The Tornado Inside

Anne Bobrick
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From the May/June 1994 issue

The character in this story is a composite drawn from the experiences of my 10-year-old, learning-disabled son, Jeffrey, other learning-disabled people I have known, and memories of my own learning-disabled childhood.

EINSTEIN, ROCKEFELLER AND ME ail have a learning disability. Only they are dead, and I’m 10 and in the fifth grade.

It’s been a year since my parents told me I was learning disabled, but I still don’t understand what that means. The psychologist says that some kids who have learning disabilities see letters backwards and can’t read much they’re called dyslexic but I read real well, and I can write poems and stories better than practically anybody I know, and I understand a lot of big words I score really high on vocabulary tests. But I can’t add or subtract numbers in my head I count on my fingers and I’m always the last kid to get the answer in math class.

I also can’t write essays the way my teacher wants. She assigns us one-page papers but then I go on writing and writing until someone makes me stop. I just think of so many things at once and I try to put them all in the paper, like the other day, we were supposed to write one paragraph for homework about why leaves turn green. The other kids said it took them a half-hour, and they did a half page. I took three hours and copied everything in my science book about leaves turning green, but I only got a C The teacher said I didn’t get the main point at all, which was photosynthesis, and I wasn’t supposed to ”just copy the science book” I could have screamed. I was so mad.

I have to see my tutor, Mr. Taylor, six times a week, so I can “learn to write essays,” which means to write it the way the teacher wants, and do better at math. He makes me file all my papers in a file cabinet, because part of my problem is I lose things all the time I never can find my homework or my books or my CDs or anything. Another thing Mr. Taylor helps me do is math. He tells me I have to use big graph paper for adding and subtracting, because I can’t line up numbers very well. I’m the only kid in my math class who has to do that. The other kids laugh at me and call it “baby paper,” and sometimes I’m so embarrassed ! hardly know what numbers I’m writing anyway. Besides, I still have to use my fingers to add and subtract So I don’t think this graph paper is such a hot idea.

My psychologist says I don’t really have a big learning problem, so I go to a regular school I have to admit I sometimes wish I had a real bad disability, because then I could go to a special school where everyone was like me. The teachers wouldn’t just think I was a goof-off, and the other lads wouldn’t be so mean because they’d all be in the same boat.

My parents and my tutor keep telling me this is all just temporary, but how long does “temporary” last? They don’t know what it’s like to be sitting doing homework ’til 10 o’clock every night, when all the other kids finish at seven and then get to watch TV or play ball.

The worst thing in my life is English class, and the worst person is Mrs. Ross, my English teacher. 3 hate her because she is always screaming at me. One day, I wanted to ask a question, and she asked me to wait a minute. I waited a whole minute and then counted slowly to five before raising my hand again, and she screamed at me for being too “literal.” But if 1 hand in my homework just one day late, or get to class even a half-minute after the bell, she screams at me then, too. And she says I’m literal! Now, she’s making me come to class earlier than the other kids because she says I take so long to get my school stuff out of my backpack.

When Mrs. Ross screams at me, I get this hot, bursting feeling in my throat and head, and have to clench my teeth and stare hard at the floor so I won’t cry in front of the other kids. I hold in my tears all day, and then, by the end of the day I feel like a volcano. When I get home, I run into my room, slam the door about 50 times, and throw myself on the bed. My mother asks me what’s wrong, but I can’t describe it. If I ever showed them in class what I really feel like sometimes, it would be like a huge tornado that hit the school, and people would hear it in China.

Sometimes I can make myself feel better by getting my tennis racquet and hitting a ball against the outside wall of our house, maybe 150 times or more without it touching the ground once. I just do it over and over and over again as hard as I can and the horrible feeling begins to go away, and then I feel sort of quiet and tired.

I would say the best things in my life are tennis and baseball. Especially tennis. For five years, I have been taking tennis lessons, and it is one of the few things that is really easy for me. Whatever my instructor teaches me, I learn fast and do right. I’ve played other kids, and I know I’m good I can cream a lot of them, if I want to, though I don’t usually, because I know how bad it feels to be a real loser.

My tennis instructor says I’m a “natural,” and that if my parents said okay, he could train me so I’d be one of the best tennis players in the United States. When he told me that, it was the happiest moment of my life. But this year I can only play tennis once a week, on Sunday not even Saturday, when all the other good tennis players go. My psychologist and parents say I have to cut down on tennis and focus on learning “skills,” even on Saturday. When my Mends at tennis practice asked me why I wasn’t coming any more, I made up an excuse and said I hurt my knee. Am I supposed to tell them that I can’t play because I’m so stupid I have to have a tutor six days a week?

But even if my parents let me play tennis during the week, I couldn’t because then I wouldn’t be able to get my homework done it takes forever for me to do it.

But nothing makes me feel as good as tennis does. Nothing.

At Thanksgiving, we went to a resort that was having a tennis exhibition by Billy jean King and some other really big players. I was so excited and happy that I kept jumping up and down and squeezing my father and mother and running around the reception area. When I’m realty happy, it’s just like when I’m really upset. The feelings are so big I can’t find the words to talk about them and just have to jump around My parents say I’ll “grow into my feelings” someday, which is just one more thing I have to wait for while I’m also “waiting” to get my “skills.”

But that Thanksgiving weekend, I didn’t care about anything except being where I was. Because I’m a good player, the people running the exhibition let me be ball boy in front of 300 people, and all four tennis professionals talked to me. They even let me hit some balls with them, plus, I got to serve with a grown-up racquet. A lot of people came up to me and said how well I did, and the master of ceremonies told me I had a great sense of humor. I was up until one o’clock in the morning I was so excited.

Then it was Sunday, and I started getting that sick feeling in my stomach again, and had a big light with my mother about hanging up my jacket. On Sunday night, I know how someone feels the night before they’re going to be electrocuted. They hear every noise and the time never passes and they wish they could be killed already, but they have to wait, which is the worst part of all. But if I ever told anyone that, they would think I was a mental case.

Right now, it’s eleven o’clock at night. I still have two huge pages of math homework to do, and I’ve lost my graph paper again. My parents are in bed. It’s dark outside, and it’s not June yet.

Anne Bobrick, M.S. W., is a family therapist who practices in New York City.