As I approach graduation, one part of me wants to display my diplomas on the wall in beautiful frames and leave it at that, while the other part of me wants to flaunt my achievements to all the educators who gave up on me along the way. I want them to know how wrong they were about the child they once wrote off as learning disabled.
During my elementary, middle and high school years in Fresno, CA, I was assessed three times by different psychologists, who all emphasized the fact that I had poor visual memory. Although a couple of teachers showed compassion by putting in extra time to help me complete assignments, for the most part I was encouraged to pursue the manual arts, such as carpentry or mechanics. Some even nudged me towards the military, suggesting that I would be a poor fit for college.
I had only scored 80 on my IQ test, which was considered low. In 11th grade, I wrote at a 5th grade level. In 12th grade, 97 percent of my class scored higher than I did on the SAT, the standardized test for college admission. My poor performance got me placed in special education.
There, everyone had a learning disorder and none of us came from families with the resources to hire tutors or get the extra support we needed. Up until then, my entire world had revolved around school. So when I was tagged with this disempowering label, removed from my classes and escorted across a football field to a bungalow as the “normal kids” watched, I felt a deep sense of shame.
My ‘special ed’ classmates’ resentment of their situation got channeled into angry outbursts, while my frustration was turned inward.
I felt that something was broken inside of my head. If I lost my keys, it was because I was flawed; if I received a good grade, it was because the teacher liked my personality and not because I deserved it. A little voice inside told me that I was no good, that I was not smart enough, that I was weird and weak.
To avoid that painful walk across the football field, I finally dropped out, which also meant I gave up my right to a free college education. At the time it didn’t matter because I didn’t think I would ever go to college anyway. I mean, I barely made it out of high school.
After that, I was rejected by the military because I had asthma. I ended up at a fast food restaurant, working as a bun toaster and dishwasher. At the time, my manager suggested that I could get free money if I signed up for classes at the city college, which I did. But to get up to the level that allowed me to enroll in general education classes, I had to take two semesters of reading and writing.
At that point in my life, learning to type without looking at the keys was my biggest accomplishment. It engaged my tactile memory and brought my spelling abilities up to college level within a year’s time. Previously a word’s letter patterns eluded me, but when I had to type a word that I didn’t know how to spell, I began to rely upon my fingers as I typed each letter. Acquiring this new skill had a huge impact on the way I viewed myself. If I wasn’t stupid and incapable of learning, as I’d been told, maybe I could experience the world in a different, more affirming way.
I’ll admit, early on that I had an odd way of looking at things. As a kid, I was fascinated with serial killers, not because I admired them or entertained heinous thoughts as they did, but because I wanted to know how they came to hurt people. What life experiences brought them to the point of committing such unspeakable acts of violence?
Of course this fascination scared the crap out of my mother and teachers, so I stopped talking about it, but my curiosity remained. At the time, I needed a mentor to help me learn more about what it meant to be human; I needed someone to feed me knowledge around my interest in human behavior, but I didn’t have anyone who could guide me.
My father was an alcoholic, and I began to follow in his footsteps. Drinking seemed to be the only way to quench my thirst and to get to know myself and others on a deeper, more feeling level, because when I drank I became more open to emotions. That’s how it felt on the inside, anyway. On the outside, I began to get into trouble.
When I was 19, I was the passenger in what the cops said should have been a fatal car accident; it was alcohol related. Around that same time, I caved to the pressures of helping some older guys in the neighborhood break into a couple of houses. At 20, I witnessed my best friend being stabbed, and at 21, I woke up in jail, having been arrested the night before for a DUI. Thank God I didn’t hurt anyone. This was my lowest point, when the voices, telling me I was unworthy, grew louder than ever.
A month later, when I showed up at my court hearing, I apparently hadn’t learned a thing: I arrived drunk out of my mind because the night before I went out with some friends and ended up drinking until 7 a.m., knowing that my hearing was just two hours later at 9.
My attorney quickly pulled me into the bathroom and gave me a verbal lashing. He looked deep into my eyes and said, “Tell me you didn’t @%&*ing drive here?” I lied and told him that I was dropped off. He gave me a piece of gum and warned me to shut up and let him do all the talking. He told me not to look at the judge.
I can still remember the disgust in his eyes when my lawyer said that he hated his job because of clients like me. Here I was drunk at the very hearing in which he was trying to convince the judge to go easy on me because I had “learned my lesson.”
I felt as disappointed with myself as my lawyer did: I didn’t have any work skills, I had a criminal record and my life was adrift.
One morning, I woke up early with the crazy notion to walk across Fresno, the city in which I was born, raised and had spent most of my years. It took me eight hours. While I still don’t know why I did it, I can tell you this: the journey momentarily silenced my inner critic. The most memorable part of that day was eating lunch with a group of homeless men downtown.
They told me stories about how they landed where they were. Many gave me advice on how I should live my life. Although what they said wasn’t profound, this encounter surrounded me with friendly faces and interesting stories of adversity, which helped replace the negative schemas that I had developed about homeless people. At the same time, the experience sparked something else inside. For the first time, I began to feel a sense of direction and I longed to explore how we human beings are all connected.
From there, I got financial backers for a three-day bike ride from Fresno to San Francisco; I intended to raise money to leave the United States to study in Japan. Along the bike route, my mother followed behind me in her car, determined to support me, even though she wasn’t clear about what I was trying to do with my life.
After spending a year in Japan learning about religion, I went to South Korea and then continued onward, because every mile I crossed, every story I heard expanded my world view, muting my inner critic until it was completely silent. That’s when a small voice began to whisper that I was, in fact, good and getting better.
After a year I returned to the States, but still had the travel bug, so during a break in my schooling I jumped on a bus from Los Angeles to Mexico. There I encountered a man who told me that he was just released from prison the day before. He had spent 30 years behind bars for two murders he’d committed during a drug deal gone bad. As we talked, I envisioned a baby being born inside this man’s aging body; newly free, he was excited about everything. I felt deep compassion for him.
As I passed through Guatemala, I arrived at Lago De Atitlan (Lake Atitlan), where people from all over the world go to escape the problems of society. The lake is surrounded by many villages, in which Mayan culture is still evident.
It was there that I met other people like me who felt and thought at deeper levels. Their ideas about society and their frustration with the “normal life” resonated with me. I considered hanging out for a couple of years with the vagabonds that I met there, but I had bigger visions of what I wanted to do with my life. I had a beautiful girlfriend back home, whom I’d met through a college friend. She provided me with the support that I needed and had never felt before, even though she—like my mother—couldn’t understand why I needed to travel alone to sort out my inner world. And just like my mother, she believed in me. I wanted to eventually create a life with her, but I first needed to follow the inner voice that whispered to me that I should circle the globe.
As I continued my schooling, I continued to fantasize about travel, because that’s how I learned about my inner and outer worlds. During my master’s program, I wrote a grant for a trip to Tanzania to help women living with HIV/AIDS use their skills to generate income and be less dependent on outside funding. During my three months in East Africa, I encountered the Masai tribe. They continue to wear their traditional clothing and fiercely guard their culture, even as the globalized world surrounds them, because they feel such pride in their heritage. I could feel the honor they took in being Masai. It hit me that I have never felt such pride in myself and my culture; they set a powerful example for me.
During the second year of my PhD program, I visited the Maori in New Zealand. A healer there, named Hinewingari, told me to take off my shoes and stand on the earth, so I could feel “her” breathe, and I did. She said, “When you feel ‘her,’ she will be with you forever.”
While in New Zealand, I met organizers of an international psychology conference in Australia, who invited me to visit to come and make a presentation on international psychology. There I learned about Aboriginal healing practices and indigenous communities’ struggles to overcome stereotypes placed on their Culture. During my time there, I realized that I related more to Aboriginal peoples than I did to the academic researchers from the most prestigious schools around the world.
For my PhD dissertation, I worked with the Quechua tribe in Ecuador, trying to understand their healing practice of ayahuasca (pronounced aja’ waska), which is a psychoactive substance that when drunk, summons spiritual experiences. The effect ayahuasca had on me was to give me a better appreciation of the complexity of life beyond labels, science and religion, where there is peace and a strong spiritual existence connecting us all.
During this trip to Amazonian Ecuador, I experienced a drumbeat at the core of who I am. It resonated throughout my being, and further affirmed the sense that I am good. It was here that I released the guilt I’d been carrying about my father’s death, and the animosity I felt towards him for leaving my mother, brother and me many years earlier. I’d felt guilty because when I was 19 he’d tried to re-enter my life, but shortly thereafter was burned in a fire. I’d stood in the corner of his room, angrily watching as he took his last breaths,
by Scotty Enyart
The author is a psychotherapist who enjoys working in multicultural settings where he can use his skills to develop culturally sensitive projects and provide direct services. He loves to travel and meet new people.
Articles in the Amy Brenneman Issue; Geri Jewell — Spring Into Action; Ashley Fiolek — Making the Move; Humor — A Tail of Two Kitties: CSUN — This is Your Future: Long Haul Paul — Riding the MS Trail: Tony Spineto — You Say Club Foot, I Say Marathon: DRLC — Federal Wellness Programs: Kendall Hollinger — Allergies on Ice: Charles Limb, MD — Jazzology & Your Brain: China — A Family’s Story of Strength: Scotty Enyart — PhD the Hard Way: Amy Brenneman — Chiming In: HE Fahed Bin Al Shaikh — Autism in the UAE: Caroline McGraw — Finding the Gifts in Everyonet; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…