First Foray

The first time I tried to advocate for myself, it did not go as I’d hoped. I won’t say that it was a complete failure, because the good news was that I still observed some important things. The bad news was that gaining that data made me feel like I had even more problems than before I’d started.

And so it goes. Or, went.

Here’s what happened. I’m nine, maybe just turned ten years old, and I’m in my fourth year of primary school. This would in a few months prove to be the beginning of a long scholastic slide downhill grade-wise, due to the fact that remembering to take home the homework, do the homework, and return the homework would prove to be a skill that was seemingly beyond my capabilities (for reasons no one could fathom; it was assumed that I was just being lazy or stupid, if not both). But that’s later, because at the time of our story, I was still a bright girl with a large vocabulary and an avid interest in any subject but spelling. So far so good.

My teacher, a Miss VanHouse, had something known as the SRA reading lab to use instead of the usual primary readers. This was a large box full of cards, organised into a multitude of different reading level categories, with each category assigned to a different colour. The student would read the story on the card (fiction or nonfiction, usually several paragraphs long), and then answer the multiple-choice questions printed on the card along with the story. After successfully completing a certain number of cards, the student then advanced to the next reading level. Much as I loved learning new facts, the questions were beyond inane.

I didn’t mind doing the assignments. My beef was that the teacher had put me into the middle reading level, when I could quite easily read at the top reading level. Even providing her evidence of this by completing a couple of the top reading level cards to 100% accuracy didn’t change my assignment. I was still doomed to spend weeks and months slogging through card after card, answering all those multiple-choice questions, and doing work that was way below my ability. I understood enough about teaching to know that students learn things by having work that’s just a bit difficult, not by doing lots of work that’s way too easy. That rankled me. She was the teacher; she should know that, too. And she should have been willing to change my assignment given proof of my abilities. Well, that’s what I thought.

Years later it occurred to me that she may have put me in the middle because she didn’t know what else to do with me. She couldn’t have shown “favourtism” by letting a student not work on the same assignment as the others. I might have been a good reader, but I couldn’t possibly be one of those special smart children. Obviously I wasn’t a profoundly gifted child, because [1] no one had identified me as such (everyone knows that genius children are good at everything) [2] I didn’t have my multiplication tables memorised (ditto) [3] I was prone to interrupting with questions (everyone knows that genius children have perfect manners) and [4] I wouldn’t have kept forgetting my assignments (ditto). Well, I’m not a genius. Just a bright kid with specific difficulties.

One of those specific difficulties was the whole advocacy issue. The big hurdle in learning to advocate for myself was the utter lack of training in how to do so. I was in fact, frequently discouraged from doing so. It was drilled into me (by family, friends, teachers, and a great many Important People) that:

  • saying that I was good at doing something was considered being vain and boastful, and saying that I was bad at something was considered being honest (these first two rules applied mainly to girls, at least in the part of the space-time continuum for my childhood)
  • asking for things I needed was being needy
  • asking for things that other people didn’t get was being greedy
  • doing things for one’s self was being selfish (as opposed to self-centered)

The message was that I should be grateful with what I had and accept that everyone else knew better than I did what I needed and wanted in life. (Should you feel ill, O Gentle Reader, your air sickness bag is located in the pocket of the seat in front of you.)

What I learned from my first foray into self-advocacy was that:

  • people are just not as rational as we would like them to be
  • presenting people with “facts” isn’t enough to change their minds
  • people will judge you on a variety of factors, some of which are outright spurious and others of which aren’t correct
  • there are frequently a number of factors preventing a person from making progress, and many of them are invisible
  • the world is full of foolish people
  • making the foolish people angry doesn’t get you anywhere
  • banging your head on the school desk doesn’t stop the knots of frustration, and in fact damages your credibility.

The most difficult parts of self-advocacy are not, as many people suppose, the initial part of overcoming one’s inertia, and fear of venturing into the unknown. Any thoroughly-annoyed person can usually make that first step. Rather, the difficult parts are discovering what sorts of hidden (bureaucratic) hurdles are in your way, what sorts of prejudices people have, and how to deal with people’s emotional blocks to rational discussion.

“I can’t stand this proliferation of paper work. It’s useless to fight the forms, you’ve got to kill the people producing them.”
~Vladimir Kabaidze, General director of the Ivanovo Machine Building Works, Moscow, to the Communist Party Congress, 1985


  1. rick said,

    28 January 2010 at 23:10

    oh my god, thank you so much. i felt so lost

  2. Bunnyhoppin said,

    10 March 2009 at 0:36

    Just had to comment from a different perspective on those crazy SRA cards! I was labeled “gifted” and bumped up from kindergarten to first grade (what gave me away was that I put words on my paintings), but felt like a freak/geek and just wanted to be like the other kids. Flash forward to fourth grade, when the SRA cards came along — what drove me crazy was that due to my higher reading level, I was already deemed too advanced to read 2/3 or more of the cards. And the “advanced” cards were boring to me, whereas the earlier cards looked more fun subject-wise. It was not known that I had ADD, and not considered that emotionally/socially I might not want to be pushed ahead of my peers. Finally, the SRA set came with a cool set of colored pencils to match the cards, and I wanted to make sure my little chart of which cards I’d read would be colorful! :)

    Today, I’m more intellectually curious, but I still enjoy reading a good kid’s book. Even a picture book! Or Harry Potter. And I still love color — I do abstract expressionist type and mixed media art (combining visual with words). Things have come full circle!

    I enjoy the blog — just discovered it recently. I also have auditory processing disorder and have trouble finding the right job. Thanks for sharing.

  3. JonElm said,

    8 September 2007 at 0:48

    Hi Tapetum,

    Any chance you could educate your child yourself? I’ve been told I’m quite bright, but I didn’t have to put up with any of this, as my folks educated me at home.

  4. Tapetum said,

    14 May 2007 at 3:56

    [1] no one had identified me as such (everyone knows that genius children are good at everything)

    Oh God do I know that one – though I had the reverse problem. I was one of the identified genius children. Therefore everything I did wrong must be deliberate misbehavior. If I forgot my homework, if my desk was a mess, if I couldn’t remember my dates (I have a significant sequencing problem), then it must be because I was acting out, or not trying hard enough, or something, because after all, I was a genius, wasn’t I?

    Now my son is going through the same thing, and I just want to slap the world.

  5. imfunny2 said,

    13 May 2007 at 15:26

    This quote hit the nail on the head for me, because I also experienced this…

    saying that I was good at doing something was considered being vain and boastful, and saying that I was bad at something was considered being honest (these first two rules applied mainly to girls, at least in the part of the space-time continuum for my childhood)

    If people with impairments are assertive about their abilities, they often get odd looks from the able, are ignored, or disbelieved…

    Drove me nuts in school. Still does.

  6. Hawise said,

    11 May 2007 at 14:10

    I remember those cards. Myself and another student found the starter level extremely easy so we decided to race. Our teacher was, to our joy, amenable. This was in second grade. We started at the first colour and with brief interruptions as Ms. Rose created the answer keys that she was missing, we finished the entire grade school collection before the end of the school year. It mostly kept us out of trouble.

  7. Jannalou said,

    4 May 2007 at 23:36

    I was taught those same rules.

    I would state the rather obvious fact that I was the best clarinetist in town when I was in high school, and people would treat me like I was being egotistical or something. All I was doing was telling the truth; I had quite the natural talent, and was first chair in the high school band as well as first chair for the community musicals. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that all means, does it?

    Oh, and being self-centred is also bad. We are supposed to Always Think Of Others and Help Other People All The Time. No matter what.


    And I wonder sometimes why it’s been so difficult for me to figure out just what I want to do with my life…

  8. 3 May 2007 at 12:29

    People are as rational as their emotions allow them to be.

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