disabilities Act), and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) save the day! They bring with them a myriad of laws meant to protect and ensure the accommodations that use our difstypro strengths to give us mastery. The good news is I am an A.D.A. cop. The bad news is I'm an A.D.A. cop because like so many statutes on the books, one must be prepared to go to court and enforce the laws themselves.
Currently, I am a plaintiff in a routine civil matter. The court has been very respectful and kind but stymied by my use of technology for reading, writing, taking notes, and so on. In such a circumstance I turn to the A.D.A. for the protection that allows my technology (otherwise banned) in a courtroom. The ignorance that gets in my way is usually an innocent ignorance, misunderstanding, and fear of what is "different." So yes, I embrace the spirit of the A.D.A. and other such acts for what they are at their heart: a buffer against ignorance.
Speaking of words I love, let's have a chat in the next chapter about the greatness of neurodiversity!