The Stuff of Childhood

I like to run and walk in the forest and I like to draw.
When I grow up I want to be a runner, forest ranger, or an artist.

Those are words from my young childhood,from 2nd grade. I still like those same things. Then again, right before those words, I also said that, “I like pizza.” But apparently I was self-aware enough at the time to realize I didn’t want a pizza-related career.

Besides, I wrote elsewhere that I wanted to work in the Sears Tower. I can’t say that fits my present aspirations and lifestyle, although being employed as a parking ramp cashier is closer to the Sears Tower than to the rest. Maybe I need to rethink the Sears Tower option.

* * *

My mom was clearing out old paperwork. She had multiple folders of various official documents giving glimpses of my life, from birth to high school graduation. Most of it is boring stuff, including grade reports. But there were a few interesting things mixed in.

My birth certificate shows that Dr. Suk W. Lee brought me into this world. He was my mom’s doctor during her pregnancy. He jokingly gets credit for why I had epicanthic eye folds as an infant. My eyes were quite squinty to an extreme degree and remained that way into early elementary school. Along with my blonde hair, I assume that would be my northern European ancestry.

Along with some other papers and cards, I found a newspaper clipping. It shows the dismissals for the hospital. It lists my mother and I, but what is interesting is that my mother is referred to as Mrs. Daniel C. Steele. This is what makes genealogical research so difficult. In centuries past, most women went through their entire lives without ever having their name stated on an official document.

It was still very much a man’s world, even in the ’70s. To emphasize this point, I wrote in Kindergarten (obviously with some assistance) that, “My father works. He works at the office,” along with a picture of a smoke-belching factory (a massive sun overhead, a symbol of power); but on the next page, I write that, “My mother works. She sweeps the floor,” and the accompanying picture is of her as the stereotypical smiling housewife. In reality, my mom was a speech pathologist who had been working outside of the house for years. I feel I should apologize to my mom (I did end up seeking her out in order to apologize about my childhood stereotyping of her. And guess what? She was sweeping the floor. Ha!). She did all the housework, cooked all the meals, and took care of us kids while she held down a full time job. Feminism back then meant a women could do it all, quite literally.

Mothers are the best. Civilization would collapse without them.

On a different note, another thing that caught my attention was my baptism record. Four months after my birth, my parents decided to get me (along with my older brothers) baptized and Christened. It was done at the United Church of Religious Science, the church based on Ernest Holmes’ The Science of Mind. It was the first church my parents attended as a married couple. They began attending a year before my birth and following a period of non-religiosity and, on my father’s part, agnosticism.

I was surprised that such a New Agey church did baptisms and Christenings. Anyway, it is nice having a certificate proving that my mortal soul has been safeguarded with proper Christian ritual, not that damnation is a part of New Thought theology.

Some of the more enjoyable things to look back on are old writings. There is a collection of stories from third grade. It includes one of my stories and that of my classmates. The story of mine was about a guy named Vick with a space ship who gets captured by the evil magician Zork, but his lazer comes in handy in making an escape. My best friend at the time, Andy Armens, wrote a micro-story that amused me:

“A train came out of a tunnel and tried to go over a bridge. The bridge broke. The train fell into Dead Man’s River. They went down a waterfall and got killed.”

I noticed something about many of the stories. They involved fear of one sort or another and often taking action in response to the source of fear—being or feeling threatened by, being killed or hurt by, being attacked by or fighting with, being captured by or escaping from ghosts, monsters, bad men, robbers, evil magicians, or unfortunate events. Just last year, I came across a recent collection of stories from the same local elementary school. Quite a few of the stories had the same focus on fear. I guess that is a fairly uncertain and helpless stage of life, when kids are just beginning to learn to take care of themselves. Stories, like art work, gives children a safe outlet for their fears.

I remember one story I wrote at around that age. It was about a future dystopian world. There had been some catastrophe and the biosphere was destroyed. People were then living in enclosed cities for protection. I didn’t find a copy of that story in the papers, but it would be nice to see it now. That was the Cold War fears seeping into my childhood psyche. It obviously impacted me for life. Some of my first essays written for school were on topics such as ocean pollution and overpopulation. That is a heavy load to put on the mind at such a young age.

* * *

What interests me the most are the official school documents. And there are lots of them. They bring back some painful memories.

The worst year of my mildly troubled youth was in 7th grade, having begun when at the transformative age of twelve. I did not transition well from elementary school to middle school. It was traumatic, in quiet desperation kind of way. I utterly despised school, except for art class. I did gain my love of reading fiction that year and spent a fair amount of time in the library, one of the few happy places while at school. I almost flunked out of 7th grade. I would have been held back, if we hadn’t moved. On a report card from that year, my grades were mostly Cs and Ds–it states that:


My difficulties began much earlier than that, which I discussed in some detail in a previous post (Aspergers and Chunking). Even after getting speech therapy, my learning disability dogged me for the rest of my education.

Looking back at the years of school records, I noticed some patterns of observations. I was described as getting along well with others, makes friends, cooperative, willing to participate, tries hard, creative, imaginative, thoughtful, requiring ‘thinking time’, slow (even neat, conscientious, and perfectionist), hard time understanding or following directions (needing directions repeated or looking to other students to understand), inconsistent in turning in homework, disorganized, easily distracted, etc. Basically, I often tried hard to fit in and do what was expected of me, but I wasn’t always successful.

I had a disorganized mind, and I simply did not learn and work in a normal fashion. I still have a disorganized mind of sorts—sprawling and unfocused and, of course, easily distracted. My mind runs around in circles and takes extended byways to get to what is sought, if it ever gets there. I’m a slow thinker and slow reader… or rather I’m inefficient. Why do something simply when it can be made complicated and convoluted? Straight lines of thought and simple, direct statements are boring.

Much of this had to do with language skills. I was late in learning to read. It was partly word retrieval, but it seems there was more to it than that. I apparently had difficulty in making complete sentences and clear phrasing, overusing interjections, understanding pronouns and tenses, formulating questions, and other similar issues. In 6th grade, my teacher wrote:

“Ben has good literal comprehension, but at times misses points which lead to deeper understanding in stories. he has some difficulty relating ideas from the real world to the context of a story.”

I’m not entirely sure what that meant. I did find some other clues. From a 2nd grade speech/language form, there were several important details noted:

  • “Ben continues to have some problems with re-grouping in math and makes number reversals. he also has problems with sequencing which have hindered him in math. (What number comes before or after another number, etc.) Sequencing in stories is also difficult for Ben.”
  • “Ben is stronger visually than auditorially.”
  • “Weaknesses: . . . Language dev.[elopment] lag hinders ability to use context clues”

Interestingly, I noticed even a comment about visual perception difficulties. I really don’t know what that could be, as I’ve always been visually adept. It is the one area where I’ve always excelled. When tested in the first grade, my visual problem-solving was at a 12th grade level.

One thing that came up is visual cues were challenging for me in relation to any verbal task, and the challenge is that all of education is verbal. Both listening and reading were problematic for me. Language wasn’t easily connected to other aspects of my thinking and life, even such simple things as recalling a friend’s name. It wasn’t just word recall, but also information recall and making sense of it in any verbal context (e.g., being asked a question).

There was a particularly interesting psychological interpretive report. It was done because of my 7th grade problems.

The psychologist pointed out that my IQ was 102 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test when it was given to me in 1st grade. That is only average, but she doesn’t mention the breakdown of the test between fluid and crystallized intelligence (i.e., between problem-solving and book learning). That was probably the same test that showed me with problem-solving skills at a 12th grade level. So, considering that my IQ was average, the book learning part must have been extremely low.

She adds that, “It was thought that he had difficulties primarily in transferring information from one modality to another in expressive areas.” Problem-solving, as long as it was non-verbal/expressive, wouldn’t involve that particular difficulty.

In another section about my 7th grade abilities and behavior, the psychologist made some useful observations:

“At this time Ben is functioning intellectually in the average range of intelligence, but there is significant discrepancies between his verbal task, just at the average range, and his work on performance tasks, which is in the gifted range. When Ben works on activities that do not involve interaction with people, he can be extremely productive. He does not use trial and error, but figures out exactly what has to be done, and then does it. In verbal tasks he gives minimal interaction. There seems to be a word retrieval problem, which has been noted in the past, and he would make comments such as, “I don’t know how to state it.” Also noted in verbal tasks that he sometimes missed directions, and then would ask to have them repeated.”

A lot of that resonates with me. I’ve always had social issues that go along with verbal issues. I often felt stupid and, worse, that there was something wrong with me. There was a disconnect between my potential ability to do something and the actual results of my trying to do it. I developed a massive deficiency in confidence and, along with depression, began to develop social anxiety or something like it. I just couldn’t deal with the pressure and the constant sense of failure and inadequacy. It plain sucked. I hated school and I hated myself. I’ve never gotten over that feeling.

There was one thing that I think the psychologist got wrong and, in talking about it, my mom agrees about this. The psychologist concludes that, my younger self’s “problems are related to a history of learning difficulties and a present style of covert resistance to pressure. That is, Ben does not ever exert open defiance or resistance, but instead gives minimal responses whenever possible. He is never actively uncooperative, but the feeling he communicates is very definitely that he does not like being pressured.”

That misses the point. I was feeling frustrated and hopeless, a lost cause and a failure. I had a low self-concept, thought of myself as unpopular and weak, was painfully shy and carried a debilitating sense of shame. I lacked social skills to the point of being socially oblivious, probably somehow related to my learning disability. I didn’t understand people or the world, much less how I was supposed to deal with all my educational problems. No one else seemed to understand me either or knew how to actually help me. Anything I did or didn’t do would be wrong and so what was the point. I was on the verge of developing a permanent state of learned helplessness. It is almost certain that I already had depression at the time, although I wouldn’t be diagnosed until college.

The psychologists response was to have perceived me as having been uncooperative. That probably wasn’t a helpful conclusion.

* * *

While reading such reports, it gets me thinking about early childhood. Mixed in with official documents, there were some photographs of my young self. I was a happy little kid.

One thing I was always good at was art. In the quote at the the beginning of this piece, I stated that among other possibilities I dreamed of growing up to become an artist. Later on, I would even win a scholarship for an art degree. But I don’t think my parents considered that practical and so I went into a botany major and was predictably overwhelmed by science and math classes.

No guidance counselor should have ever allowed me to take that major without voicing some serious concern. The only class I ever had to repeat was a chemistry class. That should have been a sign of problems. But all anyone had to do was ask me. I hated science classes, partly because how they were taught and how I learned. My troubles with learning disability would be magnified a thousandfold in college, and yet no one thought to offer me extra help. I was simply thrown into the deep end with the assumption that I’d just start swimming. Instead, depression fell on me like a ton of bricks.

* * *

It feels like for my whole life I was always being set up for failure. I have this basic sense of being out of sync with the rest of humanity. I’m a seriously dysfunctional person, but I hide it well. That is all that society cares about is as long as you can manage to hide your problems and not make them public concerns. Struggle and fail in isolation. Don’t make yourself a nuisance. It’s all your fault and there is no one else to blame. Feel ashamed, but suppress it and pretend your normal.

What is frustrating about all of this isn’t just my personal problems and the unhappy moments of my past. My personal issues are rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. Our entire society is dysfunctional to the point of self-destructiveness, some might even say sociopathy. We humans have a collective learning disability in that we are incapable of learning from our past mistakes, much less grasp our collective failings in the present moment. My granddad gave my infant self a framed copy of The New York Times’ front page for the date of my birth. The events reported were rather mundane, pretty much the same old crap we are still dealing with—mostly an obsession with such things as politics and troublesome socialists and civil rights activists, healthcare and education, crime and drugs, international conflict and the Middle East.

I just turned 40 years old. That feels like a new era of my life. I guess I’m old now, but it occurs to me that I’m now at the age my dad was when I entered first grade. Back then, my dad was hitting the high point of his career in the private sector and, although his prospects were bright, he had a midlife crisis. He was wise enough to wait to get well into adulthood before having such a crisis. As for me, I started my crisis in childhood and worked from there.

Mine was a generation with many problems. I had good company. As I’ve pointed out a number of times, this partly had to do with lead toxicity, possibly related to my own learning disability. It was also the entire shifting of society and economy, pollutants just being one small part. We don’t choose the world we are born into. I was my parents’ last child because of the fears at the time about overpopulation and the overtaxing of the environment.

When we are young, we dream of the future. This is usually expressed in personal terms. Teachers and other adults will ask us what we like to do and what we want to be when we grow up. But it doesn’t take long for the larger world to impinge on the developing mind and to shape the emerging individual. Each new generation grows up with a shared set of dreams and fears, opportunities and problems. It is what we inherit and what we carry forward through the rest of our lives, traces of it passing onto the following generations.

What will the kids of today find in the boxes of childhood stuff when they reach adulthood and then middle age? What will they make of the world that made them into who they are? How will they see those of us who helped create the world they were born into and inherited?

* * *

With those questions in mind, it occurred to me how so many of my generational peers are at the age of being ‘young’ parents. Both of my brothers have kids, one of whom is just starting school. I have a number of cousins and friends with kids as well, all at school age, many still in elementary school.

I see the issues they are dealing with, both the parents and the kids. There are, of course, various issues involved, as growing up is always a challenge—issues of: learning, development, behavior, etc. In some cases, the parents are struggling. It’s a tough position to be in as a parent, not always knowing how to best help your child and no doubt making mistakes in the process. Also, like in the past, school officials aren’t always helpful, considering the limits of funding, resources, and time.

What kind of childhood do kids have these days? What memories are they forming? It does seem like a strange time to be a kid.

One thought I had was how the world is becoming more impersonal. This is seen in education, where bureaucracy has taken over. I noticed the shift happening even in the records across my own grade school education. The early forms were often filled out by hand and contained personal observations made by teachers, school psychologists, etc. But later records were almost entirely type written and often obviously computer-generated, all personal aspects eliminated.

It also makes me wonder what will get saved. My mom apparently saved almost everything and there was plenty to be saved. All work was done on physical paper. Computers simply weren’t used when I was in grade school, even though they were around. We had computers at home, but they ultimately were just fancy typewriters.

When I was growing up, my mom made photo albums for the family and for each of us boys. But neither of my sister-in-laws makes photo albums for their kids. Most of the photographs remain on the computer, at best maybe getting posted on Facebook. Will those photos just get lost over the decades? Where will Facebook and all those pictures be when my nieces and nephew turn 40 years old? Will people go back to some archived Facebook to explore their childhoods and reminisce?

Many have noted how much childhood has changed in recent generations. It makes one wonder how the remembering of childhood will also change.


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