IMAGINATION UPSIDE DOWN… THE WORLD OF THORNTON W. BLEASE
Children’s books are mirrors in which youth identify with the characters found in books they read. All children prefer to emerge themselves with characters that have similar feelings and experiences as they do. Books also serve as opportunities to learn about the world beyond their families and local communities. They are powerful vehicles for self- approval, and promotion of empathy and acceptance of one another’s differences.
Children’s Literature must be inclusive. It needs diverse characters, including characters with (dis)abilities- like me.
And like you.
Growing up with disabilities was easy and hard at the same time. In many ways, I was a typical child growing up, in other ways, very different. I was labeled as “twice exceptional.” That means I am gifted and I also have learning (dis)abilities, a constricting term to describe the fact that I am me, an individual, not an off the chart number on an IQ scale or a kid with limitations.
As a side note. I find IQ score interesting. When I was tested as a four-year-old, I tested in the profoundly gifted IQ range- 180+. Later, with a different test, one which teases out and highlights learning disabilities, my score was lower. The first test didn’t take into account the time restrictions built into the test.
My case illuminates the weakness of “test” and labeling. I am and never was a “label.” In fact, I never fit in a neat descriptive box anywhere. Labels are obstructive in most cases and used for convenience, less likely for the advantage of the (dis)abled. Whenever I garnered a “label” for one thing or another, I was treated as if that label defined me, as if I was whatever the label portrayed me to be.
One year at a gifted camp, the lead teacher was a “specialist” in learning disabilities. The teacher labeled me and sent home a detailed letter of my shortcomings, proud to help me. My parents discounted it, but the teacher didn’t. She treated me as a learning challenged problem that she was going to fix. And through her ambiance, the kids reacted accordingly and used me as their verbal battering ram. I was stupid. I was lazy. I didn’t belong in their gifted program.
Yet, this stupid kid produced an awesome project. The theme was music, and I created synthetic music scores to illuminate different emotional experiences. The project received much praise from the director and silence from the lead teacher.
This is about the time I began getting mixed messages about myself. I was brilliant and creative on one hand and stupid and lazy on the other. I could understand deep and profound concepts, but simple things such as money and time set my heart pounding and my hands shaking. It was very confusing and frustrating. It still is.
But I am lucky. I have always loved to learn. I prefer to visit a museum, aquarium, or zoo than a ballgame or a playground (although playgrounds were great to pretend to be a blood cell going through a blood vessel as you slide down a slide or a tornado spinning on a merry go round).
My mom tells a story that when I was three, I asked her if the mountains in our backyard were formed by the tectonic plates coming together, or were they volcanic? She says she had no idea (she has a BS in Chemistry) what I was talking about, so she said we could look it up when we got home. Apparently, I read the chart of the tectonic plates at a museum. Yet I am dyslexic. My learning disabilities are very real, often paralyzing, and most often confusing.
I have dyslexia but I read early and voraciously. However, reading out loud was an issue when I was young. I read my own way. I am not even sure now what that is. Phonics is indecipherable. I don’t think I memorized the words or the shape of the words. I just read.
I read Harry Potter when I was five. But I didn’t read each word, one after the other. My mind interprets and revises the words in print. My father figured this out when I was around four. He had me read out loud. I read, “The beautiful lady went to Madison Fifth Avenue to buy exquisite clothes.
He said, “Where does it say that?’
I pointed to the text.
“No. It says: The pretty woman went to New York to buy clothes.”
“My version sounds better.”
He agreed, but took an index card and had me read only a line at a time I read it correctly. My eyes see the word and my mind revises.
When I was four, I was given a huge Tonka truck. I said, “Thank You. Now I can do some momentum experiments.” I guess I was never very tactful. At least I answered. Most times I didn’t. My dad shrugged it off. He would say that I was deep in important thoughts. I didn’t waste my time. Which, I guess is not entirely untrue.
I couldn’t follow social small talk (it’s still difficult). Also, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and talk to them at the same time. I understand now that it was too hard to focus on the conversation and their face at the same time. I didn’t understand it as a child, nor did I understand why it was so upsetting to people. Apparently, eye contact is important in our society. It is one of the socially conscripted norms that separate the “normal” from the “abnormal.”
Concentrating on conversations is difficult. Having to look people in the eye and listen at the same time can be impossible because I have Central Auditory Processing Disorder. My ears work perfectly fine, but something happens between my ears and my brain. The audiologist told me that my brain can’t hear. He also told my parents that he will look for me in the newspapers. They asked the doctor why– it was a strange comment for the doctor to make immediately after giving a diagnosis of severe Central Auditory Processing Disorder. He replied that as bad as my auditory processing was, he was amazed that I had gotten so far in life and he’s convinced that I’m going to do great things. This only added to the conflicting feelings I had about myself. It seemed like I was a two-sided coin spinning and wobbling out of control. What exactly did CAPD mean and would I be able to work around it?
Apparently, when everyone else pieces one word after another to form a sentence and then sentences together to form paragraphs, I need the gist of the conversation and my mind and then works backward. It starts with the overall context and breaks it into paragraphs, sentences, and finally words. Following a conversation that I don’t control is difficult for me. There is no way to fix this in a social setting unless there is acceptance and patience, which is hard to find.
I always loved words, especially my words. Poems healed me. By the time I was three, there were so many thoughts in my head that I needed to construct poems to clear my brain. When there were too many words inside at one time, everything became jumbled. They had to fly out. I didn’t know why at the time. So, I emptied my brain and dictated my words to whoever wanted to listen (and probably others that didn’t want to, but I couldn’t read facial expressions). My parents wrote these poems down on paper, napkins, their hands. It didn’t matter. When the cacophony of thoughts flowed, words flowed.
At first, they were poems about nature and the world. Then, fantasy worlds filled with magical creatures were created. When I studied philosophy through Montclair University’s program: Advancement of Philosophy in Children, I wrote The Sophia Collection, a series of philosophical poems from the mind of an eight-year-old child. As I got older, life became more complicated and challenging, and the poems became more personal, a way of helping me understand my brain:
Words jump in
Are they a code?
Take them in, analyze
Shake out their meaning
Like apples on a tree. Hopefully, the truth behind them will be revealed.
Nature’s Fishbowl: Central Auditory Processing Disorder In a fishbowl
While life all around
Like a goldfish in a bowl Swimming in circles
Pushing the limits, yet going nowhere. Drowning
A desire to escape, to become
Part of life,
Around the brain’s reef.
To enter the frightening world,
Nightmare outside of the tide pool
Where tentacles entangle the words.
Perhaps, a compromise
A safety net
A cerebral aquarium
Free but safe.
Until words learn to swim without drowning.
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