“I worry that when educational counsellors and teachers call in families with concerns about a child having a learning disability, we aren’t always looking at the complete picture.” – Madchen Amick, actress
“She was estranged from her mother, Anaya…”
Alaina was a tall, striking young woman, not in a pretty way, but rather for her presence. She was quiet, observant and thoughtful in her demeanour. She was 18 years of age but seemed older, perhaps wiser, in some way.
Alaina’s parents were divorced since she was five years old. For the past ten years, she had lived with her father, Anatoli, who farmed grain for the cattle feed market. She was estranged from her mother, Anaya, who, along with her stepfather, Andel, had been abusive to her when she was younger.
Alaina had only one sibling, a stepbrother, Anat, who was ten years old. But, they had little contact with each other. It wasn’t that Alaina harboured any animosity towards her brother, it was just that there was little opportunity because of Alaina’s resentment towards her mother, Anaya and Andel, her stepfather.
“… she was still not back in school and still avoiding her friends.”
Alaina had been t-boned by a drunk driver while delivering some grain in one of her father’s grain trucks. Luckily, she was told, she only experienced a concussion and whiplash, because the truck was so big and the car so small. But her recovery had been going far too slow for everyone concerned…and, especially, Alaina.
Alaina had never done well in school. She found it boring, repetitive and restrictive. She enjoyed the social part and had several close friends. She played sports, mostly wrestling and hockey, and enjoyed them.
But academically, it was another matter. She had been identified by a well intentioned teacher as probably learning delayed or learning disabled. She had been assessed at age ten and again at aged fourteen and given special assistance with her school work. Alaina responded well enough to these intervention to pass each year.
Now, with her collision and her slow recovery, she was tested again and recommended for therapy because, a year after getting injured, she was still experiencing migraines, moodiness, isolation and other depressive symptoms. And, she was still not back in school and still avoiding her friends.
“… ‘not caring’ is just a polite form of anger.”
At first, Alaina was guarded and cautious with me. She told me later she first viewed me as another, well-intentioned health professional, trying to fix me. Her file, some 50 plus pages, was detailed and extensive covering most of the psychological tests administered to children struggling in our academic environments.
As Alaina reluctantly answered my initial questions, I decide to deal with what I perceived might be her biggest challenge at that moment, so I said,
“Alaina, you must be really angry at a lot of people! Is that true?”
“Not really!” she responded, casually. Then added, “I really don’t care!”
“In my experience, ‘not caring’ is just a polite form of anger.” I offered.
“I can’t help it if they don’t know me, don’t know who I really am…what I’m really capable of….” her voice drifted off to silence.
“I think you are correct, Alaina! In my experience, the most insulting words anyone can say to another person are, ‘I know you!’”
“I get stubborn and dig in when people tell me I can’t do something and I think I can. It goes back to my childhood when I had problems in school because I have a learning disability.” – Ann Bancroft, explorer
“You mean they make them up…?”
This idea caught her attention and she looked directly at me while saying,
“How can they know me, they only ask me a bunch of questions about things I don’t care much about and then give me a label…how fair is that?”
Can I offer you a big perspective on labels so you can see what’s going on, Alaina?”
“Sure!” she said cautiously, like someone testing thin ice with the toe of her snow boot.
“There are thousands of behaviours. People like me, and other education and health professionals take a cluster of about ten, and give them a name.”
“You mean they make them up…?”
“They come from research which suggests people who display certain clusters of behaviours need the community’s help to cope and contribute within our society.”
“For example, depression, or more accurately, depressing, since these are things people do, includes behaviours such as: thinking about sad things, isolating from family and friends, giving up on what we want, laying around, not meeting our commitments, not exercising, not eating nutritiously, avoiding new challenges, etc., and these occur in everyone’s life.”
“They sure do in mine!” she said, owning her own past choices, usually a healthy sign of someone ready to learn, so I continued.
“…they are just someone’s opinion…not…not…like a tattoo…not stuck on you forever…”
“But, if a person does them for too long, according to someone else, they can get labelled as depressed or depressing themselves. ”
“Are you saying they are someone’s opinion, Ken?”
“Alaina, of course they are! But, remember they are a well-intentioned opinion, a well intentioned perspective or if you like, their own belief and, their purpose is to draw attention to someone who may need and want some assistance!”
“Are you saying they are just someone’s opinion…not…not…like a tattoo…not stuck on you forever…not permanent?” she said, her eyes popping open with insight and her own new perspective.
“Yes, Alaina! Of course! Just someone trying to help out by bestowing a label on them so they can be eligible for help.”
“But, what about the labels they give you in school…they sure stay stuck!” she said challenging the idea.
“… it will depend on what you want for yourself…”
“Alaina, they can only stay stuck if you decide to let them…if you decide to believe them to be true!”
“I never have! I just learned differently than some people, I’ve always know that!” she said, a edge of defiance in her voice.
“Can I offer you another idea as well. In my experience, when someone has traumatic experiences as a child, it can influence how they see themselves and how they deal with things like school. I wonder if that may be a factor in your life as well. What do you think?”
“I don’t know for sure, but when you said earlier I was angry…it’s true. You know my Mom tried to contact me just this week…after five years of nothing…what’s that about? I just deleted her message…I’m not going there with her.” she said, her smothered anger now in full bloom.
“In my experience Alaina, it will depend on what you want for yourself in your future.”
“What do you mean Ken. I don’t understand!”
“The way my brain processes information is quite odd. I mean, I have Attention Deficit Disorder and another learning disability I can’t even spell. I don’t even have a high school diploma. I’m smart, but you can’t prove it on paper.”
– Ron White, comedian
“Are you saying I can learn to do anything I put my mind to…”
“Alaina, research tells us very clearly we all have essentially the same brain…same one as Albert Einstein, capable of learning and dealing with whatever comes our way.”
“I didn’t know that! No one told me that in school. Are you saying I can learn to do anything I put my mind to… even stuff other people think I can’t learn?”
“You may have to find your own way to learn it…but yes, Alaina! Did you ever hear of Emmy Noether?”
“Nope! Never did, Ken!”
“She was a German mathematician most people have never heard of either. Back in the last century, many leading educators and researchers assumed women couldn’t do math, it was men’s work because men had the ‘correct’ brain for it.”
“They wouldn’t get away with that today, would they?”
“Not likely! But, there are other forms of that same attitude present today in some parts of our society. So, back then, she was labelled as not having the right kind of brain and treated accordingly. She was discriminated against for many years, refused jobs and rejected, repeatedly.
“How did she cope?”
“She persisted in her dreams and eventually they learned the truth. Today her work, now termed, Noether’s Theorem, explains the connection between the natural laws of symmetry and conservation. This is a fundamental part of most science. And, she was later called by Einstein, and many other men, ‘the most important woman in the history of mathematics.’”
“But, you get to decide if you believe it or not!”
“Yeah! So, the label you may carry with some people will only be a handicap if you let it be so. And, that will depend on what you want for yourself. The fact that you are alive and functioning well proves you have learned to do OK in society, have the necessary skills and relationships and so on. But, you may be believing something else…that there is something wrong with you.”
“A lot of people have told me, directly or indirectly, just that, Ken!” she replied.
“But, you get to decide if you believe it or not! That’s usually every person’s greatest handicap…lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. They are the two most important factors in your future…not any tattoos you might decide to pick up from others!”
“You’re saying anyone, even me, can learn to believe in themselves, even if bad stuff has happened to them…?”
“Why else would I be doing what I do, Alaina? That belief is the basis of my work and my life…that belief gets demonstrated to me every day in my work.”
“The wisest person I have ever met was also labelled learning disabled and did not learn to read and write until he was 14 years of age. A teacher told his parents he would amount to nothing when he was 8 years of age. But, he persisted and today he is a world renowned author, educator and speaker teaching hundreds of thousands of people in over 60 countries.”
“Is that possible?” she asked in disbelief.
“Yes, it is indeed. And, I can show you how to rebuild the self-esteem and self-confidence you had when you were born, using the same tools he used. Do you want to do that, Alaina?”
“I guess I have done OK in some ways. I did get to Grade eleven OK.”
“That sounds like a lot of work, Ken! Isn’t it too late, I’m really an adult now, not a kid anymore?”
“We never stop learning Alaina…it is a lifelong process. And, important human learning is usually very quick, especially when it is very vital. You have learned to sustain yourself very well in complex social systems with many challenges.”
“I guess I have done OK in some ways. I did get to Grade eleven OK. I needed some tutors and stuff like that, but I passed. And, I had some good friends, which are probably still there if I make contact with them.
“Exactly, my best guess is you will do OK in this journey and probably learn faster because you’re older and wiser.”
“Ken, if you think I can do it then I’m interested!” she replied.
“Alaina, I know you can do it! My job is to help you prove it to yourself! Ready to start?”
“Yes Ken, I am!”
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” – W. H. Murray, athlete