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Fail

I loved grade four so much I did it twice. Well, I didn’t really love it, but I did go through it two times. My struggle with school began in grade one. Mrs. Mommy (No lie. That was my grade one teacher’s name.) divided her class into three reading groups based on ability. I was in the “slow” group and all of us in that group knew we were in the “slow” group.

A couple of years later I was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia. This meant I was pulled out of language arts to go to “special classes.” The only thing I remember about these classes was “announcing” my lack of ability to my peers every time I got up and went down the hall to the room for “dummies.” I don’t recall a lot of what I did in that room except the endless word searches. I continually failed to find a certain number of words in a set amount of time. It was horrible. Those words just weren’t there. And the time pressure only added to my paralysis. The letters blurred together and my mind froze.

The pressure of time has always been a problem for me. If you want to make me go insane force me to play the game Perfection where you have to put those little shapes in their correct place before the board pops and destroys everything.  As soon as I hear that ticking noise I start to shake and can no longer distinguish the shapes. For this reason, even though I studied, in some of my High School diploma exams I simply circled random answers and handed them in because I couldn’t concentrate under the time pressure. One of the great things about my post-secondary schooling, especially at the Masters and Doctorate level, was that the testing became essay-based rather than exam-based. This way I could plan my research, writing and editing weeks in advance, at my own pace. I never pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper. I never handed in a late paper. And my marks significantly improved. I’m the same with sermons. They are always planned well in advance.

Back in elementary school mom was getting frustrated with my slow pace and limited attention span. One incident that remains etched in my memory is the time the two of us were working on my homework. Mom’s patience ran out. In an outburst of anger she erupted, “What is wrong with you? Are you a pea brain?” These words hurt, but not so much as the strange occurrence that followed.

At school the next day a boy in my class named Kyle approached me at recess and taunted, “I heard your mom called you a pea brain?”

How did Kyle know my mom said that? The horror on my face betrayed the truth and the rest of the boys started laughing. I went home devastated and confronted my mom. She denied mentioning this to anyone and was equally horrified. But how did Kyle know? Mom was either lying, my younger brother had overhead and told (but he was only in grade one at the time), Kyle made an extremely lucky guess or someone crept onto our acreage, hid under a window and eavesdropped. All these options seem highly unlikely.

I’ll never know how Kyle was able to tease me with these words the day after my mom said them to me and, frankly, I no longer care. The combination of these two events, however, determined the way I started thinking about myself. I was stupid.

Grade four was a struggle. My grades were failing and I was falling further behind my peers. The school was going to push me through to grade five, but my mother insisted I be held back. I’m sure this was a difficult decision for her, but for me it was humiliating. I attended a small country school with about twenty kids in each grade. Everyone knew everybody. So when I arrived back at school after the summer break, and all my friends went off to their grade five room, I proceeded to sit back down in the room for grade four students with last year’s grade threes. It was confirmation for Kyle and his buddies. I really was a pea brain.

In the end, my mom’s decision to hold me back turned out to be beneficial. Not only did it give me another year to mature and catch up, but the friends I made with this new group were more positive than the ones I had in the grade now ahead of me.

After Junior High my principle tried to direct me towards the “general” High School diploma. I wanted to get into Bible College though and knew I needed an “advanced” diploma. I insisted that he let me go in that direction and, after my English teacher agreed to give me extra help, he reluctantly agreed. Mrs. McKinney had heard that I wanted to become a pastor and, though I don’t believe she was a Christian, obviously felt this was a goal she should help me reach. I did graduate with an advanced High School diploma with a 67% average. I needed a 65% to get into Bible College and so, thanks to my “A” in gym, I achieved the grade I needed.  

 I continue to be a terrible speller and cannot sound words out. I basically memorize the enunciation of words. When I come across a new word and don’t know how it sounds I’ll ask someone else (including my kids). Math was a subject I was extremely glad to finish. It was a moment of exuberant joy when I wrote my final math exam and walked out of the gym knowing I would never have to suffer through that again.      

I’m a late bloomer. It wasn’t until my second year of Bible College that I discovered how to learn and how enjoyable it can be. Since then I feel like I’ve been playing catch up. Today I devour books, especially in the areas of history, theology, sociology and psychology. I enjoy seeing how these and other disciplines intersect. The feeling of working with my mind to understand and explain a difficult topic is wonderful. But there was a day I hated school. There was a day I thought I was a pea brain. And there was a day I wondered if I was going to make it out of High School. Sometimes I’ve even wondered how much of my pursuit of a doctorate was an attempt to prove that I am not a “pea brain.”

Many who know me today have a hard time believing that I once struggled in school, but it’s true. Not to equate myself with them, but I have since learned that many great thinkers, artists and leaders started school hating it and struggling in it. So, at least I’m in good company.