My mother ruined many a good manicure by wrestling with childproof medicine bottles. "Peanut," she would say to me, "you're so good at these things. Open this for mommy." At age 5, I could figure out instructional diagrams, assemble furniture, and hook up stereo equipment.
I was fairly sure that I was smart. And then I entered the first grade, where struggling with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) became a problem.
I remember Mrs. Roth holding up a flash card with the letters a and s on it. "Ass," I pronounced logically. "No," she corrected me, "I told you this last week. We pronounce it az not ass." I had only a garbled recollection of her explanation that there was a difference between the sounds of z and s. What I needed, and didn't know at the time, was a card with a donkey on it that read ass = donkey. As = az.
The next year, I was in the two-thirds of my class that silently pored over the SRA Reading Kit stories. We answered comprehension questions on the back of the card and checked our own answers, working independently, while the teacher taught the other third of the class. I had to read passages again and again, glossing over essential vocabulary because I couldn't decode it. I needed the emotional and intellectual stimulation that came from problem-solving with peers. Yet the class was decidedly non-interactive, and my ADHD only exacerbated my frustration.
Mrs. Fisher, my third-grade teacher, said 'The only way to learn your multiplication facts is by rote.' The hum of 25 students droning Three times three equals nine obscured all meaning. If I had recited the tables while looking at flash cards illustrated with pictures and numerals, I would have fared better.
By the time I reached the fourth grade, I could copy most printed words and read some. Just as I was beginning to master this skill, they pulled a switcheroo by introducing cursive writing. Printing is for little kids, my teacher announced. To help improve our cursive reading skills, she wrote these directions on the blackboard: "Do workbook pages 15 through 17 and take quiz." "What does that mean?" I asked my neighbor. "It's right in front of your nose," she answered arrogantly.
Another roadblock was having to remain silent during tests, even if I had questions about the instructions. During a spelling test, I turned to a friend and asked, "Are we supposed to write the whole sentence or..." My ear burned as Mrs. Anderson twisted it. She sat me in a corner, where I would no longer be a nuisance. The message was clear: If you ask for help, you'll get in trouble.
High school was a struggle, but junior year held an epiphany. I went to Israel for several months to study Jewish history. In King Herod's palace, overlooking the Dead Sea, I learned about the Zealots from a teacher who sat in front of the 2,000-year-old frescoes. I absorbed the details of the tragedy with all of my senses and remembered everything. Others disliked hiking in the searing heat, but ADHD was, for once, my friend. My boundless energy kept me going for hours without complaint. I asked probing questions, and the teachers thought I was smart.
By the time I graduated from high school - 936th in a class of 1,000 - I felt that, if my teachers didn't care whether I learned, why should I? What I hadn't taken into account was what my future would look like if I matriculated in the School of Hard Knocks instead of college. I didn't realize that I was the one who had to care, because no one else would straighten out my life.
My stepfather, a literature professor at Saint Thomas University, did help me. He got me into Saint Thomas on the condition that I maintain a B average. Since I had graduated from high school with a D average, such a prospect seemed as likely as asking me to vault across the Grand Canyon with a broomstick. Yet somehow I was game. Secretly, I knew I was smart.