I was not a good student. In fact, I was a really rotten student from the time we moved from wooden blocks to books, and all the way up through high school. I couldn’t read until second grade, and I spent third grade in the counselor’s office taking weird test with colored blocks as they tried to figure out why I couldn’t spell or do basic arithmetic. In fourth grade my dad made me a massive poster with the multiplication table and pasted it to the ceiling above my bed so I would see it even when I wasn’t trying to. In seventh grade my parents went nuclear when my school tried to track me away from the college-bound students, and then I spent endless hours weeping over my pre-algebra homework. High school, aside from literature and writing courses, baffled me – I did not understand, until the end, that other people actually remembered details of what they read the first or second time, and that it was unusual that no matter how hard I studied I barely passed.
School just sucked, and for good reason: I am probably dyslexic. That a writer is also dyslexic isn’t as surprising as it might seem – there are dyslexic writers and poets, like the poet Philip Schultz who wrote a slim book called My Dyslexia about his own struggle with the beast. Most of us do find our way, eventually, onto a path that lets our strengths expand and our weaknesses fall behind us. But you will notice if you and I talk about dates or data that I will never mention specifics – I will talk about trends, connections, meaning, but never the numbers themselves, because the numbers have disappeared from my memory as if I had never known them.
Why do I tell you this today? I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague I depend on and respect deeply. Her brain works very differently from mine, and we touch different sides of our work. We got on the topic of learning (we both have young children) and I told her a bit about my own schooling fiascos, and she said: “I always assumed that things came easily to you! That you were great in school, and that your path to where you are was straight.” I said I assumed the same about her – she seems like the consummate student to me. But she struggled, too, because while her memory is a steel trap (while mine is a bucket without a bottom) she had trouble with concepts. She did objectively great in school, while I did objectively terribly, but neither of us felt particularly good about ourselves at the time.
There are things we don’t know about each other, stories and experiences behind our interactions that would lead, if we let them, to understanding and a bit of grace. Our weaknesses, our cracks, our annoying foibles, they all have origin stories, the tale of how we came to be. These stories can seem immaterial at work, because no matter how hard or easy our path we are all now participating in the same race, and we must contribute to our team or fall behind. But knowing someone works harder than most to remember things (or organize their time or dress like everyone else or manage their pain or relate to their colleagues or get to work on time) gives us a tenderness for each other that makes it all much more bearable. We don’t need to know why someone has to work harder than others at something – it is enough to know that they do.
You should still expect me to remember what I should remember, of course. But perhaps when you tell me you’ll be on vacation the week of July 10, and I sheepishly ask you again the next day what week you’ll be on vacation, you’ll remember my leaky-bucket memory, think of your own leaky buckets, whatever they might be, and just tell me again. July 10, Lisa. July 10. And then I’ll write it down.