Not In Spite of my Challenges
Second grade was the year that was rainforest themed. A good portion of the first week of school was spent making chains out of strips of dark green construction paper that we taped together in rings to put up around the classroom like vines hanging from a canopy of trees. I was pretty good at taping rings of construction paper together and I remember my teacher, her short curly hair and long fingernails painted a sudden red, smiling down at me as I sat cross legged on the carpeted floor. I felt like this year could be different. The classroom was so alive with the vines swinging above our heads as the air conditioning fluctuated and there were stuffed rainforest animals scattered about the room on bookshelves and on beanbags. At any moment I felt as if cool thick rain drops could drip down from the vines and like my favorite song they would turn into sweet gumdrops. I would even imagine myself swinging from the vines with the stuffed animals that would come to life and become my friends so easily. This fantasy world however, soon became an escape from the classroom, just as other fantasy worlds had in years before. Every year, my real friends were animals in my head and there was a much kinder and more exciting world waiting for me when I needed to get away from the disapproving stares and comments that I didn’t quite understand. Second grade was the year I figured out that I really was different than the other kids.
In second grade, I didn’t understand much about myself or the other people around me. I didn’t understand why things changed so much after that first week. I had had so much fun helping to create our classroom rainforest and my teacher even seemed to like me at first. Had everyone suddenly decided they no longer liked me or had it taken me a week to figure out that everyone seemed to disapprove of me for some unknown reason? I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that after the first week of school, the kids started giving me these looks. I had seen these looks before, but this year the kids seemed to be more articulate, more willing to say what was on their mind. They told me I was annoying and when I asked why, this time they weren’t afraid to tell me exactly what was on their minds. They told me that I sniffled too much, moved my face too much, and made weird slurping sounds too much. I hadn’t even noticed that I was doing these things or that they were anything different than what regular kids do, but one thing I had noticed was that year upon year I seemed to hear one particular word from so many of my classmates: annoying.
From that point on, I used our rainforest classroom as an escape more and more. In my mind, I would curl up in the immense canopy of the rain forest to take a nap or to read with my two best friends, Duke and Duchess, the giant black Great Danes who could roam from tree to tree like the spider monkeys I had learned about in class. When the other kids told me to stop sniffling so much or told me time and time again that I was annoying, I would pretend to pet Duke and Duchess, whose fur felt as soft as powdered sugar. I told myself that Duke and Duchess would never say such things to me. Duke and Duchess were always my friends, and even if I couldn’t stop myself from doing things that seemed annoyed the other kids so much, Duke and Duchess didn’t mind one bit.
Each year of elementary school I told myself things would be different, Duke and Duchess wouldn’t be my only friends, and class would be easier for me. Each year however, I seemed to be wrong. I had a few friends each year, but it was difficult for them to understand why I couldn’t stay still in class or why I couldn’t stop myself from making annoying noises. I didn’t blame them though, because I didn’t really understand it myself either. As I got older, the classroom was no longer decorated with colored construction paper, and it was no longer a mysterious rainforest or a magical dessert. There were now overhead projectors, desks lined up in straight rows, and a layer of pressure and silence that seemed to hang over the classroom. The kids weren’t the only ones who seemed to disapprove of me anymore, the teachers did too. My teachers were convinced that I wasn’t paying attention in class because I was moving around too much or using my fingers to write out “fake words” on my desk during class. To them I was a disruption for the other students in the classroom and a hassle for them to deal with. I was always moving and making noises, my handwriting was impossible to read, I didn’t understand math, I started having severe anxiety and panic attacks, and I was obsessive. For me, the classroom became a narrow vacuum of space in which the air was often sucked out pocket by pocket.
Neither my teachers nor I knew it at the time but I had something called Tourette’s Syndrome, a lifelong neurological disorder that causes involuntary movements and sounds called tics, learning disorders, and anxiety disorders. At the time however, Tourette’s wasn’t understood by most people and certainly wasn’t understood by my peers or teachers. At the time, everyone perceived Tourette’s to be a disorder that just caused people to swear uncontrollably. Only highly trained neurologists knew that only 10% of people with Tourette’s actually have swearing tics and that more times than not the physical tics could be less severe than the other conditions it came along with like learning disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and sensory processing disorder. It wasn’t until high school that I would actually have a certain diagnosis, and that people would begin to have a more accurate understanding of Tourette’s, but it was a long time before high school when realized I needed to stop waiting for someone to give me an answer. I was convinced that I was the only one with these problems and sometimes this was a rather lonely and hopeless kind of thought. Most of the time I tried not to think about the fact I was different than the other kids, but sometimes I would slip into a stream of consciousness in which I considered myself to be just a weird, nervous, annoying kid who no one understood.
I can pinpoint the point in time in which I promised myself that I would no longer slip into the mindset of feeling hopeless and sorry for myself. I only allowed myself to cry in the shower, when I was surrounded by stark white walls and the heavy falling water coming from the shower head. I could cry as much as I wanted to, because no one would hear me over the sound of the gushing water. It was in 7th grade however, that I let myself do this for pretty much the last time. I remember crying in the shower and thinking to myself how much I wanted to be a person who was smart, confident, and just someone that other people liked. I knew at this point that I couldn’t control what my body did at times, I couldn’t control what my mind worried about at times, and school was just a lot harder for me than it seemed to be for other people. Crying and feeling sorry for myself in the shower this time was not so different than the many times before it, but this time something in my mind just clicked. I made a decision that night. I made a decision that I would no longer feel sorry for myself because I was going to be the one in control from now on. I couldn’t change the fact that my body seemed to have a mind of its own, but I could change how I dealt with it.
From that point on I promised myself that I was going to succeed in whatever I set out to do, not because of luck or because I was just that kid who didn’t have to try to get an A on a test, I was going to succeed because I would push myself to succeed no matter what it took. I wasn’t going to be that twitchy kid who sits in the back of the classroom and has trouble in school anymore. One day, I was going to be a smart successful woman who people admired and liked even if I had tics and twitches and an obsessive nature that I couldn’t really control. I knew this change wasn’t going to happen overnight, and it didn’t, but I didn’t mind or even notice the wait that much because I was too busy pushing myself forward in every way I knew. I wish I could put into words how I was able to force this change upon my life and upon myself, how I was able to change my grades from C’s to all A’s, gain the respect of my peers and teachers, and begin to exude confidence in a way that I never had before. All I really know is how much I desperately wanted and needed this change in my life. The classroom became a place in which I excelled and was no longer afraid of and most importantly my view of myself changed. I no longer saw myself as a weird, annoying, twitchy kid who no one understood. Instead, I saw myself as a determined and resilient person, not in spite of my challenges, but because of them.