For two days, I sat glumly in a higher-powered meeting of program directors for a famous philanthropic organization frustrated that I was unable to log in to my laptop to be able to do the exercises others were doing around me. It was a very simple log in: “Username: Guest Password: Guest@0000.” I tried probably twenty times. It’s frustrating having a broken computer. Such terrible programming! Except, when I confided the problem to a colleague and she offered to try for me, she was able to log in on the first try.
The programming problem was in my brain. Not the first time. Not the last.
I begin with this anecdote about my personal learning disability because it is extremely difficult for the “able brained” or “normal brained” to be able to fathom what it really feels like to be “differently brained.” Even friends who think they know, do not. It falls upon the “differently brained” to have to translate a reality that the “normal” typically cannot comprehend.
Take a recent Facebook conversation. A wonderful teacher writes in frustration about one of her students, “For the record. This will surprise no one, but I feel that documenting this will help me not go insane. Syllabus: Read Books 1-6 of The Iliad. Student email: Are we supposed to read the first 6 books of The Iliad?” Predictably, the long string of comments, many of them from our mutual friends, great human beings and sympathetic and caring teachers, commiserate in empathic and often extremely witty ways with the frustrated teacher having to deal with this obtuse, lazy, stupid student.
I wanted to hug the student. I wanted to congratulate that student for having the courage to write to a prof to clarify an assignment that seemed confusing. As confusing as, say: “Username: Guest Password: Guest@0000.”
I wrote the equivalent of the above in the Facebook Comments. It wasn’t a great thing to do since it disrupted some mirthful empathy exchanged among beleaguered teachers who had had to answer one too many emails from seemingly lazy students. To her great credit, this teacher understood what I was trying to say. She understood that, if she had been harsh and judgmental to that student (she hadn’t been, btw), she could have, well, put a roadblock in the educational career of someone who would turn out to be a successful teacher, author, educator one day. I am filled with admiration for this teacher who turned her own views around. It is as difficult for the able-brained to understand the differently brained as it is for me to read the instructions and manage to type in “Username: Guest Password: Guest@0000.”
I am lucky. When I was in preschool, Chicago gave all three and four year olds an innovative new math test that claimed to sort out potential “math geniuses” and nurture them. Apparently I did well, because I spent my childhood whisked into an array of special programs, competitions, new kinds of challenges and tests, and math camps, always designated for the “smart kids,” and always a surprise since I was barely a C student in school, including in math. All my teachers knew I was this “math genius” (I despise the term but it’s the one I heard growing up); they also saw that I could make sense of large amounts of complicated, even contradictory information quickly (the skill I have relied on most in my adult life). Because I could do such “higher order” thinking, they assumed the areas where I didn’t perform were evidence of “obstinance,” a word I heard even more frequently than “math genius.”
There were so many things I could not do in school. They all branded me “obstinate.” If Facebook had been invented back then, one of my frustrated teachers would have posted about me in order to delay her mounting insanity over this obstinate student of hers who refused to read out loud or to recite anything from memory, who claimed she couldn’t sing the words to songs or comprehend the meaning of a sentence that had both words and numbers in it. A “math genius,” who can solve a sequence of equations, numbers, symbols . . . but only if there are no words in the sentence? Come on! It can only mean one thing: Obstinate! (Note to adult self: please don’t try to write your own checks, Cat!)
If I hadn’t taken some experimental test designed by some psychologists at the University of Chicago convinced they could separate out future mathematicians from the common herd of kids who could do calculation but would never be able to handle abstract numerical complexity, I probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school.
There are lots of steps in between that little preschooler and my present career. I’m not going to enumerate all of those here, but, because I’m differently brained, I hate to end without throwing out a lifeline to someone else out there who might have similar learning issues and who might be struggling with some basics. So I’ll let you in on my best tricks for succeeding in a world that is mono-brained and that requires extra navigational skills from those of us differently-brained.
Also, I find that my “normal brained” friends find the example of my personal success-tactics useful in understanding how differently someone else can think. Keep this in mind: Most teachers are not differently brained. Most teachers are those who, not surprisingly, have made it through the educational system smoothly enough to replicate it, even when they think of themselves as radical reformers of that system. Especially English teachers. English teachers are the gatekeepers to the normal brained. (I see this all the time when I am hanging out with my computer and technology pals. I no longer remember much math but, when I’m with them, my blood pressure goes down, and so does theirs when I assure them that, although an English teacher, I’m dyslexic. Whew. I can feel the relief. Whew.)
So what’s my best trick? How have I pulled off this pretty stellar career as an educator despite having an unusual learning style? Team work. Finding the right partner to work with. I have lots of other tricks but that is my best one by far, the most essential one. In my field, that means I’ve always, from my very first job, volunteered to do complicated administrative, bureaucratic, or leadership tasks that no one else wants or can do. As an assistant professor, I ran a program for nearly a decade without ever having my name on the masthead because the director was arrogant enough to want the glory but not ambitious enough to do the work. (I know, maybe he was “work disabled.”) In any case, he had a wonderful coworker (in HR terms an “assistant”) who did not possess the same learning issues I have. Together, she and I made an amazing team.
So that’s it: The single most important key to my success has been, first, identifying, recognizing, and being willing to find workarounds for my different brain, understanding that the normal-brained have no idea what it feels like, on an everyday level, to be differently brained. This is a much harder step than you think because everything in our society mitigates against this self-awareness. It’s why I wanted to hug the student who asked my Facebook friend if s/he was correctly understanding the assignment. There is so much stigma, so much assumption, and so much lack of awareness among the normal-brained. Attention blindness again. You literally can’t see what you can’t see–so the able brained can’t see beyond their own abilities to realize those are not universal. Since I do see, it is my task to be able to make the bridge from the way my brain works to theirs. They don’t get it, they won’t be able to make the bridge themselves, so I have to take charge of the situation.
So, second, I have always teamed up with someone really smart and non-judgmental (the word “obstinate” is not acceptable). These are rare individuals (you know who you are out there: thank you, thank you!), who have deep human insight and respect without prejudice . . . and who are able to pull off flawlessly, seemingly effortlessly, even automatically, what, for me, is virtually impossible: “Username: Guest Password: Guest@0000.”
I have been lucky to work with talented, insightful people throughout my career. Together, we move mountains.
Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century (Viking Press)
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