High school was worse!
Unknowingly dyslexic in 1993. I was crushed.
The humiliation was not nearly as often but was far more scarring.
I am dyslexic and here is my brutal truth.
Sunlight, pouring in from behind me, caught on something unexpectedly shiny. I was already flinching when hairy knuckles rapped on my desk. If it were my attention that he had wanted, he got it. His hand in my direct eye line and the glinting gold band squeezing around his finger had been distracting enough. The startling knock, inches from my face, was unnecessary.
Bent over my desk, I had been lost in my own continuous stream of thoughts and the ink was struggling to furiously keep up. The words that I had been about to scratch down halted at the end of the pen and I willed for my memory to desperately snatch them while I lifted my eyes. Too late, they were gone; at the speed of a thought into the abyss of forgotten fragments of time. Before me was a sentence left unfinished, my train of thought was reduced to a wreck.
More disappointed than annoyed,
…I looked at my Grade 12 English teacher. His back was to me as he walked towards his desk. Lowering himself into his chair, Mr. Fenton peered at me over his reading glasses, made tiny by his rutted round face. When he raised his wiry brows without breaking his impatient stare it suddenly occurred to me that I was meant to follow.
We were studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play I knew well thanks to Mel Gibson. The remainder of the period was ours to begin the written assignment. Before I reached his desk, Mr. Fenton jutted his chin.
“Bring your work.” This was an obvious oversight on my part given his tone.
More annoyed than disappointed,
…I approached the big desk that stood demanding respect front and center of the classroom. A sitting Mr. Fenton was at an awkward height and I could see the oily pores of his slick near-bald head. It was hard to ignore the heat shooting up through to my ears brought on by the open glance of curious students. An anonymous snort pulled Mr. Fenton’s eyes from my paper to the instantly quieted class. No one dared to meet his gaze and before us, a plain of crowns lowered.
The painful silence stretched on while his dark eyes challenged his students. My discomfort only grew. Why was I there? What was going on? Should I grab a chair? What was I supposed to do with my hands?
The scent of garlic polluted the air when Mr. Fenton returned to my work and huffed. Never had he apologized for his weakness for the cafeteria Cesar salad; an omission he often made as an explanation to his sour breath.
Our assignment had just been given to us at the beginning of class, not even twenty minutes earlier. What could I have possibly written that would warrant this much scrutiny? How could he evaluate me on my preliminary notes which were more of an illegible flowchart?
“Blood.” He finally said and I nodded.
Realizing that he wasn’t looking at me I confirmed with a typical teen response. “Yep.”
“Yes.” He held the ‘s’ until garlic tainted the air again.
“Yes,” I echoed.
Referring back to my paper he started listing off all of my points thus far. I wasn’t about to lean over his desk to follow the tip of his fancy pen as he tapped it around my written notes. Even at sixteen, I was well aware of the scene that would create. Self-consciously I slid the small charm at my throat back and forth on its chain while taking stock of my shirt with its scoop neckline. Nope. No leaning today.
“All of your examples are in the literal sense. Battle, death and sickness.” From over his shoulder, his eyes found me again. “Come on think. What else?”
I knew that I was staring at him blankly, but not for lack of an answer, more from the pure shock that I had been centered out like this. Although I felt colour rise to my cheeks, my lips grew cold from my gaping.
Suddenly, Mr. Fenton rolled back and stood snagging the attention of the entire room. “You sit here and think about it.”
“What?” I could not keep the chilling surprise or volume from my voice.
Equally confused expressions looked back at me from the rows of my peers. Mr. Fenton’s fingers curled around my upper arms and dug in as he plopped me into his chair and steered me towards his desk. Panic and embarrassment swelled inside me and a bolt of pressure raced to my head. Wildly I scanned the room looking for a kind understanding face when I spotted a friend. Her contorted mouth said it all. Clearly, the odd behavior of our teacher had not gone unnoticed, but no one else felt the uneasiness coil coldly down their spines.
Paralysed by a fear that forever tethered me to the fourth grade I sat motionless at the front of the room. Feeling so small and fragile that a single breath could cause me to break, my mind whirled around the senseless humiliation. I tried to reach back to where I was before Mr. Fenton interrupted my work. Fingers of thought flicked through my memory trying to grasp at anything that had been there but my pounding heart pulled all threads from my grasp. I had nothing. It was gone.
I picked up my teacher’s heavy pen and lowered it again upon sight of my trembling hands. Did he really expect me to be able to explore the concept of blood in the play more deeply from his desk?
Thankfully the bell rang blared before I had to find out. Mr. Fenton was leaning on the window ledge at the back of the class when I darted back to my desk to collect my things and flee from the room.
By the following day, I had reasoned that Mr. Fenton had no way of knowing the deeply rooted fear he had inflicted upon me with his actions the day before. So, I did all that I could to push it from my mind and not drag it with me back to English class. I had barely sat down when Mr. Fenton began to bellow instructions to the class. We were to pick up where we had left off the day before and then to my horror he said my name.
My eyes snapped to his and he motioned for me to follow him out into the hall. The mass that had collected in my throat was too much to swallow so I took to chewing on my tongue to ward off the tears. My heart clobbered so hard that it hurt to breathe. Out the door, I went, but he was already walking down the hall then turned where I hadn’t known there to be a room. When I got there, it was the side entrance into an office I didn’t recognize. The name on the desk was not Mr. Fenton, it was Mrs. Blackwell the Vice Principal and my teacher looked disturbingly satisfied as he slid into the big wingback chair. Cautiously I took the seat across from him.
There was one window looking out over the courtyard directly behind the desk and Mr. Fenton’s glowing silhouette was almost ironic. Shadows created by the few secretaries in the office, blurred beyond the closed blinds of the wall of glass to my right.
“I see that you have enrolled into OAC English class next semester.” His gaudy ring caught the sunlight again as he steepled his fingers upon the arms of his mobile throne.
This wasn’t a question and I had. My plans were well thought out and precise. My high school excelled and specialized in the sciences, not my particular expertise. The idea was to take all the required OAC courses needed for my university application as quickly as possible so that I could add electives to my transcript my final year. That way, I could enroll in courses available from other high school’s from the surrounding area and use my spare for commuting. As well, English was by far my worst subject, by taking it early I could enroll in an upgrade summer course, offered only to students who had already completed OAC English.
I had no illusions about my limitations and academic challenges. My plan was to accept my disadvantages and get ahead of them.
It was perfect. Or at least I thought it had been before this blindsided ambush.
“I want you to take a look at this.” Mr. Fenton opened a folder that had been sitting on the plastic and leather desk protector and plucked out papers. He held them towards me but I had to stand to retrieve them. There were three or four pages stapled together. “That is an essay written by a student of mine last year. It is an example of where you are expected to be. Where your writing should be.”
Flipping through the pages I feigned interest all the while the date kept flashing in my mind. It was October! The semester had just begun. This was hardly enough time for teachers to learn all of their student’s names let alone their potential. How could Mr. Fenton possibly know anything about my writing? We had yet to hand in a single assignment. The next thing he said tore me from my thoughts.
“I think that you should drop out.”
I froze without being able to look up.
These few words crushed me.
“I teach OAC English, and you don’t have what it takes to pass that class.”
After that, I didn’t hear anything else he had to say. He had just obliterated my plans for high school, shattered my expectations for graduation and quashed any hope I had for getting into university. I had been judged and unfairly evaluated without any grounds or cause. There had yet to be anything for him to come to such a rash conclusion. I vaguely remember nodding and floating out of the room.
Three months later,
I sat hunched over another desk. Rows of them had been set up in the gym for exams. It was believed that lower temperatures were stimulating and more likely to keep students alert. I must have been the exception because being cold made me want to curl up and sleep. Being my third exam, I had come prepared with a piping hot tea, a giant box of tissue, and a touque. The thick wool of my puck bunny sweater helped too. Before me was my English exam and I was ready. There was no stressing because I knew my stuff. It helped too that I wasn’t enrolling into OAC English until September which knocked my plan off course by a year. By dropping the course as suggested by my teacher I would not be eligible to apply for university until the year after my classmates; a reality I had learned to accept over the last few months.
A hairy knuckle dropped onto my desk knocking mere inches from my pen. The scent of garlic had preceded him. Beneath my enormous sweater, I stiffened and gripped by Papermate so tightly that the tips of my fingers turned a ghostly white. Then, Mr. Fenton crouched beside me. So close, in fact, that I could see a roll of skin attempting to fold over the wire arm of his reading glasses in my peripheral. This time I did not lift my pen nor turn to him, my sights were set on the last few words to finish my train of thought. He seemed to wait, but still, I wrote. Finally, Mr. Fenton placed my last assignment upon my desk. The grade was hard to miss in its giant red ink.
Our final independent study, making up 40 percent of our final grade had multiple components. Mine was on a local poet and after much research and obscure digging, I had discovered the poet’s glossary. As if he had his own language, I used the glossary to decode and translate a number of his poems. No doubt about it, this poet was a sexist womanizer and I said as much in my oral presentation, except I think I went as far to say that he was a pig. There I was, where I shone brightest at the front of the class prepared to present on a topic I knew inside and out. Having a completely entranced captivated audience was exhilarating until my teacher interrupted. As luck would have it, or my bad luck as it were, Mr. Fenton knew the poet. They had gone to school together and shared pints just a few weeks earlier. This blow took the wind right out of my sail. I had just openly trashed my teacher’s buddy.
After a long awkward moment, Mr. Fenton choked out a laugh and announced that I had ‘hit the nail on the head’ with all that I unearthed;
another potentially brilliant day gone badly.
That had been weeks earlier and the anticipation of my grade for that blunder of an assignment had been overshadowed by only my exams. I gleaned no insight to my results, not through rumour nor teacher’s meeting. The hopefulness I had for the written component withered. Let’s just say that my presentation had been kind and humorous in comparison to the strong language I used in my essay. Words like predator and pedophile lack in comedic value and sharpen the edges of real accusations I was making with well-argued points. Learning that my teacher knew this poet personally was enough for me to enroll into summer school to redo grade 12 English upon my certain failure of the class.
Staring down at the bleeding red ink, a 98 looked back at me. Disbelief snatched my response as I forced myself to consider the mark. Percent, right? Was he for real? The air in my chest turned to lead and a flood of emotion took hold, rattling me to the core.
Flattening his hand over my paper, Mr. Fenton’s football ring failed to glint under the harsh fluorescent lights of the gym.
“I underestimated you. Good job.” Still, I stayed silent. Standing, Mr. Fenton slipped his oversized hands into the little pockets of his suit jacket. “It’s too bad that you dropped my course next semester.”
To that, I could only dip my head.
Again, he had crushed me
…and I refused to allow him to wreck my thoughts. The scent of garlic faded as he strolled away.
Undefined emotions milled about my brain until my eyes landed on my pen. There was a task at hand that deserved all of my attention. After a number of centering breaths, I absently slipped my near perfect assignment beneath my exam and continued to write.
I am dyslexic and this is my brutal truth.