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Alpena schools set me on the right path

Being born several months early, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I was happy, but my mom noticed a “short circuit,” where I would struggle to do everyday things and become incredibly frustrated. I was taken to many doctors, but all of them brushed her concerns away. I was premature. I would grow out of it. “Being overprotective” was a common response. “Making it up” was another.

She wasn’t believed.

Once in the classroom, my teachers saw it, as well. Handwriting or tying shoelaces were an ordeal. Velcro shoes were a lifesaver. While I had the desire and drive, the results were never quite up to the rest of the class.

Thankfully, Long Rapids Elementary had helpers who we affectionately called “grandmas”. They took some children out of lessons to give extra individual help. They helped me gain a passionate hatred for cutting with scissors and writing in between lines that is far bigger than I can describe here in words.

While the extra practice created calluses, it also allowed me time to experiment with different techniques and pencil grips. With their guidance, I developed tricks to get my muscles to do what I wanted them to. By the time I reached fourth grade, my handwriting was still failing, but at least was (barely) legible. My mom, ever the thorough filer, kept the returned work as proof. To this day, I don’t know how my teachers read any of it.

The difficulties, however, didn’t end there. I also struggled to pay attention, was easily distracted, fidgeted constantly, and had a gift for tripping over thin air. Get more than two people talking in the same room, and I become exhausted simply keeping track of what’s being said. My sense of time can be so bad that, these days, my wife has to doublecheck me, as my first answer is often wildly wrong.

Despite that, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoitenga, taught me to see past it.

While I hated the act of writing, she encouraged me to love storytelling and reading. She helped me find a passion for language, math, and science that persists to this day. Her class was a major turning point.

The school’s secretary, Mrs. MacArthur, also kept a close eye on me. She taught me piano and learned that, by sitting next to me, I would fidget less and could concentrate more easily. Her efforts brought me to where I once confidently proclaimed I was the best in a piano concert because I had memorized the most songs. While I know now that was a decidedly wrong conclusion — I have a video recording as proof — at the time, she only laughed and agreed with me.

I recently found my condition is called Dyspraxia. In short, it is where the signals in the brain easily get lost, and it takes longer to learn because of the backtracking we have to do to compensate. It makes us awkward conversationalists, as we can easily miss important parts. In such situations, I spend most of my time assembling what I was able to retain like broken puzzle pieces. Our eventual answers, however, are often thorough, because we had to fill in gaps by going over it a few dozen times first.

By some studies, dyspraxia affects anywhere between 2% to 5% of the population, and can be mistaken for autism or ADHD, depending on the symptoms shown. It frequently results in children dropping out of school due to frustration, depression, anxiety, and bullying.

Dyspraxics often feel like there’s something wrong with them, and it can be a struggle to put it into words, as the condition isn’t always obvious. Their struggles can often make them feel isolated and unable to keep up with the fast-changing world.

The help I received as a child allowed me to overcome that and even see the benefits. I can hyperfocus and lose days thinking without realizing time has passed. I’ve become good at filling in gaps in thinking, as I’m always going over things repeatedly in my head. I was once told by someone else with the condition that dyspraxics don’t “think outside of the box,” because most of us have never found the box to begin with.

It’s one of the things meant by the term “neurodiversity”.

When I became a teacher, it became clear that that help didn’t exist in most schools.

I came to fully appreciate how powerful my own experience was. If schools are allowed the resources and flexibility to adapt to students’ needs, like they did for me, then the results can last a lifetime.

Every school needs grandmas, a Mrs. Hoitenga, and a Mrs. MacArthur.

Even though, despite all their best efforts, I still can’t tie my shoes.

Matthew Pugh is a technical architect and software developer who was born and raised in Alpena. He now lives in Suffolk, England with his wife, Rowena, three kids, a cat, a dog, and a dangerous number of guinea pigs. He can be reached at pughmds@gmail.com.

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