I Spoke English. I Just Had Epilepsy.
When I was in third grade, I suddenly had trouble focusing.
I had started a new school in Dallas. Everything was new. I had lived in New York and Costa Rica, and Dallas was a completely different place. I was adjusting to my second radical move in one year. It was a lot for a seven-year-old.
And I couldn’t focus for some reason. Time seemed to skip, and I’d have no memory of what happened. We would all stand to say the pledge, and then, I would be the only one standing and the pledge would be over. During gym class, I would suddenly stop moving. I would miss whole chunks of a conversation.
Teachers put me in ESL until my mom came down to the school and screamed at them. I knew English…it was my first language. Why hadn’t they contacted her before putting me in ESL? I remember them stuttering and stammering and flipping through pieces of paper.
I think that was her first time seeing that the world didn’t see her daughter as white, even though she was.
I heard a lot of things in this time. That I was shy. That I was having a hard time adjusting. That I just needed discipline. That I was lazy. That maybe I needed a “buddy” to help me do math.
The one thing nobody did was ask me.
Even when I tried to speak up, I was ignored. I tried to explain that I wasn’t daydreaming…that I had no control over what was happening. I was not doing it for attention. I wanted to focus. I understood English. But I had no memory of what happened when I “spaced out.” I didn’t control it.
Something was wrong.
So I was punished, I was put into ESL, into classes for people with different learning styles, and still, ultimately, I felt like I wasn’t believed.
And my issue just got worse.
And, for some reason, it was easier to believe I was bad or uneducated than something was wrong.
I was having 100 seizures a day.
Eventually, my mom started taking me to doctors to “rule out” that something was medically wrong.
But even that felt like some kind of lip service. The school recommended it, but it felt like just a box to check before they officially labeled me a problem child. Only one teacher seemed to genuinely think there was something medically wrong and expressed concern. (Thanks Mrs. White!)
But I wasn’t faking it. I was having about 100 absence seizures a day.
The seizures I had were not violent.
There’s a stereotype that seizures look a certain way. You fall to the ground and shake and convulse. You’re possessed by a demon.
Absence seizures are not like that. It looks just like someone staring into space…like someone daydreaming.
Once I was on medication, my grades immediately improved. My school offered to allow me to skip fourth grade. My mom declined, which I’m grateful for — I was already the youngest in my grade and having a hard time adjusting. Socially, it would have been too much.
I still graduated early and went to college at 16.
I wonder how close I was to being seriously hurt.
I had been slipping through the cracks. When my seizures were finally diagnosed, my doctor was very concerned that I was close to having grand mal seizures…the kind where you do convulse.
While absence seizures sometimes clear up around puberty, grand mal seizures have a much higher tendency to be lifelong. He was worried that once I crossed that threshold, my treatment would need to be more extensive.
I no longer take seizure medication and I haven’t had one since I was a young teen. Still, the fact that I had epilepsy and I was just shoved into public school ESL as a fix is a haunting reminder to me at how easy it is for children, especially children of color, to fall victim to prejudice.
Would I have had to have a grand mal seizure for someone to finally listen to me and realize I wasn’t making it up?
And…most importantly…why? Why was it so easy to shoehorn me into these classes without my mother’s consent? What if my mom wasn’t a white woman? A woman who, for lack of a better phrase, got her Karen on when she realized I was being put into ESL classes?
I can’t help but wonder — If my mom had been a Spanish-speaking Latina, what the hell would have happened to me?