Somewhere, in one of her carefully preserved files, my mother has the first story I ever wrote. I was six. It’s written in crayon on one of those weirdly-sized pale vanilla sheets with the upper half blank for illustration and the lower half lined in blue and pink, dotted lines dividing up the space so that beginners have guides for letter height. It’s been through 5 cross-country moves, packed up with more traditionally important documents like birth certificates and shot records.
The fact that I made up a story didn’t surprise my parents at all. I loved stories so much I made up stories about illustrations before I could read at all. The fact that the story was about ponies was a no-brainer. I’d been staring at and trying to heist my brother’s Breyer model for as long as I’d been seeing it on the top shelf in his room. The ponies for the illustration were fantastically loud colors straight out of Crayloa’s super-sized 100 jillion colors box, but that didn’t make them pause. What made that decidedly-six-year-old effort a keeper was that by dint of working like hell I had been able to write it down without a single mistake.
Mom spotted dyslexia in me virtually the first time I was presented with reading and writing.
Certain fonts were and still can be a living nightmare for me to read, because what I see isn’t what others see. Take e a & s. In many fonts, I cannot tell them apart. Heaven forbid there should be a string of multiples of them. Take, as an example, the name of one of the most highly-regarded literary agents in the business. Mr. Maass, I only know there’s two sets of doubles in your last name because I asked someone to spell your name aloud. All I see is M followed by a blur of identical shapes that I have to concentrate on to discern how many letters are there.
Writing, which in those days was handwriting, can be a virtual minefield. The classic d & b swap is the tip of an iceberg. My married name is Mueller. Written in cursive, it’s a series of up and down, some short and some tall, and after more than 20 years of practice I still have to think about it when I write it to get it right. We shall not speak of the evil of zip codes that are one freaking character too many in a row. Particularly if they contain 5 & 3, and 6 & 9.
From the time I could reach the tabletop until I left home for college, my chore was set the dinner table correctly every single night as an exercise in spatial arrangement. Between the ages of four and seven or eight I spent most weekday evenings sitting at the kitchen table practicing writing out lines of poetry that Dad would give me in between chatting with Mom while they got dinner ready.
Everytime I failed a spelling test, and great googly moogly I must’ve failed hundreds. Every time I was asked to read aloud in class and came home still feeling the sting of it. Every time I screwed up a math assignment because the columns and rows of numbers had gotten conflated. Their answer was help me get back up, rub the bruises off my ego, and figure out how to pull more effectively next time.
They didn’t just give out the advice. They lived it. There were five of kids. Three were dyslexic. To say that life got hectic now and then is an understatement. Mom and Dad did flat out everything they could think of to help us. Sometimes they didn’t know, sometimes they were just as frustrated as we were, and sometimes they probably got it wrong; and being the third of the three dyslexics I certainly reaped the benefit of their parenting experience.
Mother’s Day cards, Father’s Day cards, birthday cards, and mountains of other merry detritus went the way of the trash long ago; culled in various moves. Somewhere in the bottom of the filing cabinet, though, there is one folder devoted to each of us. Five in all. Mine has, among other child-sized triumphs, a story about ponies on yellowing vanilla paper. Mom showed it to me once, when I was in the pit of particularly black teenage despair. ”It might always take you extra effort, but you can do it.” Tucked up in one corner in my first grade teacher’s precise handwriting was – “Excellent” and a gold star.
I wasn’t the only one who earned that gold star.