Distracted, Not Stupid

They wanted me in Title I Reading*. Let me repeat that – they wanted me – the girl who had been placed in the advanced reading group back in Kindergarten, the girl who would write pages upon pages in her first grade journals, the girl who excelled in the morning grammar quizzes in the third grade – me, in Title I Reading. It was the 2005-2006 school year and I was either nine or ten years old in the fourth grade at a new school.

“Ellisa, are you not paying attention?” My aunt asked me that same year. I had never heard so much concern in her voice, at least, not regarding me. “What were the two rivers surrounding the Garden of Eden?” she asked again. (If you’ve never heard of Bible quizzing, I must interrupt my own story to tell you that it is a legit thing. Churches host competitions for their children and youth all over the nation). I hesitated. One of those rivers sounded like a tiger. I imagined the waters painted with black and orange stripes. The rest of the story that we had all read aloud… well, all the words blurred together. Even reading it only minutes ago I remembered nothing. I recall trying to listen carefully, trying to focus on the words of Genesis, but maybe I was focusing too hard. They all swam in circles in my head, disappearing into the deep rivers of my brain. I liked trivia, but not like this. I think I quit Bible quizzing soon after, until the church made me join up again in the sixth grade.

My aunt’s son had ADHD (and would later be evaluated for Asperger’s Syndrome – now Autism Spectrum Disorder). I suspected this influenced her concern. My parents weren’t like her. They weren’t always looking out for any flaws or abnormalities.

I lost a lot of things that year. If you’ve ever moved to a new school, then you probably experienced that feeling of disappointment when your new school didn’t offer everything your old school had (or maybe you experienced the opposite). At my old school, I was one of a select few chosen to be in the Thinking Beyond program, a subset of Quest**. It was exclusively for the really smart kids and I was happy to be a part of it. In 2005, a few months before we moved, they let me go from the program. It was the first time I remember feeling like I wasn’t smart enough, and that feeling only spiraled from there.

My new school had a competitive math program called Math Wings. I joined, having been told I was good at math and wanting only to prove myself. The experience ended when one day after being humiliated by the teacher and my classmates, asking, rather loudly and rudely, “WHY ARE YOU HERE?!” I ran from the school’s basement with tears running down my cheeks, horrified that I, indeed, wasn’t smart enough.

That was the year they placed me in Title I Reading.

“Ellisa, did you pay attention at all to the reading?” The test proctor asked, following a question about penguins. We were in the hallway outside my classroom for a short reading comprehension assessment in which I had to read the story aloud, remember it, and answer a handful of questions. I could hear the confounded frustration in her voice. I had literally just read the story, she had listened to me read it, but there I was again, unable to recall anything other than the word, penguin.

As an adult in my mid-twenties, I look back on that moment with a new lens. Just because the adults of the 2000s couldn’t understand my struggle, doesn’t mean I wasn’t smart. My brain was just too focused on moving my tongue, choosing an appropriate volume, pronouncing the words on the page, interacting with another human being… I was smart, but distracted… hyper-aware of my surroundings.

My perception of school was a giant paradox. I liked going to school. I liked getting out of the house and being around people. When you’re born with Selective Mutism, you’re still born with all the personality traits that make you unique. I was born with the trait that likes to be around people. I liked to show-off, to impress people. I liked performing in talent shows (a story for another post, see Out of Character). I liked to sing. I wanted to act. I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to perform… But I was also born with Selective Mutism. SM didn’t want me to interact with people. It didn’t want me to act. It didn’t want me to dance. It didn’t want me to… speak, to move, to breathe. And so I liked to go to school… to be around people, to pretend to be a part of the conversations, but I didn’t like school. I didn’t feel as if I belonged there, surrounded by people I couldn’t dare interact with.

*Title I Reading is a program available to student of Title I schools (lower income) in the United States. It caters to students who needed extra help with reading and/or comprehension. 

**Quest is basically our district’s version of a program for the gifted and talented. 

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