Upside Down and Backwards

I write in the dimness of morning. Outside the world is a shape shifter. Light eases things back into definition, their boundaries called from shadow, hardening, forming, beginning to hold again and the land shrugs itself into wakefulness. Purple moving upward into pearl grey.

It’s good to be up and working at this time. I can feel the power of life and light around me and as the letters form upon the screen, race each other to the sudden halt of punctuation, I understand where this need to write comes from.

It comes from this palpable mystery. This first light breaking over everything, altering things, arranging them, setting them down into patterns again and tucking shadow back into folds behind the trees. It comes from the need of communion, of joining with that Great Mystery, that force, that energy.

I always wanted to write. There isn’t a time I can recall when I didn’t carry the desire to frame things, order things upon a page, sort them out, make sense of them. But in the beginning, learning to write was a test, a challenge, an ordeal.

I was the only Indian boy in a mill town school in northern Ontario in the early 1960s. It was a different world then, harder maybe, colder and the idea of Indians was set like concrete, particularly in the parochial, working class confines of a saw mill town two hundred miles from nowhere.

The school was set between the railroad tracks and the pipeline in a hollow between hills above the mill. We sat with the thick sulfur smell coming through the windows and the spume of the stacks on the horizon above the trees. In the classroom I was ignored, set down near the back and never called upon for anything.

They said I was slow, a difficult learner, far too quiet for a kid and lethargic. They said I hadn’t much hope for a future and after they held me back a year they just let me be. But I wanted to learn. I was hungry for it and I went to school every day eager and excited about the things we were given to learn.

But I couldn’t see. No one had spent enough time with me to learn that. The reason I was slow to pick things up was because I could never see the board. Even at the front of the room where they put me so they could keep a better eye on me, I could never discern the writing on the blackboard. Everything I learned I learned by memory, by listening hard to what the teacher said and memorizing it.

When I was adopted in 1965 I was sent to my first big school in a  southern Ontario town called Bradford just north of Toronto. There were hundreds of kids in that school and it seemed like I walked in waves of them on my way to school that first day. Walking through those big glass doors was terrifying for me.

I was in Grade 3 and my teacher wanted to introduce me and she asked me to write my name on the blackboard for the other children to read. I went to the board, leaned close to it, squinted and began to write. I heard snickers at the first letter and open laughter when I’d finished.

I’d written my name upside down and backwards. To the rest of my classmates it was odd, strange and hilarious but it was how I’d learned and I felt the weight of their laughter like stones. Walking back to my seat that day I felt ashamed, stupid and terribly alone.

But I had a teacher that cared. She walked me down to the nurse’s station herself and waited while I got my eyes tested. Astigmatism, the nurse told her. Terrible astigmatism. Then she listened closely to me when I explained why my writing was wrongly shaped.

I taught myself to write by squinting back over my shoulder. When we were taught to write in script I wasn’t given any teacher attention, wasn’t offered any help in forming the letters. So I watched the boy behind me and I mimicked what I saw on my own page. Unfortunately, what I saw was upside down and backwards and that was how I taught myself to write. I could spell everything correctly but it was all skewed.

Well, I got glasses very shortly after that and my world changed. Once I could see what was written on the board my ability to learn accelerated and I graduated Grade 3 with straight A’s. Especially in penmanship.

See, for that teacher I wasn’t an Indian. I was a student in need. So she took the time to show me how to write properly. Every day, before and after school, she and I sat at a desk and we worked through the primary writing books. I shaped letters time after time after time until I gradually unlearned the awkward process I’d taught myself.

Like life, unlearning something was a lot harder than learning it. I struggled with breaking down my method and at times it seemed I would never get it right. But I persisted with the help and encouragement of that teacher and I learned how to write in the right direction. But I still shape my G’s and D’s wrong today. I still write them back to front after all this time.

I write on a keyboard these days. But there isn’t a time when I set a pen to paper that I don’t remember learning how to write and what it took to get me there.

See, there’s a story behind every difference. There’s a reason we become the people we become and it’s having the courage and consideration to hear those stories that allows us to help each other.

Sometimes life turns us upside down and backwards. It’s caring that gets us back on our feet again and pointed in the right direction.

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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