I stood in the hallway in the elementary wing just outside of her classroom. She leaned in and used a file folder to cover the side of her face.
“The truth is is that he didn’t learn what he needed to learn in the first and second grades. I’ve been trying to work with him, but he’s so far behind. On top of that, he just won’t sit still … always squirming in his chair and jiggling his legs. Or, he’s slouched so far down in his seat, he’s about in the floor. He never follows directions. Can’t focus or pay attention. This week, he started to act out in class….”
While I didn’t personally know Sam (not his real name) yet, I knew him.
It was 1994, and I was the Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Highlands. I had been working with students like Sam for a year, and I knew the behaviors of a very right-brained and/or dyslexic and/or differently-learning student. Sam was displaying each and every one of them. And each behavior was an effort to get his brain to work in an environment that had been structured for someone with a very different kind of brain.
The kind of brain I have.
Some of my earliest memories are of “playing school” with my sister and my friends. We’d line up dolls, create lesson plans, teach lessons, and even make our own worksheets on my mom’s mimeograph machine (my mom was a teacher, and she had a machine at home). At school, I was quiet, organized, sat still, did my work, followed directions, and tried to help the teacher. I ended up skipping the second grade because I grasped material so quickly. I was a classroom teacher’s dream.
So why was my experience so different than Sam’s?
I believe it is because how I am naturally wired. I am wired as a linear thinker, a rule follower, a language arts champion, a sequential and organized thinker, and I think part-to-whole (which is super handy when you are being taught phonics). Neat rows of desks were comforting to me. In fact, just about everything with regard to how school was structured was comforting to me and in alignment with how I naturally think and move in the world.
Not so for Sam and millions more just like him.
Sam’s brain thinks whole-to-part, so learning phonics is a special challenge. He needs to learn “cat” as a whole word, and then learn the individual sounds comprising the word. Sam also is a kinesthetic learner, and he needs to move in order to think (the reason for all the leg jiggling and squirming in his seat). He slouches in his desk not to be rude, but in order to subconsciously get to the ground (where he knows he can think better). His brain thinks holistically, not linearly; and he processes information visually. Giving sequential directions orally, to him, sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher (“WAAA WAA WAAA WAAAA”).
And the acting out in class?
Well, if we were forced to go to a job every day of the week where we knew we were not going to succeed, we would act out as well.
So, why am I telling you this story?
I believe that even if Sam received one-on-one tutoring and caught up to grade level in all of his studies (which, by the way, he did), he is still going to grow into an adult who lives in a world that, for the most part, is not designed for how he is wired. He will receive messages, both overt and tacit, that there is something not quite right about him and/or his abilities. He will feel as if he is swimming against the current on the way to the Island of Misfit Toys.
If Sam believes what his culture, colleagues, and bosses tell him, he may live his entire life believing the lie that he is lesser than.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
You see, Sam has an inventive mind and is quick to tap into his creativity. In fact, he expresses his creativity in a variety of ways in his life outside of work. He is a natural problem solver, and because of his talent for holistic thinking, he can see strategy for revealing causes of and solutions to thorny problems. He connects the dots, both forward and backward, and unravels challenges that leave others in a state of paralysis.
He never developed a talent for spelling, but his emotional intelligence is off the charts, making him a supremely-gifted builder of community. He can not only empathize with customers, he can quickly put himself in their shoes and deliver an extraordinary experience. He can see what is not there yet, long before the market discovers a need.
In short, Sam is an innovative visionary with enormous talent.
If he finds a path to becoming an entrepreneur, he will most likely find his tribe of fellow misfits, as well as his successful stride. He will learn that his differently-wired brain is one of his greatest assets, and will embrace the fact that he doesn’t fit in the majority of the time as a signal of being on track and in his zone of genius.
But what happens if Sam never comes to learn just how unique, talented, and amazing he is? What if he never discovers that he is an integral part of our collective future, and how much our society needs his brain on board to help solve our many challenges? What if he never truly feels at home in his own skin because he has been told over and over he doesn’t have what it takes?
Or, what if Sam follows a course of study and career that he is told is valued (which he doesn’t have an interest in, but is told it is a safe choice)?
Consider the colossal loss to Sam, and to each of us.
How our brains are wired is as unique as our fingerprints, and that is cause for celebration, not derision.
If you are Sam, stop believing the lies you have been told your entire life. Know how much we need your incredible gifts and ways of moving in the world.
In fact, you can see in the dark which is a handy skill in times of crisis.
Your differences comprise your genius, as well as are the stepping stones that lead you to your best work, most impactful innovations, and greatest joy.