I went to school in a small town in Washington State and graduated in 1971. I don’t exactly know how that happened, as I was the most undereducated and socially ignorant student ever given a diploma from Tumwater High School.
While I didn’t thrive in school, I was a boomer, so I suppose they passed me along to make room for the next year’s students.
For the most part, I didn’t like school. Everything happened so fast and moved so quickly that I rarely understood what was going on, or what we were doing. I was the odd duck in the pond, never quite aware of the proper social cues, and always out of step.
Teachers regularly pointed out that I was an underachiever.
Music was my refuge, my guaranteed A. When it came to reading, English, and literature, I was ahead of the class. Because social studies/history and science were so reading-intensive, I managed to get decent grades in those classes too.
I was funneled down the college path by my parents, despite the fact I didn’t have a clue about algebra. Proficiency in advanced mathematics was a requirement for admission into any college or university.
No amount of private tutoring could do more than barely keep me from failing. Getting a “D” was the best I could do in that subject. But I did understand bookkeeping math, and because I could see why everything added up, I liked it. I was a bookkeeper for most of my working life.
In 1993, the company I worked for finally bought a computer. All the Microsoft products in those days came with a large book, but I needed to move my files from paper to Excel as quickly as possible. Out of desperation, I brought my then-fourteen-year-old son in on a Saturday, and he showed me how to transfer my handwritten spreadsheets to Excel.
Once Daniel began showing me how it worked, it was as if a supernova had gone off in my mind. All those wacky algebra equations I had never understood suddenly made sense.
In Excel, I had a visual system before me that showed me how it worked. A workbook has several spreadsheets in it, each made of rows and columns of cells. You must use the right language, such as =sum(A1+A2). But once I learned the language, the bookkeeping world was my oyster.
Best of all, if I changed the values in cells A1 and A2, the sum in A3 automatically updated.
And I could link cells between spreadsheets in the same workbook!
No more poring over a 32-column spreadsheet with a yardstick and calculator for half a day only to be 3 pennies off at the end. Mistakes were easily and quickly dealt with, saving an incredible amount of time.
As an adult, I discovered that I am a visual learner. In other words, I don’t do abstract well at all. In 1997, I was diagnosed with a learning disability that no one ever thought about in my era. But it is actually pretty common: attention deficit disorder without hyperactivity (ADD).
So, I was not a lazy student, as my report cards all said. I really was working hard, trying to keep my head above water.
I was just unable to see the shore I was swimming toward.
And what does all that mean? I don’t see it as a disability, because for me, it can be worked around.
I just have a different way of learning that didn’t lend itself to the way traditional public school systems taught during the time I was growing up.
College was easier for me to navigate in some ways. As an adult, in classroom situations, I get confused easily when hearing verbal instructions.
However, college-level textbooks aren’t as ambiguous as those we had in elementary school. If I am given handouts with the high points written out in plain English, I can take the time I need to research and absorb the information.
Despite my less than happy years in public schools, I love learning. All my adult life, I have been educating myself, sometimes formally, but mostly via the internet. Being able to learn at my pace and not have to wonder what I missed is sheer heaven.
This is why writer’s conferences are good for me. Yes, most lectures are delivered verbally, but they are short, and the presenters are willing to answer questions. Also, having a laptop gives me the ability to take readable notes as the presentation goes along. And most presenters give useful handouts or direct you to books that illustrate their subject.
I did enjoy the PNWA virtual conference this last weekend and was able to sit in on many excellent seminars. Much of what I heard reinforced previous knowledge.
However, every new concept I was exposed to is still fermenting, rolling around in my mind, and will probably emerge in a blogpost. I heard several different ways of looking at one aspect of writing craft or another, but I still need to think about them.
Yes, even virtual conferences are a test of my endurance.
I still feel confused as I sit in a Zoom meeting, taking notes and trying to understand the finer distinctions between simple things that everyone else grasps right away.
But that no longer paralyzes me.
I now know how to navigate the way I learn. I go back to my notes to see what I want to investigate further. Then I go out to the internet and seek information from more than one source. By having several differently phrased explanations, something I didn’t quite understand will be made clear.
I absorb and remember information in a different way than the majority of people do, but I no longer panic over it. You may learn in yet another way.
None of us fit into that box in the center of the learning spectrum, the one labeled “normal.” The key is to relax and absorb the information in the way you feel most comfortable.
Being diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of 44 was a surprise, but it explained so much. I’d gone through life feeling like the lone puzzle piece from a jigsaw puzzle with a similar but different picture that had been put into the wrong box. And now I knew why I didn’t fit.
That diagnosis in 1997 gave me the tools I needed to educate myself. It also gave me the confidence to accept how I am different and be a little more outgoing. I still lack certain social skills, but I’m improving there too.
And one final update on the PNWA conference: my dear friend and fellow member of the Tuesday Morning Rebel Writers, Johanna Flynn won the Nancy Pearl award for her book, Hidden Pictures. This is so meaningful, beyond the cash prize, as it is an award that is voted on by librarians.
So, keep writing, and keep submitting your work. Educate yourself in the way you feel most comfortable and have faith in yourself. We never know what lies just around the corner.