When I Believed I Was Simply 'Not Smart'


I believed my guidance counselor when she said I’d never go to college.

I sat at her desk in her cubicle inside of the school office. I was a sophomore and supposed to be talking to her about college options. Mary had a bob hair cut and pictures of her children in plastic gold-colored frames. She’d glanced at my transcripts. Her lips were pursed and the mole above her lip had a thick, black hair growing out of it.

“So, I’m here to discuss options?” I asked her, not sure how college options should go; I’d only just started sophomore year. Mary turned to me, regarded me over the bridge of her nose. Without turning her chair to really face me, she said: “You don’t have any.”

“What?” Everyone in my family is college educated. Most have graduate degrees. My sister and my late grandfather both have Ph.D.’s. Higher education is my small family’s only legacy.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Your grades, they just don’t look very good this semester.”

“But I have almost three more years? Sophomore year just started.”

“With the grades you’re getting, you would be lucky to grace the halls of a J.C. Colleges tend to look for students that are going above and beyond. You just seem to be doing the bare minimum.” Mary put her glasses back on and returned her eyes to the computer screen. Our session was over.

This was so very wrong. I was making OK grades. I did my homework. I made Varsity in track — a big deal when you’re 15. Grace the halls of a J.C.? Had I messed up so badly I didn’t even notice? “I’m in an honors class,” I persisted.

“And getting a C.”

“So, a Junior College. Which one?”

“We’ll discuss that if you graduate. You need Geometry to get into a college, and it looks like you’re failing that class.”

I froze, not knowing what to say or how to fight or even if I should. I didn’t know what colleges required. Sounded like whatever it was, it was more than I could do. My parents trained me to be polite, so I told her: “OK. Thanks for your time.” I heaved my backpack over my shoulders, walked outside, past my classrooms, over the bridge, off campus.

Kept walking.

I stopped doing my homework. Got into a couple of fights. Eventually, I learned to just stay away from school altogether.

I want to go back to that day, find my teenage self who feels let down, feels like an imposter to her educated bloodline and march her back into the office. Together, we’d tell the guidance counselor to go home. That’s hurt talking. Really, it wasn’t her fault. Neither of us knew I had a learning disability.

I have a visual-spatial learning disability, although I have seen some articles call it a “nonverbal learning disability.”

Wikipedia says:

“Considered to be neurologically based, nonverbal learning disorder is characterized by verbal strengths as well as visual-spatial, motor and social skills difficulties. Challenges with mathematics and handwriting are common.”

That’s the best definition I could find. What I experience is a little more difficult to explain. Inside of my brain, something happens to numbers and symbols. If someone were to give me a set of numbers, I’d have to rearrange them in a way that makes sense in my head. But once inside my brain, those numbers and symbols are slippery. They’re stubborn and I forget them almost instantly unless I write them down. When I write them down, those numbers are from my head. So that set of numbers is going to look drastically different than the original set of numbers I was given. It’s like a game of telephone, except filtering things through my brain is like filtering one simple sentence between seven people. And while my brain is running that one line of numbers of symbols or directions through those seven people, a great blank space yawns open inside my head. Some days it feels like my brain has its very own spinning wheel to indicate processing time.

I understand that now. But I used to think I was very simply, not smart.

Things didn’t truly crumble until I entered Geometry. I remember watching the way the teacher flipped the shapes around on the paper using numbers. The students around me nodded, getting it. By the middle of class I was close to tears. I tried to copy down what the teacher wrote on the board but every time I had it figured out in my head a little better, he’d move on. And why shouldn’t he? The rest of the class had picked it up. Why wasn’t I?

I raised my hand, asked: “Could you slow down, please?” My voice shook. Why was it so bad? Why was that void, that blackness that ate numbers and symbols getting worse?

“Sure. Of course,” the teacher said.

“You don’t get it? Are you stupid? It’s so easy,” said every single peer sitting in front of me, next to me, around me.

My cheeks flushed. After 20 very frustrating minutes of both our lives my teacher finally said, exasperated: “I don’t understand how you’re not getting this.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear him say that. Most, if not all, of my teachers have said that to me at some point. To their credit, it means they were trying just as hard as I was. Once it was said, I’d get stabbed with guilt. I knew they were doing their job. The problem was with me and the way I saw things.

“It’s OK,” I’d always say. “I think I got it now.” I was just as perplexed as they were, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t insist that something wasn’t working. How could I know? I’d only ever been inside of my own brain.

Back then I had coping mechanisms I didn’t even realize I’d developed. Teachers? Check this out. I have fabulous memorization skills and I am a fast reader. Every month I was the student who’d read the most books. In every school play I was the first to have not only my lines memorized, but everyone else’s too. I’d get cast as the lead for my loud voice and ability to memorize. I could recite any lesson word for word. Whatever beat the numbers and symbols part of my brain down amped up the other side, like a blind person who gains better hearing.

Going backwards was (is) another of my coping mechanisms. By going backwards I’m not so much trying to solve anything, or grasping into space, it’s more figuring it out. Disassembling. I’m the kid who took apart stereos and old phones. I enjoy pulling things out of their sockets, fixtures and foundations. I liked to break things apart, then put them back together. I did better in math classes where the answer was given in the back. It gave me a chance to learn the process, and I wasn’t so concerned with keeping the numbers straight.

Process. That’s the best way for me to learn. Hearing the way someone else’s brain works, how they think; I latch onto that with boa constrictor strength. Feed me. Train me. Teach me. It’s the difference between someone saying 2+3=5, and then explaining, quickly: “There are lots of ways to make five. One of those ways is two plus three. See? I have two cats. Here’s another three. See? I combined them, so now I have five cats.” That’s the best way to explain it to me.

The way to lose me is to say: “What’s ‘2+3?’” You’ve lost me because my brain cannot picture “2.” It has to be two of something. Can’t leave anything out in space. I lose it in that game of telephone. By giving it something, I can hold onto that. It’s less abstract and I also know why we’re working. To get to five of something. Teachers, watch out for this. My strengths were not true strengths because I used them to cover up a weakness. Teachers were not worried about me. “She’s not very good at math, but have you seen how many books she’s read?” They figured I was “right brain dominant.”

If someone had just stopped to look, really see what was going on, asked why I held my pencil a strange way, why I needed to repeat words, why I got lost in the same school, same mall, same parking lot. Why if I was “right brain dominant” I was terrible at art, but excelled in science. Why I had to (still have to) stare at the keyboard while I typed. Maybe we all could have been spared the frustration. I wouldn’t have been that heartbroken, confused teenager expelled from school for academic un-excellence.

Before I started at a new school, I needed to have an appointment with my new guidance counselor. If Mr. N. had been a coach, not a counselor, he would have picked me up, told me to dust myself off and get back out there. Upon looking at my transcripts, Mr. N informed me I was going to take a full two months away from math and just do what I wanted. He gave me a list of extra-curricular classes. For an entire quarter, I only did the fun stuff. Mr. N set me up with photography, poetry, track, and to my complete surprise, a philosophy class.

“Take a language, too,” he said, already typing my name in, getting me registered for the classes. “What? Why?”

“What language were you taking? Colleges want you to have language.”

“I was in Spanish two, but I failed.”

“You want to try Spanish three? Come to me if you can’t hang? Oh, and, the philosophy class, it’s an IB program, so it counts as two college credits.”

I stopped breathing for what felt like minutes. I was going to take a college level class before the end of the month. I didn’t think I’d be allowed to pursue a higher level of education, yet this new guidance counselor was sliding me into a seat, no problem. He was asking me nicely to fall back in love with school, was giving me a break to lick my wounds, take away some stress.

“Thank you,” I said. “Yeah. It sounds great.”

“Mackenzie?”

“Mr. N?”

“It’s going to be OK.”

I turned to go before he could see me burst into huge, grateful sobs. Mr. N wasn’t treating me like I wasn’t smart. He was treating me as a teen who’d just had a really, really bad year. Someone who’d gone from perfect attendance to none at all. I think we get a couple of people like that in our lives who are more than just a helping hand. They’re food for the starving soul. They’re the person who doesn’t just give a little light in the darkness, but commands the sun to rise. Mr. N didn’t catch my learning disability. But he was a good person who wasn’t going to let me fail. I wanted to reward his efforts by doubling my own.

I learned to teach myself. I no longer relied on the teachers or took notes. I sat back, listened and marked the pages covered. I found my own roundabout ways to explain the lesson to myself, late at night when the rest of the world went to sleep. I became a quick study. Turns out, my ability to take things apart and then reassemble helped me to take lessons apart and un-jumble them into a language I could understand.

When I handed Mr. N my college acceptance letter, he beamed at me over his wide rimmed, coke-bottle glasses. “What did I tell you?” he said.

My logic professor caught on within two weeks.

It took one lecture full of symbols and truth trees for me to become completely, hopelessly lost in that same familiar darkness, listening for my brain to process the information. I felt like I’d just opened up a 1990’s Dell computer.

The symbols on the board didn’t stay put and even when I took notes, they looked different from what was on the board. Letters make sense because there’s a sound to accompany them. A way around. Those symbols on the board didn’t have a sound, and what’s worse, there were symbols to help break apart the symbols. It was worse than math, because at least I was familiar with numbers.

I sat outside my dorm room until two in the morning trying to un-jumble my homework. Just like in geometry, the material blended together in an awful concoction of black and white. Just static. Without a sound or a story to grip onto, I sunk. My professor emailed me, asked for me to come in and explain my homework. After reading the email I ran to the shared dormitory bathroom and threw up my lunch.

I’m going to get expelled again.

I walked to his office imagining it was the green mile. I was already trying to figure out what I was going to tell my family.

Professor M and I sat at his desk. He handed me my first test. Across the top was an awful, red, bleeding D-. “So,” Professor M started, “at first I thought you weren’t studying. But you are. I think I see it now. Could you read that bottom line to me?” I looked at it. Painfully, slowly, I read it to him. Walked him through what I did. After a long pause I said: “I’m sorry. I know it’s not right.”

Professor M leaned back in his chair, his eyes focused on something outside. He turned back to me, blue eyes glinting, every wrinkle on his aging face was strained in a smile. “Oh, it’s right. It’s just backwards and upside down.”

“Sir?”

He rocked back and forth in his office chair, thinking. “Well, I looked at your daily quizzes and homework. Everything you were supposed to know is here. It’s just not written right.”

Leave it to the logic professor to find the pattern, the truth among my poorly crafted truth trees.

“I think you have a learning disability,” he continued. “How you got this far without assistance is beyond me, but we can help now. Walk with me?” Professor M walked me to the testing center and introduced me to the ladies behind the desk. Their large, toothy smiles beamed at me.

“This is Mackenzie. I am formally referring her to the center.” The ladies gave both of us forms to sign. Professor M scribbled his name, set the pen down and for the second time in my academic career, I was told: “It’s going to be OK.” Then he left.

I didn’t know what to say or how to thank him. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to sob on his shoulder and ask him how after just two weeks he figured something out teachers I’d had for years didn’t see. How could he make it so easy? Now, I’d tell him he saved me so much heartache. Years of thinking I was “dumb” slid off me easier than water. There was a problem. There is a problem. But it’s OK.

After lengthy tests, the university declared I “most definitely” had a learning disability. I was given a note taker, priority registration, the ability to add or drop any class at any time, and tutors. I could go to any of the professors and tell them I needed the lecture notes, that I needed to see it one more time, please. “I’m so sorry. I have a learning disability, but once I get it, I’ve got it for good.”

The professors were all eager to help, gave me links to more information so I could get the same lecture from multiple angles and voices. When I was accepted into graduate school, the director of my program called to tell me: “Your grades in math aren’t that great, but hell, neither were mine. Welcome!”

I didn’t need to tell my graduate school professor. Like my logic professor, he could tell I was either hopelessly behind, or something was wrong. He showed me the lesson, the way he worked and edited and wrote. Because that was handled quickly and with some kind of unspoken agreement, I was able to do what I’d always wanted: to learn.

I want to tell the teachers to watch out for patterns and shy faces. Take note of the ones who love school, then suddenly fade away. I want to tell students: do not wait. Like everything, it takes two to tango. You have to be willing to ask for help. Go see the teacher after class and say: “I think something’s wrong.” Promise me?

My student is 4 and something strange is happening to him. He knows all of his letters, but not when they’re pushed together in a word. It’s like the letters are blending together in an unfamiliar way. The longer he stares at it, the tighter his face becomes. He’s down on himself, crumples in a corner, shouting, “I don’t know it!” He stops looking at them all together, begins to forget.

I ask my boss if I can tutor him alone.

He and I walk outside, sit down together. I have flash cards and stickers. We go through the alphabet. Every time he gets a letter right, I give him a sticker. By the end he has 20 stickers on his Batman hoodie. “See how many you know?” I give him a nudge with my elbow, just to let him know I’m here and always will be. Little tears prickle the corners of his eyes and I recognize the light just behind them.

I wait until he knows them all in every order. It doesn’t take long. He’s a smart kid. After a few weeks I start laying the letters down next to each other.

“Where’s the first letter?”

He points.

“And what letter is that?”

“S.”

Sticker.

“Next one?”

“M.”

“Next?”

“A. R. T!”

“Sound it out.”

He does. Sticker. Sticker. Sticker.

He turns to me. His little hands run along his jacket, caressing his many stickers. “Smart?” he says, bewildered.

“Yes. Say it.”

“Smart?”

“Scream it!”

“Smart!”

“Good job. Now, let’s try this way.” I mix the letters up. “The letters stay the same in every word. You just have to figure out how they work. You can do it. You are smart.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are!” I point to his stickers. “Look at how many stickers you have. That’s how many you got right. You’ll get some wrong, but it’s no big deal. When you don’t know something, I want you to say: I’m smart, then try. Or tell a teacher. I’ll always help you.”

He licks his lips, then looks at the letters. “I am smart.”

I pat his back. “It’s going to be OK.”

He nods, then starts to un-jumble the letters.

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Getty image by Kerkes.


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