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Early Years with a Disability - Part 3

Kindergarten and Early Grade School: Fitting-In, Learning to Write, and Teacher’s Pet

On the first day I went to kindergarten (at the Delaware School on Delaware Street), I was, like most kids, a bit afraid, very excited, and wide-eyed at all the new sights and sounds, including the furniture, equipment, and toys in the classroom. I recall being particularly impressed by a large collection of blond-wood building blocks – big enough for a five-year-old to use as a stool – that were shaped in such a way that they could be stacked one-atop-the-other, much like oversized wooden Legos (that would not become popular until some years later). I do not remember what else occurred in the classroom on that first day, but eventually we all went out to the playground for recess. For whatever reason, all the kids in my class started running around the kindergarten building. This was the largest group of kids my age that I had ever been part of, and I can recall, to this day, that I was running and laughing with everybody else and got this wonderful warm, happy feeling – I loved being part of a big gang of kids. Despite my natural shyness, I had a deep yearning to be a member of a passel of kids. The feeling of being one of the pack, of being accepted by my peers, of being in the in-crowd or even just one of the crowd, of belonging, is something that I have longed for much of my life.

Happily, for most of the year in kindergarten I felt like “one of the gang” (or at least do not remember any feelings to the contrary) and was enthusiastically immersed in finger paints, construction paper, naps, recess, toys, and having stories read to us. Things gradually started to change when I started elementary school at St. Joseph’s Grade School, a Catholic institution that my father and his siblings had attended. Before I started school, Mom had taught me the ABCs verbally, by repetition (beginning when she was doing those right arm exercises in the months after I had polio) and the common alphabet song, but, when we began learning to print and write letters in school, I had some serious problems.

Because of my right-arm limitations, the teachers taught me to write left-handed. Whether or not there is some truth to the idea that forcing left-handed children to switch to the right hand increases their chances of developing various neurological and psychological problems, including stuttering and learning disorders such as dyslexia, I, going the reverse way, from right to left, did not experience those problems. To the extent that psychological problems may be fueled by a feeling that teachers were being cruel, rigid, or tyrannical in forcing lefties to write right-handed, I did not experience such feelings because I believed, as my teachers did, that I would only be able to write if I used my left hand. Learning to write with the left hand did entail a couple of significant problems for me. One of those was that it was extraordinarily hard for me not to reverse letters. When I was supposed to print a lower case “b,” I would often print a “d” and vice-versa; if I was trying to print a “p,” “n,” “k,” “r,” “u,” or “h,” I would frequently put the rest of the letter on the wrong side of the vertical line; my “j” commonly hooked the wrong way; and my lower case “y” would have the part below the “v” angled in the wrong direction. Although it was not labeled as such, this problem could probably be considered a minor form of the learning disability called dysgraphia, that has to do with difficulties affecting writing. It was only through many months of repetitions and corrections that I finally learned to get the letters right.

Another problem with my writing left-handed was that I was incredibly slow. Whether copying an exercise or giving written answers to questions in class, the other students were at least twice as fast as me. This meant not only that I took an inordinate amount of time in completing written homework, but that I was at a great disadvantage in taking tests or exams that were timed or ended with the final bell for the class. There were occasions in which I was only halfway through a test that required written answers when time was called. My grades were usually not affected much as the teachers made some allowances for my slow-writing problem in the early years of school. Fortunately, I became good at making a quick study of questions and assignments and writing concise answers. More importantly, as writing became more habitual with practice and with increased focus on upping my pace, I gradually learned to write faster, until it was no longer a serious drawback.

Over time, it turned out that I had other kinds of writing talents – some creativity and skill in using language – that served me well in school. I also had pretty decent learning skills. It was good that I did, because I got almost no help from my parents. I remember vividly an incident in the third grade, when I was at home working on my math homework and needed help. I first asked Mom for assistance and, feeling insecure insecurity about her intellectual ability, she told me that she could not help me and suggested that my dad could probably help. Though I was a bit leery because he was tanked up after visiting the tavern before he got home, I convinced myself I had no choice but to ask Dad to assist me in working out the math problem I was having trouble with. He looked at the problem a bit, and then launched into a somewhat incoherent lecture largely centered on how Einstein had said there is no such thing as a straight line; I guess that part may be accurate, but it certainly was no help at all in figuring out my third-grade math problem. Disappointed and disgusted, I resolved that night never again to ask my parents for help with homework – a resolution I kept. I became militantly self-reliant.

Without any parental help, I became scrupulous about getting necessary information, mastering techniques, and obtaining clarifications while at school. I also became good at finding needed information in textbooks and especially the dictionary, where I learned exact meanings and nuances of words, and gleaned biographical and geographical information our dictionary contained. Ever since, I have been an addicted aficionado of dictionaries. While all of this strengthened my resourcefulness and ability to think independently, it exacerbated my sense of isolation – a me-against-the-world attitude – and conviction that I could not rely on anyone else. I very much needed parents who could provide parental wisdom and judgment. Instead, I often felt, even before I was ten, that I was the most mature person in the family.

When the teachers figured out that they had this kid with a disability who was also smart, they began to make quite a fuss over me. At first I enjoyed the attention and felt proud to raise my (left) hand repeatedly to give answers, but I soon figured out that other students were not too enamored with the goody, goody, eager-to-please boy who seemed to think he was smarter than everybody else. I began to be referred to, not unfairly, as a “teacher’s pet” – certainly not a term of endearment. It eventually reached the point that Mrs. Hillenbrand, our fourth-grade teacher, would leave me in charge of the class when she had to leave the classroom to confer with the principal or whatever. She apparently thought she was according me some special honor, but it felt bad to me to be singled out in this way, especially when it seemed to be mostly because of my defective right arm, and it clearly served to alienate me further from my classmates. So as not to make matters any worse, when Mrs. Hillenbrand returned, I did not report to her any of the misconduct and rule-breaking that my classmates had engaged in during her absence.

Continue to Part 4: Sports and My Baseball Fiasco