How to Hold a Pencil and Run Into Walls Part 1

Part of Four Days in London: A memoir about trying to find a way to the Olympics, and finding something else instead.

“It takes a village to raise a child.” Proverb

The first day of school was not going well.

I was trying to finish the assignment, which was simple enough. All I had to do was copy what was on the chalk board to the paper on my desk. I looked over at my new friends desk and saw that I was behind. The teacher approached my desk again, for what felt like the hundreth time.

“Christopher, you need to keep the pencil between your thumb and your fingers.” 
“I’m trying but that doesn’t work.”
I didn’t understand why this was a problem. If I wrapped my hand around the pencil it would stay in place. When I tried what the teacher wanted it the pencil just kept slipping through my fingers.

“Take your time writing. What letter is that supposed to be?” said the teacher pointing to my work. 
I only knew what it was from looking back at the board. My writing was so messy that I couldn’t read it.

This pattern continued for a few days during which I wasn’t the only one appearing to have trouble. Then a few days turned into a few weeks. The teacher finally handed me a piece of plastic to place on the pencil. It had notches that helped my fingers grab the pencil. I’d rely on this for most of the year.

The next year I was still using the plastic. I had been told that I would learn to read this year and I was excited. My parents were consistent about reading to my brother and I growing up. They were dedicated to us developing a love of books. My father, who has dyslexia, would go on to read the majority of the Harry Potter books out loud to my brother and I.

In the small catholic school I was attending, the grades were split into two classes to keep the number of students manageable. About three quarters of the way through the school year my mother pulled me aside. “Chris, would you like to try the nuns class?” My class was run by a young teacher and the other class was run by a nun who I found terrifying. I liked my friends Billy and Michael, who twenty years later would be invited to my wedding. This was an easy answer for me.

What I didn’t know at the time was why my mother had asked me this. By spring time I still didn’t know how to read and was struggling with spelling. If I went to the next grade I would be a year behind my classmates in reading. My teacher was young and inexperienced and didn’t know how to work with me. I’m sure she later developed this skill set but it was just bad timing. I had done enough to be allowed to continue onto the next year but only barely.

Shortly after this conversation my mother brought me to the doctor. I don’t remember much from this time but I do remember taking many tests. I didn’t mind the time I was spending at the doctor. I loved my pediatrician like a family member. To this day she and my mother still go out to lunch on occasion. So to me it felt like going to visit a favorite aunt. Shortly after I began to see a therapist and an occupational therapist. The following summer I would spend most of my days either with a tutor or a Hooked on Phonics book. Most of my free time was spent either with an occupational therapist or swimming down at the local pond.

At the beginning of the next year I was the first person to raise my hand in the class to read. This kicked off what turned into a pretty successful year considering the near disaster that had preceded it. I even had the top score in the country on a standardized test given to catholic school students. It turned out that all of that worked in the previous summer had propelled me far passed the other students in reading and writing. Thinking back I am incredibly thankful of how much my parents did during this period.

What I didn’t know was that behind the scenes my mother was working very hard to stay in the good graces of the school. They weren’t used to working with kids who needed extra help. They had a rubric and if you didn’t meet it you were expected to leave.

Within two years my time was up. My mother had started her own business and couldn’t keep up with the demands of a frustrated school administration. My deep love of science which was inspired by dinosaurs and astronomy was creating problems. I ran into a deeply religious teacher who did not appreciate my developing interest in whether god existed. She didn’t appear to be interested in playing ball on any accommodations I needed, and I responded by shutting down. The events kicked off my first bout with depression and led to me stopping any attempts homework or really school in general. In protest I intentionally failed my religion classes. The only solace was my best friend Billy was in the class but I eventually tried everything in my power to avoid going to school.

The year had been such a disaster that at the end I was given the option to change schools. Either way I would attend summer school. I liked the new school that my parents proposed and sat down to list the things I liked about each school. After I was done I put the paper down and went to sleep. In the morning I picked up that piece of paper and realized I still couldn’t read my own handwriting. The next year I transferred to the new school.