When I was almost 50 years old I finally let go of masses of shame that I was carrying about having bi-polar illness. I stated it in public—on a stage in front of 400 people for God’s sake! It was the premiere presentation of Madness, Masks and Miracles, a play I co-wrote to dispel myths and stigmas about mental illness. I thought I would die doing it. I was terrified I’d lose my credibility as a therapist and as a mental health worker. Having recently moved to Vancouver, I also feared I’d lose my new friends. I kept questioning why I was blowing THAT whistle on myself. But I did. I had to. And it liberated me. Telling the truth does that. Eventually. Besides, if I hadn’t told, I’d have been swallowed up in sea of shame and trust me, that’s no way to live. I had done it for almost half a century.
Yet I have carried another secret which I did not reveal until about three months ago. It was just as frightening as exposing that I had bi-polar illness 15 years ago. I confessed that all my life I had been unable to read properly, and had been hiding it to the best of my ability. For some it might appear that I enjoy airing my “stuff” in public. In fact, I don’t like it! But it’s not for the sake of sensationalism that I do it! God no! It’s because I know the value of helping someone else with similar issues to find their own voice. Am I comfortable doing it? Hell no! At least not yet.
And here I am following it up with a story of what I experienced in school as an 11-year-old child that explains a lot of things. And when I remember that, it makes it easier to share this with you because I have tremendous compassion for that younger me and for all the children that are currently facing similar struggles. I have shared my vision challenges with you when I started to help raise money for the treatment at www.gofundme.com/junieswadron.
Now that I am learning the full extent of what my condition means, and that it is actually known as the “hidden epidemic” of Binocular Vision Dysfunction, I am joining hands with the Visual Process Society to help raise awareness about it at our Eyes on Talent FUN-d-Raising Variety Show. If you will be in Victoria on June 26th, 2016, I hope you will join us.
The story you are about to read is an excerpt from my book, Re-Write Your Life, about my hero, Mr. Logan, my grade six teacher who brought me from a place of suicidal ideation after Miss S. had continually berated me and had failed me the year before. Only now do I know the full significance of that story and the truth of why I wasn’t able to learn: I had Binocular Vision Dysfunction.
Mr. Logan, an Angel of Kindness
by Junie Swadron
The following story is about loving-kindness and a time when a true angel appeared in my life and lifted me from the depths of darkness into the realm of hope and miracles. I dedicate this story to my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. Logan. Mr. Logan was the first person in my young life who consistently reflected back to me that which made me feel good about myself. Before him, was a teacher of a different kind, Miss S., the one who crushed any self-confidence I may have found.
I was 11 years old and the youngest child in a family that was grossly dysfunctional. In between the good days, which I prayed would last, would come the inevitable barrage of fighting, followed by days of angry silent rages. My parents fought over not having enough money, my sisters dating non-Jewish boys, my brother being a rebel, and me and my laziness and depression. I hated life. I hated school. I always wanted to run away. But at eleven, where to?
The terror of Miss S.
I was a terrible student and Miss S. made sure I knew it. I had already honed the habit of dissociating, fantasizing, daydreaming, going far, far away—certainly never at my desk paying attention. I wished I had been one of those kids that poured all their pain into their schoolwork, burying themselves in books and acing everything because it was the one place in the world they could excel. But that wasn’t me.
Reading wasn’t encouraged at home and I didn’t seek it out. I seemed to be afraid of everything and it showed. And Miss S. used it to humiliate me. When I failed a test, she would announce it to the class. When I didn’t have my hand up, she’d choose me to answer the question. This would cause me to tremble and shake because she’d come over to my desk and put her sharp fingernails into my ear and squeeze. Then she’d pull me up out of my desk that way and demand an answer. Finally when she knew she wasn’t going to get one because I could hardly breathe, she’d release her nails from my ear and shout for me to stay after school.
She’d tell my classmate Mark to stay after school too. He was berated as much as I was. When everyone had rowdily left the classroom, she’d make us both stand up straight in front of her. Then with a look of pure disgust and sarcastic intonation, she’d admonish us with these words: “You two are pathetic and stupid! You’re an embarrassment, a disgrace. I promise you I will fail you both. Now, get out of my sight!”
This happened on a regular basis. That sort of behaviour would not be tolerated today. The teacher would be taken to task and probably fired. But in those years, they allowed “spare the rod and spoil the child” rule.
Mark and I would leave the classroom and walk outside with our heads down to avoid the perceived stares from the kids playing in the schoolyard. We’d walk quickly past them, shrouded in shame, wishing we were invisible. Once on the street we’d walk together in silence. When we got to the field, we parted ways. Mark continued down Baycrest Avenue. I needed to cross the field and the creek to get to the street where I lived. I walked slowly, hoping to delay whatever was waiting for me at home.
Anyway, true to her word, at the end of the school year, Miss S. marked
“F A I L E D!” in big red letters across my report card. Mark found the same thing on his. It was one of the worst days of our lives. We both dreaded going home.
I don’t remember what my parents said or did when they read my report card. In my fantasy mom was reassuring and comforting. I often had those fantasies—it was what I yearned for. And sometimes my wishes came true. Sometimes she was remarkable. She could be so nurturing, so kind, so wise. But inevitably, her undiagnosed bi-polar illness would flare up and I never knew what to expect. Dad was rarely home, and when he was he rarely spoke. However, his facial expressions spoke volumes. (Aside: later in life they were my champions, but growing up, they just didn’t have the skills, as they were dealing with their own unhealed wounds.)
A summer of apprehension
Now it was summer. School was out and I knew the other grade sixes in my class were excited about going on to Ledbury Park Junior High School in the fall where they would have their own lockers and get to change classrooms between periods and have different teachers for every subject. I could only imagine how excited they’d be. Not me. Not Mark. We’d have to trudge back, shame-faced, to the same public school, back into grade six again with kids a whole year younger.
And then it came: September—and with it, the first day of school. I hardly slept the night before. I was planning my escape. Had there been street kids in Toronto in those days I’m pretty certain I would have been among them because it was a familiar notion to run away. Even when I was eight or nine I would run away from home—but never too far. I’d hide in the stairwell of our six-story apartment building. It was as far as I could go because it was late and dark and I’d be too frightened to be out alone in the night. And here I was, age twelve with the same sickening feeling to run as I thought about going back into Miss S’s classroom. This time I wanted to run and never come back. But somehow I walked to school the next morning instead.
The miracle of Mr. Logan
Once there I was instructed to go to room 6-B. I did and a miracle awaited me. At the front of the class stood the well-loved Mr. Logan. I knew from the previous year that kids in his class always seemed to be happy. He had the best reputation. He was also young and handsome and wore a warm, genuine smile, laughed easily and exuded an aura of kindness. It seemed too good to be true that he would be my teacher. I was afraid they made a mistake and I would be sent across the hall to Miss S.’s class. Once everyone was seated, Mr. Logan did a roll call. I held my breath. He was going in alphabetical order: Sammy Olstein, Sylvia Peters, David Rosenberg, June Swadron, Deborah Timberley . . . Oh, my God! Was that really my name he called or did I imagine it because I wanted it so badly? It took a moment to sink in but yes, it was true. He did call my name and then he called Mark’s too. We looked at each other and both breathed a deep and grateful sigh of relief.
And so it was. Mr. Logan became my teacher that year and it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Not only was he kind, but he was also joyful, gentle, patient and sincere. On top of that he made learning fun. And best of all he liked me. This I knew because of his constant kindness, praise, and encouragement. He took extra time with me after school on subjects that I found difficult. I became inspired to read and conscientiously do my homework—something I had never done in the past. I wanted to learn and I did. Soon my schoolwork started to improve. I was beginning to find out that I could learn and that I wasn’t stupid after all. And as my marks improved, my confidence grew and I was able to stand a little taller. At the end of the year I held the highest percentage in that grade 6 class—a feat I wouldn’t ever have believed possible.
I will never ever forget you, Mr. Logan. In a sea of pain, you were my refuge. More than anything else, you made me believe in myself. You gave me hope and the courage to go on.
So sir, wherever you are, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. That 12-year-old girl who still lives inside me, the one who was given back her life all those years ago, will never forget you. You were my heaven-sent angel. My gift from God. My mentor, my teacher. My friend.
Today, I try to do my best to live up to your way of being. My intention is to always motivate, encourage, and care for others in my teaching and therapy practice by offering kindness and respect. I know that our souls flourish this way. I also know only too well how we shrivel, back away and die a little more inside every time we are criticized and judged. The young child in me couldn’t have known back then that Miss S. must have been a very unhappy woman to have treated children that way—but as an adult I can recognize it as such and know that every act of cruelty and aggression is a call for love.
A million thank yous, Mr. Logan, for teaching me the value of every-day human kindness.
What stories have you been carrying and burying? What secrets and shame that bind you are you now ready to release? Write about it in your journal. Share it with your therapist or a loved one, someone with whom you feel completely safe, someone who loves you unconditionally! And if you wish to go deeper in your healing process, allow me to extend my hand to you.
As always, please leave your comments below or join us at Junie’s Writing Sanctuary to contribute to the conversation.