On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 7 am, just like every Saturday. I rolled off the couch where I sleep now and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone else was still asleep so there was no need to use the bathroom to change. I pulled a sweatshirt over my T, grabbed my large bag full of reusable shopping bags, and walked half a mile to the church where I get food.
I plopped my bag down at the end of the line of bags, boxes, and small 2-wheeled carts and joined the group of milling folks waiting for numbers to get handed out.
“Whoa, nice, is that a Call of Duty bag?” someone said, peering down the stairs at my bag. It wasn’t, it said something else on it.
“Nope,” I said, just as my new acquaintance realized it for himself.
“Oh man. I thought it was a Call of Duty bag,” he said.
We then proceeded to discuss video games, role playing games, and of course zombie apocalypses. It was a brief but rousing conversation.
“I had no idea you were a nerd,” he said after a bit.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’ve seen you around and all, but…I just…I would never have thought you were a nerd.”
“Oh?” I asked, wondering if it was just because I’m quite obviously female-shaped, and conventionally attractive to boot. “Why’s that?”
“I don’t know. I just never would have thought it.”
“We never know anything about anyone until we start talking to them,” I said.
We continued to discuss nerd-related topics before the conversation turned to our current situations. He essentially asked me in a less rude way what I was doing at a food bank if I was so clearly intelligent. I told him about my double-major at our local community college in chemistry and physics and my intention to become a chemical engineer after I transfer and complete my second bachelor’s before returning the inquiry.
My companion expressed a discomfort with his situation. He told me that he was between jobs at the moment, and that it was difficult for him to find work because he never graduated from high school. After hearing more about his work experience and lifestyle, I recommended a local company with a culture that seemed particularly suited to his needs. He looked them up online with his smartphone and started to get very excited.
By this time it was 8 am. The person with the number distributor device under his arm called out that he was ready to distribute numbers. Everyone moved to stand next to their boxes and bags and carts and tubs, and walked past the distributor one by one to take a paper number. Mine was 327. I glanced up at the lit display to see that the starting number that week was 295. Excellent.
As numbers are not called until 8:30 am, folks tend to settle in on benches or drift across the street to the park. I was in the second group, where I drifted back into close proximity with my conversation partner from earlier. He was looking forlorn again and told me that he didn’t think he could do the job at the company I had recommended. Turns out he’s practically illiterate. My mind went immediately to the seminar I recently attended about learning disabilities.
“If you struggle with reading, that could be the entire reason school was so hard for you that you dropped out,” I told him. His friend who was standing with us nodded.
“What do you mean?”
“Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. If your struggle with reading was preventing you from learning, well, of course school was hard.”
“Oh I’m not disabled,” he said, and his friend frowned and looked like he was struggling to figure out what to say.
“The definition of ‘learning disability’ is just anything that makes learning more difficult,” I said, “it’s really a very loose thing.” His friend nodded. We waited while unknown thoughts crossed his face.
“It does seem to hinder me,” he said with a sad sigh.
He went on to say something that I can’t remember clearly, but portrayed a self-image of a lack of intelligence. His friend looked like he wanted to face-palm.
“You seem pretty smart to me,” I said, and his friend nodded.
“Yeah. That much is clear just talking to you. There is actually a high correlation of learning disabilities with intelligence.”
“Yeah. See, people fall on a bell curve,” I said, drawing one in the air with my hands and following it up with appropriate gestures. “Most people fall somewhere in the middle, then on either end we’ve got people with less intelligence and more intelligence. Our school system is designed to meet the needs of the people in the middle of this bell curve. It makes sense that folks who fall to either side – no matter which side it is – would struggle with that system and therefore meet our loose definition of what it takes to have a learning disability.”
He stared at me, dumbfounded.
“See?” his friend said, “I told you you were smart.”
“If you’ve had trouble reading, of course you’ve had trouble learning. Our public school system is based on the presumption of literacy. The thing is, there are programs out there just for this. Our local community college offers reading classes and they’ve got a disabilities services office that can help you figure out exactly what is going on so you can address it and move on with that information.”
“I…need some time to think…” he said. His friend and I nodded and stayed put while he walked away.
“I keep telling him he’s smart,” his friend said. “He has what it takes. He just doesn’t have the confidence,”
I nodded, thinking again about the seminar I had just attended and how lack of self-confidence seems to be a commonality among folks with learning disabilities, especially in people who don’t know that they have one. The disability students I tutor are often clearly lacking in confidence, sometimes to the point where it seems to be its own disability. Some of them have even consciously identified it as an obstacle they intend to overcome.
I wandered back across the street to check the numbers. The sign had been updated to say 300, but no one had gone in yet. Excellent. I was even closer to the start of the line.
When I came back across the street, I found my new friend sitting on a bench. I was going to give him space but he waved me over. When I sat down, I saw tears forming in his lower eyelids.
“I never thought I could…This is so…Wow,” he said, unable to articulate his feelings.
“Do you feel overwhelmed?” I asked.
“Hope can do that to you.”
He laughed and sniffed, and we sat in silence for a moment.
“You really think I can do this?”
“Yes,” I said, noting inside my head that he had been able to look things up online without ever having had any help for his reading troubles. “Have you ever wondered if you’re dyslexic?”
“All the doctors I saw just thought I was making things up,” he said, looking at his feet. My heart sank.
“Well, like I said, the people at that office I was telling you about offer extensive evaluation services. They can help you figure out exactly what’s going on. You might have to enroll as a student though, I’m not sure.”
“What kinds of things do they have?” he asked.
As we talked, our conversation meandered between opportunities, services, observations of those around us, and some really intense introspection on his part. His comments sometimes betrayed what appeared to me to be a very strong intellect and awakened critical thinking skills. I took care to point it out to him whenever this happened and let him know that it’s not something other people find easy to do, as I have learned in my tutor training that it is very important to encourage this kind of confidence in people. He was surprised each time.
“What’s the catch?” he finally asked me. “Every time I think there’s an opportunity there’s some kind of catch. What’s the catch to everything you’re saying?”
“The catch is that you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to embrace all this, and if you do, you have to put in a very large amount of work, time, and effort.”
“Hard work I can do,” he said with fierce determination. “I am going to contact that office and see what I can do. This is how I can get my life on track.”