When I was a kid I never felt broken, because to be broken implies that you were whole at some point, and then something happened and you became broken. No, I just felt defective, like I was somehow missing parts that other people seemed to have. I wasn’t sure what those parts were, mind you. How can you miss something you never had? I just knew there was a whole lot of shit that everyone else seemed to know and I had absolutely no idea WTF they were talking about. So there was a pretty steep learning curve of figuring out how to be a functional human.
It didn’t help that I got pretty much zero guidance from my parents. And to make matters worse, I seemed to be pretty smart, so naturally people would just assume that I knew whatever obvious shit they were doing, when in reality I was just trying to figure it out on the fly. I remember in first grade, in one of my first classes, the teacher had all the kids get up and stand in a circle. Dutifully, I did as she said and joined the other children waiting for instruction. She proceeded to say Now we’re going to practice our vowels.
Ok – there’s two things you need to know about me before I go any further. The first one is that I somehow learned how to read early. I don’t really remember how, I just remember reading books from a really young age. They seemed to have a magical ability to transport me to unknown worlds, and as a result they were like drugs to escape the chaos of my abusive home life. The other thing is a very weird quirk that’s probably some kind of learning disorder – I’ve always mis-read and mis-heard words, usually imagining they say something dark and inappropriate. For example, I used to regularly drive down this stretch of highway where there was a billboard advertising a shopping mall that said “Valley Fair Mall.” The problem was, every time I drove past it, I would read it as “Valley Fear Mall.” It didn’t matter how many times I saw it, I always read it the same way. It’s like I’m constantly interpreting the world as a sinister place, only instead of frightening me or make me anxious, I somehow find it comforting. I know, weird.
Anyway, so now I’m standing in a circle with the other kids in first grade and the teacher says Now we’re going to practice our vowels. Only I didn’t hear it that way – instead I hear her say Now we’re going to practice our bows. Just as I’m thinking Why are we going to practice bowing – is the Queen coming to our classroom? This is weird, ‘cuz we’re in Virginia and I think if royalty was coming to school I would have known about it – she looks at me and I freeze. All the other kids are silently watching and the teacher has that look on her face that says Go ahead. It’s funny the things you remember; that one seems to be burned into my brain because it’s still fresh 55 years later.
Like a deer frozen in headlights, I just stood there. Even at that young age, I already knew better than to trust my interpretation of any new situation. After a moment, the teacher turns to the chalkboard where she had written A, E, I, O, U. Pointing at the first letter, she looks at the class and says What letter is this? All the kids intone A in ragged unison. Meanwhile, I’m thinking Jesus Christ, I almost just bowed in front of the whole class. Everyone, including the teacher, would have forever thought I was some kind of idiotic lunatic. That was a close one…
It was at that precise moment I realized that my brain didn’t work the same way other people’s did. It was an important lesson.