Tweenage Angst

desksSeated in our sixth-grade classroom in Newton in the Fall of 1962, Jean, a pretty, tom-boyish girl, and my desk-pod mate, whispered that she wanted to dance with me at Mr. Champagne’s initial dance class after school. I was in the stratosphere over Jean’s, invitation, but wary as my dancing had been at best down to earth. The Virginia Reel in gym class had left me reeling with confusion. Still I rose to the occasion and gave my most creative reply, “OK.” Jean’s choice could make my formidable task of surviving the dance class more likely and perhaps even exciting. The gym, the scene of all my struggles with gymnastics, now could mark my ascension to the boyfriend/girl-friend zone. We wouldn’t be a beauty and beast couple which was comforting. Jean was blond and lithe, and I was tall, thin, with freckled faced even features, and I could see OK enough to dance without my goony dark glasses. I was only uncomfortable with my feet which protruded out to give me a penguin gait.

Sitting about two feet from Jean, I tried to control a giddiness, only matched later that year when I anticipated the great oral report that I would deliver on President Grover Cleveland. What eventually reduced my sweaty elation was realizing that Jean was relatively front and center socially, and I was rightfully an oddball in the back row. This rocky self-image was honed from my quirks that culminated with major 5th grade embarrassments. These humiliations melted away any solid sense of age 11 success, even when these put-downs were balanced against my near encyclopedia like command of trivia, 17 above averages out of 27 grading items, and my eagerness to please persona. How was I, hovering in classroom esteem between class clown and class eccentric, going to handle this dancing with at least an iota of suavity. For instance, there was the my most undoubtedly un-suave, “disorganized genius” humiliation the previous spring when I became the 5th grade’s total laughing stock for at least 5 recess sessions.

I learned that I was the object of my classroom’s derision, via the voices ganging up on me, “Look up Bill. Wake up spaceman. Look at the lights.” It was then that I suffered a pants-wetting- worthy embarrassment. My sneakers had been tied together and hung ignominiously on the shiny fluorescent lights of our brand-new classroom spotlighting my deficiencies. The bully perpetrator of this act was bigger than me and older than me so what could I do. Plus, she was my teacher.

Miss. K. used this incident of the traveling Keds to lecture me about my personal lack of competitive grade school focus. Standing in front of her desk she began, “Bill, I warned you that if you kept losing track of your personal things there would be consequences. I’m sure that if I opened your desk it would be completely overrun with trash. This is not kindergarten, its fifth grade. You don’t want to be our “disorganized genius” forever. Hopefully by tying up your sneakers up there, I’ve taught you a lesson.”

“OK I’ll try harder,” I murmured. But really, I wished at that second that I could be a wise ass and threaten to sic my parents on Miss K. I regret that I couldn’t come by with the likes of, “You know Miss K my dad’s a dentist, and he is very, very HANDY WITH the DRILL.”

But I suffered from a double whammy, not only disorganization, but also an impulsive dis-quietness, as evidenced by the behavior section of my dossier length Newton report card. I was pretty happy when my mother came home from the 5th grade teacher’s conference with my report card showing 16 above averages and one superior in academic stuff, out of 27 academic ratings. Mom was proud to share this check-list with me. The only evaluation item that bothered her was the “seldom” rating I got in “demonstrates self-control.” in the behavioral section. This did not mean that I was a bad seed who started endless spitball fights in class. But it did mean that I engaged in conversations at inappropriate times in class, like when my teacher was conducting a lesson. I know that my mom would add her one constructive criticism, “Billy you need to pay more attention to what’s going on in class and not talk to your friends. I promised Ms. K I would bring this up with you.”

My dad also chimed in on this along the harsher lines of “what’s the matter with you, just zip it.”

It was odd that I racked up quite a detention record for conversing at inappropriate times in that I was and am an introvert. In my tween years I had no aspirations to be life of anyone’s birthday party. Actually, my problem was that I was clueless as to when it was safe to chat in a classroom. I don’t think that I realized that the optimum time to talk to your friends was not when the homeroom teacher, was explaining important stuff akin to what do in case of a nuclear attack during recess or, more importantly, laying down the rules for exchanging Valentines.

My self- control also figured in my lost opportunity to study French in elementary school. Newton was in the vanguard in delivering French by TV. The folding walls between classrooms would open, and we would gather around one or two black and white sets to absorb French taught by a middle-aged Madame Slack in a PBS TV studio. This to me was French un-immersion. I didn’t respond well to Madame Slack accent as it was not my native Bostonian, and honestly, I don’t remember catching on quickly to the French phrases flying out of the TV set. When Madame inquired “Comment-allez-vous,” I was always a beat behind my classmates in the mass yell back, “Tres Bien, Merci et vous.” Thus, to circumvent boredom or cut my anxiety, I made a clever aside to the nearest classmate presumably like “I’d rather be watching Gunsmoke.”

Maybe I am over-dramatizing, but I do have a vague recollection of my teacher, glaring at me after a “Gunsmoke-like,” French class interruption and pronouncing to all my Francophile classmates that I would no longer be taking French. Did I now have to turn my in smart kid badge? And if so why? For a few minutes I felt like the oddest kid in the grade. What kid flunks TV! Still was it fair? There was no previous warning like “keep your eyes glued to Madame Slack or else.” I really did wonder if I would be on some foreign language black list in junior high with my protests greeted with, “You talked during Mdme. Slack’s show obviously you have no aptitude for languages. We don’t care if you come from a long line of UN interpreters.”

I was exiled me to the classroom next door where the stupid kids, AKA the non- budding linguists, would do remedial stuff like grammar worksheets for 45 minutes while the rest of the 5th grade followed along with Madame Slack. Escaping the boredom did not balance out the humiliation of getting kicked out of a class. Picking out verbs seated at close quarters with kids who didn’t even qualify for French class was de-moralizing. Plus, I was mature enough to sense that the teachers had pronounced me too immature for grown up middle-school subject of French. The saving grace was that some of the boys gave me that astonished “man what are you doing here?” question.

As you can imagine, my 5th grade year image-deflating mishaps did make it tougher for me to believe that I could sweep Jean off the dance floor in early 6th grade. It just seemed that like under my desk top, stored with crumbled worksheets, pencil shavings, old leaky pens, and Pez candy containers, I was too messed-up But, with the theoretical possibility of a girlfriend, I had to give this opportunity a chance.

Anyway, later in the day at Mr. Champagne’s dance class in the gym, I did pick Jean as my dance partner. A few minutes later we were history. I couldn’t keep up with Mr. Champagne’s fox trot instructions. I was always a step behind, stomping on “one two” when I should have been at “three.” Jean gritted her teeth and said, “Pay Attention.” A few minutes later it was “Pay Attention,” with a scratch of my arms for emphasis. I’ve forgotten exactly what I said, then, but it was likely a nod and a frustrated, “I’ am paying attention.” Then there were just more scratches. At the end of that number, I retreated to a neutral corner to lick my wounds, both physical and mental. I was shocked as to how quickly a dance partner had turned into a sparring partner.

It was a true whirlwind romance—one Fox Trot. I just wanted to go home. The waltz could wait. That Fall day in 1962 in the school gym in Mr. C’s dance class was the last time I was even remotely in step with my fellow guys in relating to girls. For the next six years of school, I was stuck and dazed in the gym corner, while the rest of the class moved on to other romantic locations and actions from slow dancing in basements., to automobile make out sessions, to anxious sex in childhood bedrooms, accompanied by soulful eyed walks in the woods. By my junior year of college, the gap between myself and my classmates in mastering the whole wherewithal between the sexes was a chasm too difficult to breech. Thus, I didn’t date, didn’t flirt, and actually did not even a half meaningful platonic friendship with a woman. I was from earth in those years, but all the girls/woman were from Mars. The must have had interplanetary ray-guns, because it was if I had been stunned when trying to relate. It took me 38 years from that day in Mr. Champagne’s dance class to truly understand why I had two left feet in the dance of love.

In the Fall or 2000, I found out that not everybody can multi task. I determined this as I was working on computer code in my basement office while broiling lamb chops upstairs in the kitchen. About an hour into my total coding immersion, the smoke detectors made their hellish but necessary high decibel blasts, yanking me from my narrow band of awareness. I ran upstairs to a smoky kitchen. I opened the oven and witnessed a wicked oven fire. Luckily the fire extinguisher worked. But of course, the lamb chops were not just well done but incinerated. My wife, came home to the smell of the fire extinguisher, smoke, and no dinner. She looked at me with both anger and concern, “Something’s really wrong with you, Bill. I want you to go for testing. Your spaciness is getting dangerous.”

I had to agree with her. My absent-mindedness had been a point of contention ever since I came home from the laundromat with a full laundry basket on top of my car in our pre-martial days. That was at least funny. This was not. Without trying to obfuscate the point by claiming that I just got too engrossed at work, I said “Ok I will talk to Dr. G about getting some testing next time I see him.”

Dr G., my shrink, was affiliated with McLean Hospital so he recommended a neurologist there. A couple of weeks later I was in Dr. P’s office at McLean. His office was furnished in expensive dark wood with rugs not yet threadbare. It was more an academic dean’s workplace than a clinical setting, just too ornate for the cold facts of medicine. Dr. P, fiftyish, tall and tennis-fit, started the testing very low key, not even using a reflex hammer. He asked me to name a few items in his vicinity. I got unglued when he pointed to the end of his shirt-sleeve. Finally, He said, “Cuff Right?” I was gobsmacked by my lapse in memory. Was this inconvertible evidence of my lack of mental acuity?”

At any rate Dr, P didn’t commit me, but he did recommend a full neuro-psych evaluation. It turned out that this testing connected all the quirky, disparate dots of my behavior into a revealing portrait of my cognitive style which would lead me to reevaluate my personal history.

A week or so later back in his office, Dr P. matter of flatly announced that I had “Right hemisphere Dis-function.” Dr. P then described a main symptom of this disorder (Today it is referred to as Non-Verbal Learning Disorder or NLD) which was that people with Right-Hemisphere Dis-function have a lot of difficulty picking up non-verbal communication. “So it’s sort of like autism?” I said “Yes” he said, “it is.”

In that moment I was both hurt and grateful. I was upset that I had a diagnosed defect that in fact my quirky, sometimes clueless behavior, especially as a kid and adolescent was due to faulty wiring, yet at the same time the diagnosis allowed me to make sense of my baffling inability to participate in the normal guy/gal choreography of romance. Later I wrote a piece on my puzzling and frustrating romantic failures entitled “50 Bad First Dates” where I recounted persisting and learning through dating problems in my 20s. I concluded that it was worth experiencing these bad dates to eventually become adept enough to establish an intimate relationship with my eventual wife in spite of NLD. The fact that at age 49 I had a wife, two kids, and a decent IT career, in spite of this NLD handicap was an achievement that I could chalk up to my: persistency, recognition of my cognitive strengths, and limited use of self-help books.

Dr. P. then posited that the other main problem that NLD imposed on a life was poor spatial relationships. Once I heard this, I was able to integrate many deeply bothersome difficulties that made me feel apart from my peers as a kid. These items included difficulty tying my shoes, inability to ride a bike until I was about 9, and, most importantly, difficulty with driving a car, starting with taking double the amount of driver’s ed lesson as a 16-year-old, till the present day where I don’t inspire confidence when behind the wheel. Academically this explained my failure to understand geometry. Pythagoras was not my favorite math sage., On my own, I recognized other marks of NLD that applied to me including poor handwriting (I was actually in remedial handwriting classes in elementary school). Then there was clumsiness and body control. At age 9 at summer camp, I was singled out in front of the entire summer camp for not doing correct jumping jacks. I also learned that the NLD syndrome compromised executive functioning, hence my elementary school nickname of the “disorganized genius. I realized that my difficulty with non-verbal clues also made me the tween-age detention magnet. NLD mimics ADHD which seemed to explain my general inattentiveness.

It was now clear to me that at my dance with Jean was doomed from step one, but maybe if she knew back then that I had NLD she wouldn’t have scratched me quite so hard.

by William Levine

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