It’s right there on your first report card in Mrs. Jones’ perfect cursive: “Laura lacks abilities in zipping, snapping, buttoning and tying.”
Forty-seven years later, when your Mom unearths that report card from a pile of moldering memories, at first you’ll bristle, and then you’ll laugh and say, “Yeah? Mrs. Jones lacks the ability to use the Oxford Comma.”
At four, you’re younger than the other Kindergarteners, but there’s something else too. You don’t tell anyone because you can’t describe it. You don’t have a word for the fuzzy spot in your brain that makes it impossible to put even the simplest puzzles together, do the Hokey Pokey without getting the directions wrong, or duplicate the shapes Mrs. Jones folds sheets of brightly-colored construction paper into.
Even the most annoying kid in class, Todd, who runs around the table shouting and scribbling on everyone’s papers, can tie his shoes by the end of the school year, but you still can’t.
So, you become a master of misdirection.
By the fourth grade, you test at a post-grad school reading level; read the unabridged editions of The Odyssey and The Iliad so many times you can recite the complicated lineages of every character; and devour the books your college freshman brother brings home, like Tolkien’s novels and the Dune series.
Maybe you fool them, but nothing silences the jeering, finger-pointing chorus in your head: How can you be so smart and so stupid?
It’s the dichotomy that gets to you. Di-chot-o-my. A word you will learn the summer you read the entire dictionary.
You take up the flute, making up your own songs and duplicating melodies you hear on your brother’s 8-tracks, like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Aqualung.”
But you can’t read music, and get the fingering right, and tap your foot to keep time while Mr. Frederickson, your music teacher, watches. And the metronome just makes things worse.
So you start memorizing your exercises at home, practicing where there’s no pressure, and then you pretend you’re reading the music when you play it in front of him at school.
As the years go on, though, the music gets too complicated to perpetuate this ruse, especially in band, so you quit. You tell your Mom that playing flute isn’t “cool,” and she lets it go.
But it’s algebra and geometry that finally break you.
Handing back tests, Mr. Harrington, your ninth grade math teacher, asks you why you can’t “get” algebra when it was “so easy for your brothers.” Mrs. Lalonde, your tenth grade math teacher, calls you up to the board at least once a week to do geometry problems, your face burning and hand shaking so badly you can barely hold the chalk. She accuses you of “not even trying” in front of the whole class.
But she didn’t see you at home the night before, or every other night before that, sitting at the kitchen counter hating yourself, trying not to cry in front of your Dad, who, burdened with this changeling, was doing the best he could to help.
How can you be so smart and so stupid?
Quit music. Quit math. Quit science when science becomes math. Quit Honor Society before they can kick you out. Quit soccer when Coach changes your position. Quit cheerleading because you miss a week of school and can’t learn the new routine in time.
Quit everything that threatens to expose how dumb you really are.
You cry when your Mom drops you off at college. Not because you’re going to be homesick, but because you know you’re going to get lost every day. It’s not something you can tell her, or anyone, because they’ll just say “Of course you won’t. You’ll figure it out just like everyone else.”
But while everyone else is out having fun the weekend before classes start, you’re out doing reconnaissance: wandering around campus jotting down notes like “Hewitt is the building in a straight line from the fountain” and “To get to English classes, walk from dorm door directly up the hill past the tennis court.”
You have to look at these notes every day for months until you memorize the routes. And then when you leave in May and return in August, the landscape is alien and hostile once again.
How can you be so smart and so stupid?
You never leave that college. First you get an undergrad degree, then a grad degree, then another grad degree, and a teaching job you keep your entire life.
You win writing and teaching awards, get published in literary magazines, and every year your students tell you they want to be writers and teachers because of you; but you don’t believe any of it is real because you can’t read a map, sort spoons of different sizes, or fold your clothes.
Don’t change schools. Don’t change jobs. Don’t change apartments. Don’t change cars. Don’t get a new computer. Don’t buy anything that needs to be assembled. Don’t take new routes. Don’t travel to places you’ve never been. Placate the scary boyfriend because you’re living alone for the first time, you have an absentee landlord, and there are just too many things you can’t do on your own.
After more than thirty years, you still get lost on that campus.
How do you say to a friend “I can’t be in your wedding because I can’t navigate the airport” or “I can’t come see your new apartment because I’ll get lost”?
Driving, with its attention to multiple tasks at once, is hard enough. Factor in a new route with no familiar landmarks and you set yourself up for a spiral of self-hatred.
You turn down so many invitations from friends and co-workers, sometimes outright lying about other plans, because lying is easier than explaining.
So you hold everyone at arm’s length. If they want to spend time with you, they have to make the effort. You know exactly how selfish it makes you seem.
How do you tell your boyfriend’s daughter, a girl you watch grow up, that you can’t play board games, do origami, help her put together a Lego set or puzzle, or pick her up at school without tears of frustration?
How do you keep calm driving your mom to surgery for breast cancer when the parking garage is a labyrinth, and how do you comfort her after surgery when you keep getting lost trying to find her room in a building that’s a warren?
What if your diabetic boyfriend needs you to rush him to the hospital in a city that’s still bewildering to you even after seven years?
How can you be so smart and so stupid?
You stop spending time with your best friend from high school because it’s too hard to find her new house. You don’t see her for a few years, and then you find out she’s dead.
The fear and shame of letting them all down never goes away.
Eventually, you learn to laugh at yourself. What else can you do? You’re a fucking idiot savant. Well, you were when you were a kid. Now, you’re just an adult who can’t do adult stuff. Ariadne without a clew…
You take the Visual-Spatial Intelligence Test on the Psychology Today website and get the result “Your score on the test was much lower than average.” No shit.
You’re the only person you know who can get lost trying to find her way back to her table in restaurants.
The “You Are Here” signs in malls actually make you laugh out loud because what you see on the map has no connection whatsoever to the world around you.
You get lost in the County Courthouse when you go there to file divorce papers, walking around and around in a circle, feeling like a scared little girl, Doc Martens echoing on the marble floor. There’s a poem in here somewhere, you think, but who the fuck are you kidding, you pretentious moron? You’re not a poet.
You get lost on the way to your first date with the man with whom you’ve had the longest and best relationship of your life. He has to come and rescue you in downtown Syracuse, dog and kid in tow. You know that if he’d been anyone else, someone with less patience, it would have been your last date too.
It makes for a cute origin story, but you’d rather just be normal.
You’ve read enough about visual-spatial disabilities by now to know that you have one, and what’s the point of getting a diagnosis anyway? You’re a 51-year-old college professor, and there’s fuck all you or anyone else can do to make your brain work right.
Besides, no one seems to care about learning disabilities unless they’re dyslexia or ADHD. But no, you’re hyperlexic. Words, words, words are all you’ve ever had. With words, you’ve built a life and the wall around it.
You used to imagine another you. You even used to pretend to be her when you were out at bars meeting random guys. A cool and decisive engineer, architect, or scientist who wears a pristine lab coat.
One time your Dad, an actual engineer, a guy who could make or fix anything, said that watching you trying to put batteries in your Walkman was “like watching a monkey.” You didn’t laugh then, but you wish you could hear him say it again now.
After he died, one of his buddies told you that he used to brag about his college professor daughter all the time.
Your handwriting is illegible, you still don’t tie your shoes well, and you get lost everywhere you go. But when you’re feeling good, when frustration is low, you’re a warrior goddess or queen from the stories you loved as a kid. Athena, Boudicca, or Medb devising battle strategies, mapping out routes, and leading armies in golden chariots.
On days like that, nothing can touch you.
About the Author
Laura Halferty has taught English and creative writing at SUNY Oswego for the last twenty-seven years. In 2020, she won the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Her fiction has been published in anthologies; her nonfiction has been published in various literary magazines–most recently, in Under the Gum Tree. Laura is the author of award-winning history writing on Irish American immigrants in Central New York; and you can find her pop culture writing at PopMatters and political commentary at The Progressive Frontier. She lives in Syracuse, NY–a city in which she still gets lost, even after seven years.