Pen and Eraser

Back in the dark ages when children were actually taught to write by hand in torturous exercises on paper with pencil and eraser, I rebelled early and started using a ballpoint pen despite teacher objections.  In fact, I received an F in handwriting one quarter in the 3rd grade for refusing to use a pencil before the teacher finally relented.  This wasn’t because I had beautiful script, in fact my handwriting in block and cursive was and still is atrocious, but as a lefty, my problems with what I was beginning to perceive as a right-handed world weren’t constrained to mere handwriting.

In 3rd grade for example, I was reading on a senior high school/undergraduate level,  had memory recall that allowed me to excel in spelling, geography, and math.  I was also developing intuition with patterns in numbers and music, and for a time, my musical ear was able to play what I heard to some degree depending on the complexity of the piece. That famous opening title piece from Chariots of Fire, my parents had taken me to see the movie, and I was enthralled with the music instantly, and told my piano teacher at the next lesson I wanted to play that piece for recital, and she laughed at me because we were currently working on such complex pieces like Mary Had a Little Lamb and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, and she told me that it was too complex a piece for my abilities.  But before she finished the sentence, I had started playing the music from memory from a film I had seen once, both hands, and I just sort of ‘knew’ the notes. Next week I had a simplified arrangement of the main theme, and I did play it at the spring recital perfectly.

These abilities were in complete contrast to my judged ‘appearance’.   In 3rd grade I still had a slight lisp that two years of speech therapy hadn’t quite cured, and I was very reserved when it came to speaking or doing reading exercises out loud. I couldn’t interact with my classmates, I was socially paralyzed to a point beyond shyness and into the realm of dysfunction.  I was already aware of the competitive ‘reindeer games’ of my extroverted social classmates, and it was a strange land I couldn’t navigate, and didn’t understand at any meaningful level.  I still couldn’t tie my shoes in the 3rd grade, my left handedness keeping me from understanding a simple knot because of perspective. Thank the maker for Velcro, and my first pair of shoes I didn’t have to tie. I also exhibited lengthy pauses in answering questions sometimes.  I was ‘slow’ to answer. To my teachers that meant I was struggling, behind the curve    At one point I was almost put in special needs, but my abilities with math and memorization kept me out of that box.

My 3rd grade teacher soon realized, like my piano teacher, I had a problem of too much information and boredom. On written tests, if my handwriting could be deciphered, and sometimes that was a chore because of my idiosyncrasies, my answers were nonetheless correct and often without any errors excepting formating and neatness.   The exceptions because when I was in a rush, I defaulted to my internal style, I wrote from right to left and sometimes even from bottom to top as if my mind was subconsciously rebelling at the conformity of a right handed orderly perspective, and also because it was quicker, those methods I used often invoked when I had a lot of information to transmit in a limited time and it was quicker for me to use those techniques than trying to use what I was taught, but again,  the answers were correct if they could be found in my nonconformist mess. Golden needles and haystacks in my case I’m sure from my teacher’s perspective.

Basically, my mind came up with a way for me to keep up with my thoughts, I wrote quicker from right to left, and building from the bottom, foundation of a page, to the top. And I used a pen for the same reason.  Pens were faster than pencils, and I hated the sound of pencil on paper.  But crossing out a mistake with a pen was more natural and faster than erasing for perfection, which was strange because I had perfectionist tendencies. The pen came closer to matching the speed of my thoughts, efficiency more important to the realm of ideas than presentation it would seem.

In the verbal realm, when asked a question, my mind rushed to put forth a stream of answers that my spoken language center couldn’t keep up with.  Even with simple math problems, because I wasn’t just learning math by rote, I usually had more to say than 4 is the answer to 2+2. 4 is also the answer to 3+1, etc… an answer to me represented a connection to more than the problem being solved, it was part of a continuum, a spectrum of information that stretched out into an infinite sea of data. I had to learn to streamline my responses to just the answer to the problem.  Truncate into linear chunks what I was experiencing intuitively in my mind and couldn’t explain in any meaningful way to my teachers and peers.

At home, we didn’t have television.  My mom was disturbed by how I went into a catatonic state in front of a television set, heck I used to get up early on Saturdays not to watch cartoons, but stare at white noise on channels that weren’t on air yet when I was 4. It was mesmerizing. But it disturbed my parents, and the tv was gone.  Instead, I was introduced to books, and I was soon reading a constant stream of them from an army base library I had access too.  None of them grade appropriate.  Devouring science fiction from the likes of Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov made reading stories at school with one to three word sentences about a mouse and cheese not merely redundant, but insulting.  I was already tired of being judged by my physical appearance container and not my mind and the ideas within. But I was also frustrated that I couldn’t present the internal me in way that was accessible to the external world, I was caught in a catch 22 in the third grade. I knew I was intelligent but couldn’t communicate that, and that made me feel dumb, in both senses of the word.  It became a major source of insecurity in my life at an early age.

A strange thing happened in 3rd grade though, even with the recognition by my teachers I was a strange duck with exceptional abilities, I was still considered in the ‘slow’ kids learning group.  But then we had the first round of standardized testing.  I was the highest scoring student in the 3rd grade, and one of the highest in the entire state.  We also had a battery of computer tests the same week, and I learned that I was red/green colorblind. Because I did so well on the standardized tests, I was given another battery of IQ like tests, but was never told directly what they were for or my score, but suddenly in 4th grade I was half way round the world at a new military base and in a gifted and talented program at school.

Still an outsider, a severe lefty, and couldn’t tie my shoes or ride a bike reliably! My lisp was gone, but I talked funny in new ways, used strange sentence formations and contexts, and began a process where when I was nervous I couldn’t stop talking, and I was unable to learn how to navigate polite conversation or small talk.  And suddenly I was a sports star somehow, not really because I was any good, but as a left-handed  basketball player, I did unexpected things that threw everyone else off, including my own teammates! So in my case, sports fame didn’t help me breach the walls of acceptance with my peers, it just further added to my weirdness and isolation.

But what I really wanted even back then was quiet, reflection, ideas, even music to drown out the exterior so I could learn how to express my interior world.  My red/green color blindness test had bothered me.  I felt I could differentiate red and green. I didn’t think of myself as color blind or ‘handicapped’ and it was much like my left handedness, another label that separated me from normal.  Red was my favorite color, how could I be blind to it.  Later I was told it was more of a red/yellow/green blindness, but it didn’t change my opinion on the label.  I began to express the idea that what if what we mutually call red is actually perceived differently by our brains and thus it colored my own views of language, communication, and really the expression of ideas in general. I began to internally wallow in a depression that stemmed from the realization that even among the gifted and talented types I was different, and so much so, I feared I might never be able to meaningfully communicate with another person.  The real ‘me’ of who I was trapped inside a physical container that prevented its expression.

In the 5th grade, however, I had a teacher who recognized what I was.  She had been an alternate for the Challenger mission, took a job with DODDS to see the world, and almost immediately recognized that I didn’t need help with education, I was educating myself already, but what I needed help with was socialization, understanding normalization in terms of my peers, and most of all a friend I could talk to.  She accomplished this with giving me books from her personal library, the first being the autobiography of Eddie Richenbacker and instead of having lunch in the cafeteria, we would eat in the classroom and discuss what I had read.  After a few weeks, another student joined us, the daughter of the principal, in a different class and who I thought was very social, but in fact suffered from many of the same problems I did.  And after a few more weeks, another student joined us, a kid who was always in trouble, angry, failing, yet off the charts in testing.  And suddenly I realized I wasn’t alone in the world.  In this tiny school I found myself in, there were others I wasn’t aware of suffering from many of the same problems I did. In my despair I had blinded myself into believing my condition was unique. She opened the doors of communication and awareness and the possibility of socialization and friendship.

My teacher had also opened the door to finding like personalities in literature.  Started me on that road of having conversations with the long dead thinkers of the past.  Pointing out what I had in common with many of the nonconformists who had marched to the beat of a different drum in ages past and that it was okay to follow that path even if it seemed no one else was on it. In short, independent thought was a worthy endeavor to pursue.

Which brings me back to erasers.  I hated erasers more than pencils, but in terms of human potential, we need gifted people sometimes to erase the noise from our external containers in order for the signal within us to emerge… back to the sculptor with the block of granite finding the image within. My teacher did that for me.  She reduced our relationship down to one on one and then slowly introduced singular individuals because she recognized that was how my signal could be freed, how I could learn to communicate finally and express the individual inside.  For internal, intuitive types, we have to erase a lot more to define the picture than actually add to it.  Like a broken, tile mosaic covered by sand… the picture isn’t made clear from the visible tiles.  Takes the removal of sand and the rearrangement of  broken pieces.

Theme Music: Thom Yorke – The Eraser


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