I was born on July 2, 1959, 7 weeks early, with no sucking reflex and no nails on fingers or toes. Because I wasn’t that small, though, I was not given special attention in the hospital. My parents have since told me they considered suing the hospital. By the time I was 4 or so, it was clear that I was, in my father’s phrase “screwed up somehow, but not stupid” (in fairness to him, he only used that phrase with me when I was well into adulthood). I was asked not to return to the same school after kindergarten. A psychologist told my parents I would never graduate from college. I did, by the way, graduate at age 20; my parents had a party for me. I invited the psychologist. He wrote back saying he was glad he was wrong.
My mother started a school for me, the Gateway School of New York, because there were no schools for kids like me: I was what was then just beginning to be called learning disabled. But the diagnoses my parents got were more like `minimal brain damage’ or `mentally retarded’. My mother was, to put it mildly, a very determined woman. She found another very determined woman (Elizabeth Freidus – pronounced freed us, and what a great name for a teacher in special ed)! Elizabeth did everything that had to do with teaching, my mom did everything else. I have two stories that may have some relevance (or may not – but they’re good stories) regarding the founding of Gateway: One regards normality and the other regards rights.
One of the big tasks my mother had was fund raising, because running a school is expensive indeed. At one meeting, a woman said she did not want her son to attend such a school, because he would not be considered `normal’. Another woman, a Mrs. Napier-White, a very proper lady in gloves, turned to her and said
I don’t like normal people. I never have.
Another task was finding a location. One possibility was space in a very prestigious church in one of the ritziest parts of New York. My mother and Elizabeth went to meet the leader of the church. He asked “Will there be Negro children in the school?” (this was 1964 or so). Elizabeth responded “We will admit children who can benefit from what we offer, regardless of race.”. Rev. Hamsa replied “GOOD! Some of my parishioners won’t be happy. There are other congregations.”
Gateway was (and is) a wonderful place. But this diary is not about that school; if there is interest I can write more about that. I left Gateway when I was 8; I attended private schools in New York City. This is when the troubles really began. I was very small for my age, extremely skinny, blind in one eye, highly nearsighted in the other, uncoordinated in the extreme, and, of course, learning disabled. I was socially retarded and academically precocious. I was a disaster waiting to happen, and I did not have to wait long. The first school I attended was Emerson, for 4th and 5th grade. This was bad, but not too bad. I did manage to make two reasonably good friendships (one with, for what it’s worth, one of the few Black kids in the school). I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t much liked, but I wasn’t a pariah. But then came junior high and high school. I do not remember a single overwhelming incident, it was more a constant feeling of constant dread, constant teasing, and a total absence of friendship. I had no friends in school. Not few, none. I had no `group’ – indeed, because of my learning disabilities, I wasn’t even aware there were groups – and so, I was constantly a victim. Glue was poured in my hair. Glue was poured on my chair as I sat down. People cheated off me without telling me. I was always last picked on every team. I got stuffed into trash cans. And so on. For 5 years (grades 6 through 11, I skipped the senior year to go to college). During this time I was frequently suicidal, once sitting out on the ledge 8 floors up over concrete, thinking. I climbed back in, and wrote this poem:
Have you ever?
Have you ever been out on a ledge, looking down?
Have you ever felt fear and hate all around?
Have you ever seen warfare inside your own soul?
Have you ever known that you’d never be whole?
And yet, for some reason, you crawl on back in
Like Hamlet from Shakespeare, but which is the sin:
To jump, fall and die, and thus to be free,
Or to be a coward, like Hamlet and me?
Much later, I lived in Israel for a few years, and learned Hebrew. The word for `to commit suicide’ in Hebrew, is, literally, `to lose oneself’ (it is the reflexive form of `to lose’, as in the opposite of `find’). I lost myself. I lost myself in reading (not the books assigned…..but lots of science fiction, history, biography, math, science, almost anything). I lost myself in math. In fifth grade, I had a math teacher of the old school, who thought that if you could not do a whole sheet of multiplication without error, you were not ready to learn division. I was given remedial math over the summer. She taught me 2 or 3 years of math. Then, in sixth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who skipped me to his ninth grade class when I took the book home and did the whole thing in one night). Then I came to class (this puny 6th grader) and wondered, aloud, how stupid the ninth graders must be to not understand material that was so easy for me. (Like I said, I was socially retarded. I wasn’t kidding when I said that). I lost myself in poetry, but found myself there, too. And I found myself in therapy (many years of it).
Gateway to myself
I dwelt alone, in misery, a shroud of hate lay over all.
Too alone, and far too fearful, to let a friend within my wall.
A castle tall and strong I built
And locked myself within its walls.
With my ego bruised and hurting
From a slew too many falls.
I was alone, king of my castle;
Lord of all that I surveyed.
And if others didnt’ want me,
I with hate their hate repaid.
I called myself a better person
Than anyone that I could see
But, deep within, I knew me lying
For deep within myself was me.
With the help of years and teachers
(Many of each, I am afraid)
I began to see that I
Could see my castle be unmade.
My first reaction, dim and fearful
Was to build walls higher still.
But I knew myself unhappy
And, somehow, I knew my own will.
Those walls remain, they’ll never vanish
Too much pain remains in me
Soon though, they will be made smaller
And let in a friend, or thee.
College was much, much better. I went to NYU, a huge school. That was good for me. Some parents of special needs disabled kids worry about big schools – that their kids will slip through the cracks. Me? I needed some cracks. I needed to not be the “weird one” but only one of the odd ones. To be weird in a high school with 200 students in total is easy. To be weird in a university with 40,000 students is hard.
Life since college is better still. Not that there haven’t been challenges, but I have a PhD and a good job; I’m married and have two wonderful kids. When I speak to parents I sometimes say:
I have good news, and bad news. The good news is that every year since age 15 has been better than the last. The bad news is that age 15 really SUCKED.
I am still learning disabled, and always will be. I give lectures about it now, both to teachers and to kids. I am writing a book about it, as well (tentative title – Screwed up somehow, but not stupid) – although the book is on hold, it’s a mess. I wrote a little more about my particular difficulties in my diary last night and would be glad to write more, either in reply to comments here, or in a separate diary; if you want a label for what I have, the best is probably nonverbal learning disability. It doesn’t make for an easy life. Of course, people with NLD are supposed to have no sense of humor and be bad at math. Heh. I gave a talk at an NLD conference where I said that. Then I said:
Bad at math. I’m a statistician. And no sense of humor …. well ..
A guy is flying in a hot air balloon, and he’s lost. He lowers himself
over a field and calls to a guy “Can you tell me where I am and where
“Sure. You’re at 35 degrees 2 minutes and 14 seconds North, 106
degrees 4 minute and 19 seconds west; you’re at an altitude of 1610
meters above sea level, and right now you’re hovering, but you were on a
vector of 234 degrees at 12 meters per second”
“Amazing! Thanks! By the way, do you have Asperger’s Syndrome?”
“I do! How did you know that?”
“Because everything you said is true, it’s much more detail than I
need, and you told me in a way that’s no use to me at all.”
“Huh. Are you a clinical psychologist?”
“I am, but how the heck did you know that??”
“You don’t know where you are. You don’t know where you’re going. You
got where you are by blowing hot air. You put labels on people after asking a few questions, and you’re in exactly the same spot you were 5
minutes ago, but now, somehow, it’s my fault!
What has all this to do with politics? I can’t say for sure. I’d like to think that my own victimhood has made me more sensitive to others. I do know that I have a visceral dislike for those who take advantage of those less fortunate, and that I have a visceral fondness for the `other’ the `different’ the `odd’. Naturally, these traits make me a Democrat and a progressive. Did my progressive views spring from my pariah status in adolescence? I don’t know. It could easily have come from my parents, both of whom are progressive. I’ve now been on dailyKos for several years, and, while I’ve read only a small fraction of the diaries, enough people have posted about their trauma to make me wonder if there is not some connection.
Was Nietzsche right when he said “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” No. Nietzsche was a jackass. What doesn’t kill us leaves us maimed. Some of the wounded show up here. Some do commit suicide. Some wind up racist, homophobic, and horrible; people who feel badly about themselves sometimes need to find others to feel better than, and sometimes the only way they can think to do that is by finding some whole group to denigrate. And, while bigots make me angry, they also evoke my pity. They are missing so much!
Do we, the weird but walking (I just made that up!), not have an obligation to reach out to others? No one should commit suicide because they don’t have friends. No one should be outcast. Not because their skin is a different color, not because they believe in a different God (or no God), not because the people who make them all tingly inside are the same sex as they are, not because they were born in the wrong bodies, not because they speak the wrong language, or because they come from a different country.
There is no ‘them’. There is only us. We the people. All of the people. Including the weird.
So, among those who had traumatic childhoods, or are disabled, or are otherwise stigmatized …. how do you think that has affected your political view?