Learning to Stutter: What I learned from being bullied by a 7 year old

At the end of my sixth grade year I ran for student government.  The office I ran for was “religious affairs officer” that I would serve during my seventh grade year.  The tasks of the religious affairs officer was to collect mission money and say the morning prayer at assembly.  My primary goal in school was to always get out of class and collecting mission money was a pious manipulation to spend at least 1-2 hours a week outside of classroom.  Time occupied outside of the classroom is always a plus a student with a Learning Disability.  Since I stuttered, the morning prayer wouldn’t be a problem either because most people who stutter do not stutter when they recite a poem or speak in unison with a group.  The speech I constructed for the election campaign excluded all words that I thought I would stutter on with sentences constructed to reduce any chances of stuttering. When I won the election I didn’t know what other speaking situations would be forced on me because the pre-planning of an 11 year old isn’t very good.  I won the election although there was some objection to me winning.  The candidate I ran against objected because she felt that I bribed the grammar school constituents by handing out Tootsie Roll suckers with my name on them.  I drove a competitive campaign.

The next academic year, the new student council needed to be sworn in.  It being a Catholic school, and taking itself much too seriously, over celebrated with a ritual.  During the initial rehearsal for the inauguration, Ms. Casquera lined us up on stage to run through the ceremony.  In spite of it being the mid-1980s, Ms. Casquera looked like the square villainess from a retro Frankie and Annette beach movie .  Polyester blue suit, comfortable nun-like shoes, dark loose fitting nude pantyhose, a dyed black bouffant hairdo and, to top it off, cat eyed glasses.  I remember once staring at her during a windy lunchtime recess.  Garbage was blowing everywhere, but the wind could not penetrate her beehive hairdo.  Not one hair was out of place!  Even though she sounds like she would be potentially awful, she was actually ok in the quiet sort of way.

 

During the rehearsal, I learned that each student had to state, “I (insert name here)” before reading the oath in unison.  Of course no one had a problem with their name.  When it came to me I naturally stuttered on Nina.  The combination of the “I” before my name along with my name made it a stutterpalooza.  You should understand that most of us people who stutter, stutter on our own names.  There is no substitute for our name, unless we straight up change it, which some of us might to from time to time.  But this wasn’t a Starbucks order where I could slyly say my name is Enid instead of Nina.  I had to say “I Nina G.”  When I stuttered in the rehearsal it resulted in laughter for the mostly 7th and 8th graders who were there “leadership qualities”.  What really pissed me of was that one of the girls laughing had a very mild stutter.  Apparently, there was no solidarity in the stuttering dog eat stuttering dog world of the middle school during the 1980s.  Ms. Casquera attempted to intervene by telling the students to shut up, but it didn’t work.  I left feeling defeated.

 

There was one of my fellow student representatives who didn’t laugh like the others.  He was in the 8th grade and tended to be on the hyperactive side (I have always connected to hyperactive men and boys.  The potential to get into trouble with them is just too wonderfully overwhelming!).  I remember that same year this boy dressed like a 1970s Fat Elvis in a white jumpsuit and tiny toy guitar which I saw as evidence of his integrated weirdness, which I was impressed with.  The rest of the year I called him Elvis, thus forgetting his name forever, so from here on out he will be referred to as “Elvis”.  After rehearsal, Elvis approached me and asked, “can you say ninja?  Because if you can say ninja, you just switch it over to Nina instead.”

 

When you stutter, or have any kind of disability, suddenly everyone becomes an expert on your type of disability.  Advice like “just slow down and breath” is common and recommended with great hope that this will be the solution to all your problems, making them your abled bodied savior.  Gee, I guess I NEVER thought of slowing down when talking and this entire time I guess I have not been breathing! (Really, breathing?)  There was even the time when I educated a psychologist about stuttering.  I explained to him that it is a brain based disability in the left frontal-temporal hemisphere.  I went on to share that Marilyn Monroe stuttered which was why she talked in her whispery-sexy voice.  I demonstrated it as well.  His reply? “That is very sexy, maybe you should talk like that all the time.”  Really Mr. Dr. Psychologist?  Because people will take me much more serious if I talked like a baby!  Way to empower women! That’s ok, I think I’d rather stutter.

 

At the time though, the advice coming from this 8th grade Elvis boy was actually ok.  He was attempting to be an ally where I thought I didn’t have one.  Plus he was kinda cute.  Funny how that can get you a pass, even on shitty speech therapy advice.  I did appreciate his attempt to help and I felt that I had at least one friend.

 

All that week I practiced my name alone in my room.  I practiced it with my parents who even drove me an hour away so I could practice my name in front of my speech therapist.  It is funny that my parents would let me take a sick day at a moment’s notice but never introduced this as an option for the inauguration ceremony.  Instead it was assumed that I would attend and participate.

 

Finally the day of the inauguration came.  All the student body officers were in their school uniforms and wearing white gloves to convey the formality of the event.  The program started with the student officers sitting on stage with all the girls crossing their legs at the ankle as instructed.  We sat across the stage from the principal, Sister Theresa, Ms. Casquera and the parish priests.  The entire school was in attendance as well as some interested parents and the local newspaper.  You would have thought it was the frickin’ Kennedys being sworn in!

 

The ceremony started with the priest saying an opening prayer.  We then proceeded to the oath where each of had to say “I (insert name here).”  Again and again I practiced my name along with my speech techniques in my head.  It was my turn to say “I, Nina G” and I proceeded to stutter, “I N-N-Nina G.”  “Did I really do it?  Did I really just stutter on my own name?” I thought to myself.  In my seventh grade girl mind I knew my life was over.  That was it!  I would need to transfer schools, maybe even move.  I mean the newspaper was there!  I immediately saw the headline, “Girl stutters on her own name in front of entire school.”  Keep in mind, this was before the Upworthy website could turn my traumatized experience into a one sentence blurb to inspire people.

 

As I got off the stage I expected a repeat of the rehearsal where the other officers made fun of me except this time it would be times ten because I was exposed to the entire school.  That was when I walked by Sara, a girl from my class.  She said, “Nina, good job.”  I was a bit stunned.  I initially thought that she was being sarcastic, but then I realized that she was just being nice.  “That’s weird,” I thought (luckily Sara is now a teacher in the inner city!).

 

I proceeded with my day waiting for the next person to start making fun of me.  I had not yet had  recess so I was expecting I would get it then.  During recess I was talking to Elvis, the 8th grade boy when a second grader who had seen the older kids make fun of me approached us.  He came up to me and said, “Hey, N-N-Nina” as if to impress the older boy.  This is a comment I still get today.  Assholes of the world–please note, this is hack stuttering material!  Even if it is in the tune of the Chia Pet jingle–I have heard and whatever I say back will sting ten times that.  If you want to make fun of me, come up with something new.  This time was different than the 7 million other times I was made fun of because Elvis did something I had never seen.  He gently knelt down to look the second grader in the eye.  He told him, “If I ever hear you say anything like that again, I am going to tell everyone that your penis is this big” and indicated with his thumb and pointer finger half an inch.

 

Naturally, I thought, “this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me!”  I don’t think anyone ever stuck up for me, besides my parents, before this point.  I always had to deal with assholes, big and small, on my own.  My friends never said anything when I was made fun of, especially in middle school where kids didn’t want to stick out their neck in opposition to group think.  This was a truly exceptional moment in the life of a seventh grade girl.  How does a girl process this event?  She has a crush on the boy for the rest of the year, and maybe even researches where he might be when she is in her 30s and single (can’t find him since I don’t know his name).

 

Besides harboring affection for this individual, I learned some important things that day.  The first is that I learned that I could stutter and live.  Before that day, I thought that I had to be fluent and there were no other options.  My speech difficulties are not severe but it is significant enough that if I chose to let it stop me, people might rationalize that this was ok for me.  In fact, it has stopped me from answering questions in groups, flirting and at times ordering at a fast food drive through window.  Stuttering in front of my entire school was the first time that I experienced that I could stutter in front of others and it could be ok.  I am sure it was difficult for my parents to allow me to participate in the ceremony, but they did and I am thankful to have had this experience.

 

The second thing I learned was that I had allies outside my parents and a few wonderful speech therapists and tutors.  My peers could be allies because they had my back.  I didn’t have to be the one who always stuck up for myself.  You really don’t know what this feels like until it happens to you.  It is a shock to know you are not alone in this way and since this time I have sought allies, although it has sometimes been a struggle to remind myself that this can be an expectation to have in a relationship.

 

Lastly, I learned something else that day about comedy.  If anyone, and I mean anyone, makes fun of me.  I do what Elvis taught me that day.  Tell them they “have a small penis.”  And no matter how touching and life changing a story might be, be a good comedian and end with dick joke!

Picture of the ceremony.

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Howard Stern’s impact on my Identity as a Woman who Stutters

I am a Howard Stern fan.  The name on my Safeway card is Nina Bababooey so that when I check out, the cashier is forced to say thank you Ms. Bababooey.  I went to a taping of America’s Got Talent just to see Howard Stern.  I sat with complete strangers where we immediately bonded and shouted as loud as we could, “F Jackie” and “four inches is fine.”  Stern made me a Lady Gaga fan and periodically makes me cry on my way to work when he and Robin talk about her struggles with cancer and the genuine affection they have for one another.  How did someone who identifies as a militant Disabled feminist become such a stern fan?  You mean the answer isn’t obvious?  Let me explain.

It all started in the late 1980s.  I was in high school.  I was a weird girl.  It wasn’t because I had a Learning Disability and stuttered?  It was because I was into unusual things that not even my unusual peers were into.  I loved comedy.  The men I were in love with were all stand up comedians with my biggest crush being Barry Sobel, a stand up comedian who got his start in San Francisco and appeared on the Tonight Show.  Not surprisingly, I was the only girl at school writing I ❤ Barry Sobel on my binders.  My high school years were spent taping comedy from HBO half hour comedy specials, watching SNL and listening to the Alex Bennett show where local comedians from the San Francisco Bay Area appeared, many who I am happy to say I have been able to work with.  My role models for women were Laverne DeFazio, not Madonna or Debbie Gibson.  The one piece missing for me was someone to look up to who had a disability similar to mine.

When I was nine years old I saw my first person, other than me, who stuttered.  It was Raider’s cornerback Lester Hayes.  He had an amazing game where he did something amazing and then he was interviewed, and that was the amazing part for me.  My dad shouted at me, “look at the TV!”  Lester Hayes was being interviewed and stuttered!  Instead of pride, I thought to myself, “tomorrow at school everyone is going to make fun of him.”  I found out the next day that no one cared.  Your accolades overshadow your disabilities.  As cool as it was to see someone stutter on TV, I didn’t relate much to him.  I didn’t care much for sports, as much as the Raiders were thrusted upon me (my brother saw my dad cry at an exhibition game when the then LA Raiders returned for one night to play the 49ers at the Oakland Coliseum).  A male football player didn’t really do it for me.  There was also country singer Mel Tillis who I love now because of his songwriting and music, but as many times as I saw Cannonball Run as a young girl, I just couldn’t relate to him.  I spent the remainder of my childhood identifying most with Porky Pig and the occasional badly acted stutterers on shows like Small Wonder where someone who stutters appeared for one very special episode.

One night when I was about 15 years old I saw him.  I was watching a show from a New York station on my local cable channel.  It was Howard Stern’s Channel 9 show.  The show was funny, but what stuck out to me was a guy on who stuttered.  He interviewed people, asking them horrible things.  They both reacted to his speech as well as the awful things he asked.  The reactions were reactions that I knew way too well and had never seen this level of my experience reflected on TV.  The person doing the interviews was Stuttering John [Melendez].  There was a very, very, very small window of time when Stuttering John was cute and he entered my life at exactly that time.  He was no Barry Sobel, but he was cute and he stuttered.  Stern, Fred (writer on the show) and others made fun of John, but it didn’t feel horrible.  It wasn’t like he was a victim in being made fun of instead it felt like inclusion.  It would have been weird for them to give him a pass and not make fun of his speech.  If Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’abate was made fun of because of his teeth and looking like Oates (from Hall and Oates), then John’s stuttering was fair game.  That’s right, the first time I saw someone on TV who stuttered who I could relate to was being made fun of on the Howard Stern show.  Since he was a recurring character, unlike the numerous other one time characters with a disability, I was able to watch every week, looking forward to someone who talked like me on TV.

Seeing Stuttering John helped me to own my stuttering.  It was the first time that I saw someone be dysfluent and it was ok–in fact even celebrated (ok, made fun of but he was part of the joke).  He purged people’s attitudes about stuttering.  I remember the day I started hating Chevy Chase.  It was when he was on the Tonight Show and he commented on Raquel Welch punching Stuttering John.  He asked if the punch cured his stuttering.  Thanks Chevy, we really want to connect violence toward stutterers with fluency.  I don’t care if National Lampoon’s Vacation is a great movie and that you were one of the first cast of Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  You are on my shit list Chevy Chase!  You can thank Stuttering John for that.

The relationship with the Howard Stern show began then.  I have been listening ever since.  About ten years after I found the channel 9 show, Stern had another stuttering first for me.  He had on a young woman who sold hot dogs out of a cart in a bikini.  She also stuttered and her name was Nina (that’s my name in case you didn’t know).  It was actually the first time on TV I saw a woman who stuttered (I was about 23 years old).  More men than women stutter (1:4 ratio in adults), so the representation of women who stutter is small, plus I don’t think the media represents us.  I sometimes think that if you have more than one identity TV executives think people’s heads will explode so representations of stuttering are usually white men.  We almost had an Asian American female who stuttered on Glee but she was faking it on the show (Glee, you are also on my shit list).  So seeing Nina the hot hot dog girl was a big deal for me.  There was misinformation in the interview like Stern saying that stuttering is a psychological problem.  He is wrong, it is neurological.  But I was able to see a woman on TV who talked like me and even stuttered on “Nina”.

Many see Howard Stern through a sexist ableist (that is the term for abled bodied bias) lens.  They hear snippets of the show that then color their entire perception of the show and Stern.  He makes fun of people with disabilities, but they are also on the show and represent holistic experiences of life.  They have sex, they can be assholes, they experience more than just being inspirational images to abled bodied people (the predominant image in our media).  On the topic of sexism and Stern I have mixed feelings.  It seems like much of the sexism now is represented in the cast of players like Ronnie the Limo Driver who objectifies women but is criticized for it.  This is different from Stern’s more shock jock persona of the 1980s.  I have seen Stern and the people on his show change.  They acknowledge the language of the disability community (and sometimes integrate it into their speech).  I have also seen the impact that this level of visibility has had.  Many times I will be asked, after I get off stage from doing stand up, “can I ask you a personal question.”  Most other situations this is bound to be something awful about curing my stuttering, but when it comes from a Stern fan, they respectfully ask, “have you ever considered contacting the Howard Stern Show.”  We immediately bond.  They have already met someone who stutters because of the Stern show, so they already know how to react (and often how not to react) to my speech.  I am thankful to Stern for including people like me.  Of course, I don’t speak for all people who stutter.  Some might be extremely offended in Fred mocking Stuttering John’s speech, but for me, when there is genuine love for one another some making fun is ok because it can express affection (perhaps it is an Italian thing).  It is why my good friends in comedy can mock me all they want but if you are not friends with me and we don’t have love then you too will be on my shit list with Chevy Chase and the producers of Glee.  Finding people who can fulfill your need to identify when you are a person with a disability can be difficult.  Sure, I would love to have had other options to find my identity as a woman who stutters, but they were not available.  As I always like to emphasize, when a Disabled feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know there is great room for the media to improve.

In case you can relate to a Football player who stutters, here you go:  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-films-americas-game/09000d5d8008cd0c/America-s-Game-1980-Raiders

Picture with Nina doing stand up, captioned: I didn’t see a real woman who stuttered on TV until I was 23 and it was on the Howard Stern show.  When a woman with a Disability who considers herself a feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know the media could be doing a better job representing disability

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Don’t be THAT person (when talking to a Person who Stutter)

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For as long as I have stuttered I have had strange, odd, and rude things told to me by well-intentioned and not-so-well intentioned fluent types (that’s what I call people who don’t stutter).  I have assembled a few of my top comments to help raise awareness of what not to say to a person who stutters.  There are the less fun things you should know, like not to interrupt us, complete our sentences and not to look strange at us when we are talking.  Those aren’t as amusing as the ones I would like to talk about here.  So as you read, please take note and don’t be THAT person when talking to a person who stutters.

“You are such an inspiration.  If I talked like you, I wouldn’t talk at all!”

Someone actually said this to me after I did a presentation on a topic not related to stutter at a community library.  Perhaps I should superglue my mouth, lady?  Way to make me feel self-conscious about my speech while also reducing the courage that it takes to sometimes speak in front of others to a Lifetime movie of the week.  There were probably 100+ insightful things I said during the presentation and for her to focus on my speech reduced my thoughts to my speech.  Granted, when I see someone stutter, I am mesmerized because it feels like home and I feel myself reflected in their voice.  I am inspired but it is from a very different place.  Calling someone an inspiration is hack!  It’s been done!  Let’s focus on what the person is saying instead of how they are saying it.

“You should try singing for your stuttering, because singing is good for the soul.”

A massage therapist told me this in a hippy spa in Calistoga, California.  I just wanted her to massage my over developed stutterer’s jaw (it is really quite impressive), but had to hear her cure for my speech.  First of all, I have a horrible signing voice.  Second, that is ridiculous.  Third, and hopefully this is a given, there is nothing wrong with the soul that is being manifested through my stuttering.  Religious types who want to pray for my speech, make sure you get this one!  I figure that if God didn’t cure Moses stutter (instead God recommended an accommodation of having Aaron speak for Moses), then he is probably not going to worry about mine.

“Why can’t you stop stuttering like the guy in the King’s Speech?” (Previously, “I was watching Oprah and I saw thing that makes you not stutter”)

For years, when a stranger said the words “I was watching the Oprah show and…” I always knew what was coming next!  Some cure about how to reduce my speech.  It didn’t matter that they were changing the oil in my car or giving me a colonoscopy (both metaphorically similar I suppose)—they still felt the need to educate me about my own stuttering.  As if their one hour of watching Oprah, or the King’s Speech, suddenly makes them a PhD in stuttering.  I usually try to educate people that my focus is not on fluency (not talking with a stutter) and instead communicating effectively—which I am pretty good at and singing everything to achieve fluency isn’t really how I want to communicate!  Plus, King George (that dude in the King’s Speech) was going up against Hitler and World War II, I am just trying to order a pastrami sandwich.  Plus, and I must say this on behalf of people who stutter around the world, King George wasn’t cured.  He said one speech KIND OF fluently.

“Have you considered a brain invasive surgery to stop stuttering?”

When you say this to someone (more specifically me), what I hear is “your speech is so outside the norm of what I am use to that you should consider brain surgery.”  A frontal lobe lobotomy for my stuttering isn’t something I am really interested in!   Similar to the Oprah example, keep your recommendations to yourself, unless we are paying you to hear them.  People who stutter seek out the information when they want it, your advice on the street when you over hear us stuttering while breaking up with our girlfriend/boyfriend, probably isn’t the time and place.  Also, anything that invasive is just creepy—especially since nothing like this exists in good stuttering circles.

“You stutter because you haven’t had the right kind of orgasm.”

This might be interchangeable with “I could bang the stutter out of you.”  Last I checked the research on stuttering, believe it or not, stuttering can’t be cured by your genitals.  If you want to flirt with a stutter, try something a little more subtle.

Stories from the brainreels guests Caitlin Wood, Kathy Coleman and Lavaun Heaster

Good stuff from good people!

Who Am I To Stop It

Listen to this post: 

We’re kicking off the new year with a lot of new arts buzz!

I decided to have some chats with three of the women with disabilities on the Portland arts scene who’ve been most influential in my development as an artist and with my identity as a person with a disability. I wanted them to come on the show to promote their work and reach out to some new audiences.

One big theme that came up with each of them is the idea of community and that people with all types of impairments or disabilities may have a lot more in common than differences. Sure, someone with only a physical impairment in their legs might not have the same difficulties with memory, attention, organization, and communication as someone with a brain injury like me.

At the same time, we do have some common experiences around feeling…

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Podcast Interview on Women who Stutter

Podcast Interview on Women who Stutter

Flashback Thursday from my interview with Pamela Mertz who hosts a podcast where women who stutter share their stories.  Here Pam and I talk about experiences being the world’s only female stuttering stand up comedian.  I heard recently that I lost this title because there is a new comedian coming out of England who has de-throned my status.  Check out Pam’s always insightful show!

Picture from a workshop Pam and I facilitated at the National Stuttering Association for women who stutter.

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What counting cards in math class taught me about learned helplessness

My relationship with math was pretty complicated in my public high school.  They placed me in the most basic math class because of my test scores, even though I had pre-algebra two years prior in seventh grade (I don’t test well and test even less well when I don’t receive accommodations).  I was kind of scared of the kids in my Math Skills 1 class, some of whom would come to school with their juvenile hall sweatshirt that they acquired the weekend before.  This was a change from my Catholic school the year previously.  Juvinelle hall shirts would only be allowed on free dress days, and only if worn with a collared shirt.  Needless to say I felt out of place although I did feed the Middle Eastern kid I sat next to, Italian swear words to ask the teacher who had an Italian surname and bushy eyebrows so I wasn’t completely alone.

Somehow I managed to get out of the track of classes I was in and in junior year found myself in geometry.  When I asked my school counselor if I could skip Math Skills 2 to advance math classes she explained, “yes you can because there is a law called the ‘right to fail’ law.  It says that you can take a class if you want to because you have the right to fail it.”  Subsequently, she added to Geometry.  Luckily, I had seven and a half years of Catholic school education where most of the teachers reflected the same attitude so I knew she was full of shit.

With my counselor’s vote of nonconfidence, I entered the class.  On the first day the teacher had us sit in alphabetical order which meant that my desk was in the last row.  I knew that because of my language based Learning Disability I needed to sit in the front of the class.  One of the many features of my LD is auditory processing problems.  Sometimes my language processing is much like Charlie Brown’s when his teacher talks to him ( I hear “wa-wa-wawawa”).  It helps to be in the front so that I can focus on the person’s speech, their intonation, body gestures, what they are writing on the board and screen out the cute boy three rows away or the horrible outfit that the girl in the front row is wearing.  It is common for students with auditory processing issues to request that they sit in the front row as an accommodation.  Knowing that this has been recommended by my educational specialists and special ed teachers for as long as I had been diagnosed, I requested a seat change from my teacher, Mr. Cooper.  He explained that my last name began with G and therefore I belonged in the back row of the class.  I protested and tried to advocate with no avail and remained in the last row.

Knowing that I would have a difficult time because of my seat placement and topic, I pursued other interests in class.  Geometry was right before lunch which meant I had the lunch money that my mom gave to buy my corn dog, Duritos and Diet Coke.  With $5 in hand, I engaged in a card game that we had most days in class.  The guys in the back row would sneak a card game of Blackjack and we would bet money.  Always a jinx, I lost my lunch money most of the days and would have to bum food off my friends.  That term I received a D on my report card but was introduced to counting cards.

The next school term students added and dropped the class, changing the seating arrangements.  I ended up sitting in the first row-exactly where I had previously advocated for.  I consciously made an effort that term.  I attentively listened, took notes and would go to my resource teacher to get extra help.  For those who don’t know, the resource room is where many students who have LD or other kinds of disabilities receive services as part of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  I actually worked pretty hard that term and my resource teacher, Ms. Rumsey knew I was putting in the effort.

In the weeks to come, Mr. Cooper was passing back our tests.  He would obnoxiously announce whoever got a B+ or higher–”Ethan got an A—Heather got an A-.”  Teachers, if you want to add a layer of stratification and intellectual snobbery in your class, be sure to do this technique!  This practice resulted in me was calling the A students nerds under my breath and manipulating it in my head that they were less cool.  That was all until one day.  Mr. Cooper was handing back tests and for the first time he announced “and Nina got an A-.” I was in disbelief!  And this wasn’t the kind of literary disbelief that read about in Jane Austen books.  It was not internally based–it was a very outward kind of disbelief.  I verbally protested, “are you sure it was my test?  What do you think of that Mr. Cooper?”  He seemed to quickly move onto the next A test.

I was so excited that I ran to the resource room as soon as class let out.  I found Ms. Ramsey and showed her the A-.  I explained, “I got an A- on the test!  I am pretty sure that it is because I prayed to God and he answered my prayers.”  Hey! I was coming out of Catholic school–what did you expect?!  This was when Ms. Ramsey went off on me.  She yelled at me.  It was probably the first time and only time a special education teacher ever yelled at me, “Listen! You worked really hard for this grade.  You have been coming to my classroom a lot and I know you know this material.  It wasn’t God, it was your hard work.”  I replied somewhat disappointed, “ya, I know.”

I could not think of a more better response from Ms. Ramsey (ya, I know that this is bad grammar, even for me, but this feels like the best way to say it).  I did something successfully and she rubbed my nose in it.  You have to understand something about having a Learning Disability.  Part of your experience having a LD is that there are so many times in your school life that you try and then fail.  This happens again and again that you eventually stop trying.  That is what I did when I was losing my lunch money in the back of class.  I gave up on trying to do well because it felt like there were too many factors against me.  Then when I did attempt and I succeeded, I attributed the success not to my own abilities but to something outside myself.  This is Special Ed Psychology 101 kind of shit.  What happened was I suffered from learned helplessness (trying and failing, so eventually stopped trying).  When I did succeed it was attributed to an external locus of control.  It was something outside of me–God (because my Geometry test is right up there on God’s to-do-list).  It might also be attributed to luck or “that test is easy” kind of thinking.  What Ms. Ramsey did was make sure that I knew that the test was attributed to my underdeveloped internal locus of control (I did it because I had the skills and knowledge).

When working with kids and even adults with Learning and Attentional Disabilities it is good to keep learned helplessness in mind.  When training teachers I will often ask them, “if you worked at a job where most of the day capitalized on things that were challenging for you, would you stay in that job?  Then what do you think the experience is for your students with Learning Disabilities?”  Structuring classrooms or other learning environments so that success can be felt in very real ways is important.  I am not advocating to just give the kid an A because they showed up.  They will know you are full of shit and this adds to no ones self-esteem.  Instead work with individuals with LD to figure out the best ways to reach them and accommodate them.  It is also important that students feel that they have something they are invested in.  Taking a kid out or sports or drama because their GPA slips under a 2.0 can often be classified as bullshit.  If the kid is trying, making improvements, and attempting to the address the issue, then why take away the one thing that they enjoy and feel invested in.  Parents and teachers might consider advocating for a waiver as part of a 504 plan or IEP.  Having something you are invested in that you do well will help to break down the learned helplessness and hopefully be generalized to other aspects of the students life.

Picture from Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book about Learning Disabilities (I wrote it!).  Here the character Matt reflects on all the things he is good at.
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Insights from a stuttering comedian with dyslexia. These are my unedited thoughts. Grammar and spelling doesn't count on blogging, especially since it did I would never post!