CHAPTER FOUR 

SELF ESTEEM

 

 

Intro To Self Esteem

 

I have searched endlessly and have yet to find reliable data or demographics on childhood self-esteem.  I am very interested in data sliced by age, geography, and socioeconomic background. I'd like to see it diced into the subcategories of good, bad, healthy, and non-healthy.   I'm curious how researchers would quantify and qualify self-esteem. I want to know who has it, why, and how has it benefited them? Who lacks it, why, and what are the consequences of not having it?

 

With the value society places on reading, writing, and spelling, a difstypro/dyslexic kid's self-esteem can easily go down the tubes.  The truth is that many a kid like me will never be proficient in written language skills without utilizing tech like I'm doing at this very moment.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that a person will have a much better life with a proper dose of confidence and a sixth-grade reading level as opposed to a twelfth-grade reading level and no self-confidence.  Of course, the goal is to strive for achievement in both areas.

 

 

The single greatest assets any human being will ever have is a belief in themselves.  There will be time for teaching a subject next week, next month, next time. But how many years will flip by on a calendar until a person finds the solution to fix their broken self-esteem?  You do not want that for your kid. No decent person wants that for any child. 

 

A Firm Handshake

 

Brons, Fourth Grade, 1972  

 

For the first time, I had more than just one teacher with the start of fourth grade.  Being a fourth-grader at McAlisterville elementary meant changing classes and teachers multiple times each day.

 

While my third-grade teacher gave up on phoning Dad, one of my fourth-grade teachers thought she'd give it a shot.

 

Dad responded to a phone call to meet with Miss Parker after school.  As usual for that time of day, he presented in his blue and white company uniform complete with pressed pants, shined shoes, and a crisp shirt.  As usual, he carried the ever-so-faint scent of diesel fuel. 

 

My father turned forty-four that year and was ruggedly handsome with muscles bursting from his short sleeves and wavy brown hair so natural that it seldom saw a comb.  A boyish crooked smile only added to his charm as a confident young businessman. Dad was mindful of his strength as he shook Miss Parker's hand.

 

Miss Parker was frustrated and angry with me. Her face was red, and she looked as if she was going to blow a gasket. 

 

"Nelson, why don't you wait in the hall?" Dad asked in a pleasant tone.  I could still hear everything that was said.

 

"Sir, your son won't participate in class! When I call on him, he ignores me! If I ask him why he won't do his assignments he tells me he lost his glasses again! He won't even try to read! I don't know what to do with him!" 

 

She took a deep breath, lowered her voice and declared, "I’m writing a formal request to the district to have Brons attend summer school."  

 

"Miss Parker, I'll talk with Nelson."  

 

Dad knew I was eavesdropping and there was no need for a discussion regardless of what he told Miss Parker. He knew I was crushed.  In my mind, summer school equaled "dumb kid." He allowed me to process that information on my own, and I appreciated that more than any lecture he would have ever tried to give me.

 

It was another one of those moments where Dad not only struggled to understand his own difficulties with literacy but also how his trouble with written language was related to mine.  Mom often said that Dad "can read so-so, but can't write for a damn." At that point in our lives, we still hadn't heard the word "dyslexia." 

 

Dad Was Thinking Long-Term 

 

Dad dropped me off at the house, went back to the oil company, but came home early from work that evening.  

 

The lessons were about to begin.  His deep friendly voice rang through the house, "Nelson, where are you? Come here!"  

 

I ran down the steps from my bedroom. Dad extended his big, callused hand. I reached up with mine and gave it a shake.  

 

"Nelson, I haven't seen you since earlier this afternoon. How have you been?"  

 

I giggled. It seems funny and a bit awkward. All I could think to say was, "Good."

 

"Okay, Nelson, we're going to do this over. Run back upstairs to your room. I'll call you again, and when I extend my hand, you shake it with the firmest grip you can muster. I'll ask, 'How are you.' You'll say, 'I'm doing well, and you, sir?”

 

The lessons continued into the night with instruction in eye contact, smiling, and making conversation. It's was fun! 

 

Dad showed me how to shake an elderly gentleman's hand using less force and the manly art of shaking a lady's hand by turning it flat and putting my other hand over her hand in a two-handed shake, That's how Dad shook Miss Parker's hand earlier in the day.  

 

"How did you learn all this, Dad?"  

 

"I learned by watching other people, especially George the banker." 

 

The Next Day and the Rest of Dad's Life 

 

"All right, Nelson, get to bed and get a good night's sleep. We're meeting Doc, Peanut, and George for breakfast at six o'clock sharp. They're eager for you to try out your new skills on them. After breakfast, I'll drop you off at school and pick you up when it's over.  You're going to ride on the oil truck with me the rest of the day and shake hands with all the customers we visit."

 

"But why, Dad?"

 

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Nelson?"  

 

"I want to be a broadcaster or a lawyer."

 

"Don't you want to run for president?"

 

"You mean like President Nixon, Dad?"

 

Dad was a prankster, but not this time. The look on his face was deadly serious.   

 

"Yes, Nelson, like President Nixon." 

 

"Wow, maybe! Do you honestly think I could be the President of the United States, Dad?”

 

"I believe that you WILL be the President someday, Nelson. You have the brains for it."

 

"Do you think I'm smart, Dad?"

 

"I think you're brilliant, and regardless of what you do with your life, you're going to need these skills."

 

Dad taught me how to speak, greet people, and the subtle art of working a room. He reminded me again of the importance of always having a plan B and keeping a shine on my shoes.

 

I indeed went to summer school that year and while all indicators pointed toward the fact that I was the "dumb kid," there was one thing that made me doubt that very much: my dad told me every day that I was smart. 

 

The continuing instruction from Dad and my ability to put it into play has been at the center of everything good that has ever happened to me.  I would even go so far as to say that the call from Miss Parker to my father was a pivotal moment that forever changed my life.


LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

 

I started my first business as a fourteen-year-old buying and selling scrap metal.   Thanks to Dad's coaching, I had the confidence to look a farmer or sawmiller straight in the eye, extend my right hand and say "Hi, I'm Brons, I buy scrap metal."   To date, buying and selling scrap as a teenager is my most successful entrepreneurial endeavor. I say "successful" not so much in the amount of money I earned, but in the knowledge gained from the mistakes I made. I cut my teeth in business while some kids were still actually cutting their teeth; well, maybe their secondary teeth. 

 

The only time in my life that I ever got a paycheck from someone else was as a school kid pumping gas for Dad, and a one-year part-time job I had as a broadcaster working behind the microphone for AccuWeather.  Like many academically neglected dyslexics/difstypros who came of age in the last century, entrepreneurship seemed like my only choice for keeping food on the table and paying my bills. My forty plus years in business has been anything but glamorous, regardless of how it may appear from the outside looking in.  It has been nerve-wracking and desperate at times. I've never been one of those guys (God bless them) with the leisure time to go golfing three or four afternoons a week. Profit is a constant concern as is the never-ending challenge of cash flow. Thankfully, a minimalist lifestyle that allows me to enjoy people and experiences instead of stuff fits me well as an entrepreneur. Most of us who are fighting every day in the trenches of small business know that it's not how much money you make, it's how much you keep that provides security.

 

Of course, my father's dream that I would someday go to Harvard and become a world-renowned lawyer never came to fruition.   As it turns out, I never became a student at any leafy campus, but I'm still considering it. It's what I learned in those formative years as a young businessman that I consider my MBA. I had to learn the hard way, the real-deal stuff no college can ever teach.   Entrepreneurship taught me how to keep at it after enduring repeated miserable failures, and there is no triumph sweeter than that.  Everything I ever got right in business (and life) took several tries. Like most young entrepreneurs who learn the best way (the hard way), I've had the rug pulled out from under my feet by people who tricked me, pulled the wool over my eyes, dismissed me as dumb or as a country hick—to every one of them, I owe a debt of gratitude and thanks for what they taught me. 

 

I used to think that it was dyslexia that put the kibosh to the Harvard dream, but it wasn't.  It was academic neglect.

 

I knew I was different as a kid, and looking back most people would say that dyslexia stole my shot at education but that's just plain nonsense. I was a bright child completely capable of learning. The problem was no one knew how to teach me.

 

Am I angry? Absolutely not, and I count dyslexia/difstypro among the top three very best things that have happened in my life. Let's face it, dyslexia/difstypro, and the abilities it has afforded me, are central to everything that works in my favor.  It took a while, but like Mr. Bigler's chain driven air compressor, my system needed a few tweaks. 

 

There is nothing in this world that I would trade for my past, regardless of how messed up it was at times with all my many blunders and heartbreaks.  At the same time, I am cognizant of the fact that many do not share my sentiments on dyslexia/difstypro. I learned the secret to unlocking my mind, and while I can't speak for everyone, I firmly believe it is nearly impossible to realize what the dyslexic/difstypro mind has to offer without solid self-esteem and confidence. My ability to recognize my strengths, and use them to compensate for my weaknesses, would not have come to fruition without the nonstop encouragement and coaching from Dad. 

 

I knew my father was a powerful influence in my life, but in the harried hustle and bustle of my every day, I took for granted just how pivotal his role was in shaping my entire future.  As a writer, I never stop searching for meaning. In the same vein, I've never stopped searching for a better understanding of myself.    A leap forward in that better understanding came out of the blue on a fall day in 2011. Jane, my former wife, asked my mom, "Thelma, what was Nelson's dad like?"

 

Mom pointed to me and said, "You're looking at him. He's a carbon copy of the Old Boy. They look, talk, walk, speak and think alike. They make everyone laugh with their crazy stories and dumb jokes. The crease running down the left side of Nelson’s jaw means he is his father’s son. The only difference, and I mean the ONLY difference, is that this one is taller because of MY cooking. Trust me, Janey, as long as Nelson is alive, his dad will never be dead." 

 

But it wasn't just Dad who saved me.

 

 

MOM AND DAD

 

Clair and Thelma

 

You'd think I'd have been happy to escape high school in the spring of 1981, and even more pleased that I never had to think about education again. I was, but as many of my classmates left for college in the late summer of that year, I drove back to the mountain where no one could see me, parked my car, and sobbed. I hate to admit that because it makes me sound like such a sap. 

 

I was smart, but Dad was the only one who seemed to know. I kept repeating to myself; "One hundred and fourth? One hundred and fourth? Did I really graduate one hundred and fourth out of one hundred and four? 

 

As a school kid, I came so close, so many times, to reaching my breaking point, but I never quite crossed that line! It wasn't a magic formula or an elusive fountain of confidence that got me through. I wish I could tell a jaw-dropping story that included a secret weapon hidden in the attic of my boyhood home that gave me grit.  If only I could spin a yarn of how I retrieved my mystical lightsaber in a nightly ceremony that paid homage to the faraway planet where I was born. Yes, that would be fun, but instead, there are just two reasons for my tattered but repairable self-esteem staying stitched together: 

 

1.) Mom

2.) Dad

 

Not necessarily always in that order. 

 

Dad taught me the finer points of being a gentleman and coached me in the subtle art of diplomacy. He taught me to solve problems and tell a good story.  

 

You're probably wondering what life-schooling came from the maternal side of our household.  

 

Mom taught me to fight dirty!

 

Although mom put it like this: "There is no such thing as fighting dirty. Go for the jugular and remember that winning the fight is all that matters."  

 

That is how my mother survived life on the city streets of Harrisburg. It was part of her DNA, and there was no way of filtering it out of her system.

 

Mom could have protected the town junkyard better than any Rottweiler.  She was a take-no-shit-kind-of-city-girl and as pretty as any Radio City Rockette. 

 

Dad and his twelve siblings grew up on a south-facing eighty-acre patch of land. Most was tillable ground with the rest left as groves of trees used for lumber and firewood.  The farm had been carved out from a forested ridgeside by his ancestors in the late 1700s and passed down through the generations. Little had changed for the family since coming to America in 1732.  About the only thing that had changed was their language. In spite of being in America for 200 years, my father was the first generation to speak English as their first language. They still dressed in handmade clothing, farmed with mammoth workhorses, milked cows by hand, heated and cooked with a wood-fired stove, and lived off the land. 

 

Grandpa's sister, a midwife (Aunt Emma) was the very first person to lay eyes on Harvey and Ruth's firstborn son.  Dad was born on a cold January night in 1926 in a small log cabin with no plumbing, electricity, or phone. The family's only transportation at the time was a horse drawn buckboard.  

 

For all that scratching in the dirt, or maybe because of it, and his family's conscious decision to distance themselves from all things worldly, Dad exuded such irresistible charm, good looks, finesse, approachability, and a genuine heartfelt caring for people that he could have grown up to command the world stage.  It boggles my mind to envision him as a young person from the Plain Community of Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren-in-Christ. If it is true that the meek shall inherit the earth, then the pious inhabitants of the family homestead were surely at the front of the line. 

 

My grandparents and their brood certainly knew all about the Great Depression, but its impact was of no consequence.  Everything they needed, with a few minor exceptions, came from the earth directly under their feet. 

 

Salt, sugar, coffee, bolts of cotton material, thread, buttons, and the occasional luxury of a newspaper were among their very few purchases when they ventured into town.  Other items, such as pots, pans, kettles, flatware, plates, cups and saucers were handed down through the generations or purchased at a neighbor’s public auction at the end of a simple life lived. Almost all the furniture in the home was handmade. 

 

While 1933 farm life kept seven-year-old Clair busy and well fed, some fifty miles away in the Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg, two-year-old Thelma Ward struggled against poverty and hunger but not identity.  From her very first breath, she had no choice but to be who she had to be: a fighter. Survival was one of two options, and the second one wasn't an option for the gritty Ward family.

 

As over one hundred pages flipped on the calendars of the 1930s, Carpenter K. "Carp" and Martha Ward holed up in a rickety tool shed behind a gas station with their seven kids as they waited for the promises of F.D.R's New Deal.  Those promises finally came, sorta—and things got better, kinda. 

 

WW II refitted industrial plants into military production facilities as President Roosevelt called Americans to "Total War." With that, Carp Ward finally found steady work at the Harrisburg Steel Company rolling bombs from the production floor to the loading dock. The piece rate of ten cents per bomb was so motivating that Carp figured out how to roll two at a time. Pappy Ward could make it from the line to the loading dock and back for two more bombs in twenty-four minutes. That was twenty-five trips in a ten hour day IF he chewed his lunch while his feet kept moving. My pap had a withered leg.  I never knew if it was the result of an injury or a birth defect. In spite of that, a bomb-roller with Carp's ambition took home about twenty dollars a week. 

 

Pap Ward asked, and was granted, permission to dismantle cast off Civil War era boxcars slated for burning in the nearby trainyards. He hauled the materials to a small building lot he purchased with his scrimpings. There, Pappy carefully sorted through the bowed and twisted lumber looking for the best of the worst. He built a modest house out of scraps. 

 

Almost eight decades later the Ward home still stands as a monument not only to the ingenuity born of hardscrabble but to a nation that finished a fight started by a monster with a silly little mustache.   

 

Meanwhile, back on the farm in Juniata County, young Clair came of age in search of a plan to escape his destiny as the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son who was expected to hear the calling and take his rightful place in the pulpit. Dad struggled with the guilt of disappointing his parents. There was indeed a compelling voice on the other end of the line. However, it wasn't the same voice that had called direct generations of brethren before him. Not Almighty God, but Uncle Sam was pointing a finger directly at the eighteen-year-old and saying, "I want you for the U.S. Army."  

 

Much to the chagrin of his father and not in keeping with his family's religious beliefs regarding pacifism, Dad traded in his hand sewn trousers for the uniform of a G.I.  

 

A few years after coming home from the war, Dad saw Mom; now a sassy eighteen-year-old who worked cleaning tourist cabins for her Aunt "Queenie" up the line on the banks of the Juniata River.  That's where they first met and started dating (tolerating) one another. With World War II in the past, Mom and Dad were opposites who tied the knot and started World War III at our house. 

 

Convinced that they were the last two people on this planet who should have ever married, I had so hoped they'd sit my brother and me down, the sooner, the better, and break the "bad news" to us that they were divorcing.  I couldn't stand the constant friction. Other kids had parents who divorced! Why couldn't we? 

 

It seemed so obvious that they rued the day they made the mistake of saying "I do." Dad shook his head at her venomous rants, and Mom cursed him to Hell, daily.

 

On October 8th, 1999, I watched the separation of a bond so strong that nearly a half a century of verbal combat failed to pull it apart. Mom held Dad's callused and weathered hand. The side of her thumb rested on his wrist as she waited to feel the last beat of his pulse.  It stopped a little after 10:00 pm. With tears streaming down her face, she choked out the words, "Forty-eight years, and it seems like it was only yesterday." They were true soulmates.

 

Mom, now eighty-seven, tells me that she still looks outside and sees Dad standing by his car, impatiently waiting for her as she double checks to makes sure the stove and lights are all off and that she didn't leave the iron plugged into the outlet. 

 

I am a blend of my parents.  In every situation, I subconsciously become the diplomat or the Rottweiler, almost always opting first for diplomacy, but ever aware that I have a Rotty in my back pocket, just in case.   

 

My parents taught me to find the courage ("balls" as mom would say) no matter how frightened I am, to stick-up for someone else.  Mom and Dad's ability to put all arguments aside and help someone who couldn't help themselves at the moment was inspiring to watch.  It's the only time they didn't fight! It was poetry; they were lockstep and fluid in their approach as they worked in concert. It came naturally. I've never witnessed anyone do it better. 

 

Like you, I see the irony in the fact that they struggled to solve my academic problems. However, I wonder how I could have possibly found a mission so valuable and rewarding without the very irony that brought my life's purpose to fruition. 

 

I sure didn't think so as a kid, but Clair and Thelma were exactly who I needed as parents. It's funny how the focused lens of history has a way of clearing up what was so fuzzy at the moment. Mom and Dad remain a personal fascination and study in grit, stick-to-itiveness, soldiering on, and yes, a triumph born in irony.

 

I asked Dad in the last year of his life why he and Mom didn't just get a divorce.  He looked at me like I was asking the stupidest question he'd ever heard. 

 

He answered my question by asking me a question, "Have you ever known anyone else like your mother?" 

 

"No, nobody," I replied with a big chuckle.

 

"Well, there you have it. Your mother made my life interesting." 

 

Mom and Dad gave me the tools for solid self-esteem and confidence.  One can not unlock the gifts of difstypro/dyslexia if those tools are missing. My parents knew enough to know that if my self-esteem fell apart, I would have no chance. They kept me stitched together as best they knew how.

 

I could have never made it without Clair AND Thelma. Never.