Last year my dear friend and former student Cynthia Hurst asked me to write a story for her book The Diamond Project: Ordinary Women Leading Extraordinary Lives. I procrastinated for a long time because I couldn’t decide what to write on…Fortunately Cynthia is not only a wonderful person but a very patient one!
Then one day, “tout d’un coup” as the French say, I realized exactly what I needed to write. Over the years a number of the students I have taught have had learning differences, in fact several of the students in the very first French class I ever taught were dyslexic. I am passionate about researching learning differences and finding ways to help people with these differences learn “foreign” languages.
Too often I have seen students with learning differences encouraged to opt out of language classes, and in the process lose important opportunities to grow and communicate in an increasingly global world. Perhaps worse, I have heard stories of students with learning differences forced to take language classes taught without any modifications made to the curriculum or even acknowledgement that they could benefit from or possibly need different approaches or assessments in order to reach their full potential or even to succeed in those classes.
I have never made a secret of my own learning differences, but have rarely spoken about them except when offering encouragement to students or their parents. I realized that the article I was to write for Cynthia’s book would be a perfect forum for me to begin to do so. “The Purple Teapot” is my first written discussion of how my learning differences have both complicated and enriched my life.
The Purple Teapot
I was six when the seizures came. The doctors ruled out epilepsy, but never did find out what brought them on. What the seizures caused however, was clear. They weakened the right side of my body to such a degree that I couldn’t walk normally, couldn’t write legibly. My math and spatial relations abilities were essentially wiped out. My teachers told my parents I would probably never graduate high school. My doctors said I would never learn to ride a bike or swim.
My parents enrolled me in a special school through the third grade. Through the eighth grade I had special tutoring. I traced and reproduced so many series of three-dimensional and interlocking shapes in those classes that even now when I see the Olympic symbol those classes are all I can think about. Gym class was hell. Actually I played sick so often to miss gym class I almost couldn’t graduate high school; my mother had to get my pediatrician to write a note to get me excused from all those missed classes. I did learn to swim though, and learned to ride a bike in a day (albeit a long day I ended with a great number of scratches and bruises). I finished high school too. Later, I also earned a Ph.D.
I am incredibly fortunate to have had the parents that I did. I don’t know how I would have managed to overcome the obstacles the seizures presented me with if they hadn’t been there for me. It was my father who taught me to ride a bike. I was never told that I was not supposed to be able to learn. So when he offered me a pink and white frosted bike I was ready to go. He kept me out all day, refused outright to let me go inside until I could ride the bike. He was determined that I would not be disadvantaged in life. He is also the reason I made it through Algebra II in high school. Algebra II may not sound impressive; most people I know got through at least Pre-Calculus. But for me getting through Algebra II was huge.
My mother was a deeply caring and compassionate woman. She was also intensely creative. She played with me endlessly as a child, pushed me to imagine and create. She put up with the months when I wholeheartedly believed I was Cinderella, drove me all the way back through my bus route when I insisted that I had seen the most beautiful thing ever and that she absolutely had to see it too (only to excitedly point out a black and white spotted pig three-fourths of the way back to school). She edited and typed all my papers through my senior year of high school.
Most people I speak with don’t know that the man who invented the self check-in kiosks at airports has ADD; he invented the kiosks because he hated waiting in line. I learned that at a conference I went to on learning differences several years back. The speaker called learning differences “a gift that is difficult to unwrap.” I would say that description is spot-on.
I am a teacher. When people cite my best quality as a teacher they always pick one of two: Some people say it is my creativity and others say it is my devotion to my students. Both come from living with the learning differences the seizures left me. It is easy to think outside the box when you can’t even see the box. And dealing with personal adversity certainly breeds compassion; at least it has for me.
My family moved quite often while I was growing up, so I had tutors in several different schools. In the fourth grade I was lumped in with all the other “special needs” students. What that meant was that my tutor was also the teacher for the mentally retarded kids. I found this fact humiliating; I didn’t want my classmates to make fun of me. In order to convince me to come to my sessions my tutor struck a deal with me; he would wait for me in the hall outside my classroom, and I would meet him there at the pre-determined time for our meeting. I have plenty of stories like that.
Growing up, my parents made sure I always understood I was successful in many ways, and that they loved me. Still, it took a long time for me to accept that there were things I couldn’t do as well as others, and that I would never be able to change my abilities with regard to those things. It took longer for me to decide that was alright, and to realize that some of the things I was good at had been fostered in compensation for or as a distraction from the things I wasn’t. It has only been very recently that I have realized this is true for everyone, learning differences or not. I have come to understand that we each have unique interests and talents that reflect who we are, that make even the most ordinary things special.
Years ago I had a dream. In it a mentor of mine asked me to make him a teapot. I’m not sure what the point of that exercise was meant to be, but in the dream my mentor had a reason for asking me to make the teapot. I wanted to do as he had asked, but felt I had to give the teapot a certain flair, have it reflect who I was. So I painted it deep purple. Before the dream I had never seen a purple teapot. I have no idea how making my teapot that color became the signature I chose for it, although purple is a color I love, my color of choice through my artsy, funky twenties.
It wasn’t until the day after my dream that I encountered a purple teapot. Still mulling over the dream, I had walked into a tea shop I frequented in town and asked if they had a purple teapot. They did, just one, the only one they had ever had or seen. It had come in very recently. I bought it. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I love it because it is original, because it is a discovery that came from somewhere deep within me. In my dream my mentor had looked at the teapot, cocked his head and scrunched together his eyebrows. He had said “It’s purple.” “Yeah” I said, “It’s purple.”
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