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By George "the Animal" Steele, Jim Evans
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Jim Myers and Jim Evans
All rights reserved.
Who Flunks Second Grade?
My fight with dyslexia began in earnest in grade school. If it had truly been a fight, I would've won. I could have balled up my fists, socked it a few times, and pounded my chest in celebration. Maybe even added a side order of turnbuckle stuffing with gravy. The letters of the alphabet that encircled every classroom would not have appeared to me as though they were hieroglyphics. The abacus that sat near the teacher's desk would have wound up with a black eye, a bloodied nose, and you'd see fewer teeth than in a Crest toothpaste commercial.
But I didn't know anything about dyslexia then. I could not have come close to spelling it on a Scrabble board. Dyslexia is a learning disability few teachers understood back when I was growing up in Madison Heights, a suburb about five miles north of Detroit, Michigan. When I was a kid, measuring intelligence was uncomplicated: you were smart or dumb, bright as a shining star or dim as a 15-watt lightbulb. Our grade school class was divided into different reading groups: bluebirds, redbirds, yellow birds, and brown birds. I roosted among the brown birds, which meant I could not read worth a crap.
We read aloud about fun with a couple of kids named Dick and Jane. Well, there was nothing fun about stammering. I don't care if Dick was sledding and Jane was skating or they both were playing with a dog named Spot. I did not know anyone named Dick, did not care about anyone named Jane, and thought Spot was a mighty simplistic name for a mutt.
But Dick and Jane were the main characters in reading books written by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. They were used in pretty much every school this side of the School of Rock to teach kids to read from the 1930s to the 1970s. The focus was to develop the Curriculum Foundation Series of books for Scott Foresman and Company.
Dick, Jane, Spot, Baby, Mother, Father, Puff the cat, and Tim the teddy bear ganged up to become the banes of my existence. Oh, see. Oh, see Jane. Funny, funny Jane. It was not the least bit funny to me. Oh, see. Oh, see Jim. Unfunny, unfunny Jim Myers.
The drawings were simplistic and so were the words, but not to me. The text was all in black and white, but nothing about reading was black and white to me. Everything fell into the gray area.
Honestly, I would have loved to have told my story and never mentioned these struggles in school. That is a chunk of my life I do not enjoy recalling. Even all these years later, the embarrassment still stings. I would have loved to have been the kid who won the spelling bee, the one who got the shiny red apple from the teacher and not vice versa. I would have been proud to have been a National Honor Society member, one of those kids who gives speeches on high school graduation day. But that would have been dishonest. Dyslexia is a part of me, and if writing about it helps someone, then it is worthwhile. If your children are having problems in school, get them help. Do not write them off as being dumb as a cinder block. Don't call them stupid as a Kardashian. Just call the school principal. Call the school psychologist. Get them some help.
Unfortunately, I was just written off as dumb. My report card was filled with Es and Fs, two letters I had no trouble deciphering. That is the way it was back then.
Consequently, I hated school and despised the laughter and taunts of my classmates. I tried to disappear, which is not easy unless your name is Copperfield or D.B. Cooper. Since I was the biggest kid in class, it was especially difficult. It would have been like King Kong trying to blend in with the jockeys at Churchill Downs. When I was called on by the teacher, I hated school even more. I'd get up in front of the class and it was as though I had a mouth full of malted milk balls. I stuttered and stammered and the other kids in school would start laughing.
That is why I especially hated the desk my parents bought when I was in the first grade. That's where I sat for hours after school trying in vain to learn my lessons while my classmates played in the schoolyard across the street. That desk became a symbol of all my frustrations. It was big and wooden and as foreboding as an angry teacher's stare.
Still, it was important to both my mom and dad that I got a good education, and that is why Dad put a bear hug on the anemic family budget to buy that desk. It was where I was to study and do my homework. It was a gift from my parents. But it was also a curse.
After school, I would spend hours at that desk. I could not go outside to play until I studied my vocabulary words. I also had to do my arithmetic and my reading. That was like locking a person in solitary confinement and telling them to enjoy the conversation. The harder I tried, the more difficult it got. My dad was a very patient man, but he became very frustrated trying to help me learn. Dad never realized that what he was seeing on those pages was not what I was seeing at all.
Dad never had the opportunity to get a good education himself. The youngest of 13 children, he came to Michigan with his mother. By then, all of his brothers and sisters had already left home. His father had died.
My dad's family was almost literally blown out of Oklahoma by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that lasted nearly a decade. The wrath was felt by a lot more folks than the Joads, the characters in The Grapes of Wrath. "Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless — restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do — to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut — anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."
Grasslands had been deeply plowed into oblivion. Wheat was planted, and when Mother Nature kicked in with her PMS tears, the rainfall produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early 1930s descended, no matter how much plowing the farmers did, nothing would grow. Crops withered and died, and so did dreams of living off the land. Winds whipped across the plains and even daytime turned dark.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president in March 1933, the country was in bad shape. FDR quickly shored up the banking industry, and also enacted the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act and the Farm Credit Act.
In 1937, Roosevelt's second inaugural address prefaced those of Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath: "I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished ... the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." FDR's Shelterbelt Project began. The project called for large-scale planting of trees across the Great Plains to protect the land from erosion, stretching in a 100-mile-wide zone from Canada to northern Texas. Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash, were planted along fencerows separating properties, and farmers were paid to plant and cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost $75 million and would be done over a period of 12 years.
In the fall of 1939, the rains finally came. Dad, just 15, had already gone to work at Briggs Manufacturing. He realized how important his lack of education was. His résumé, if he even had one, was long on sweat and grime and short on pay scale. An extremely hard worker, he was never what you would call a white-collar employee. His shirts were neither white nor starched nor remotely unsullied. He was part of the rank and file, and while that never bothered Dad, he was determined to provide his son with more opportunities.
To him, that meant a great education. Times were very tough, but Dad made sure we had encyclopedias in the house. They did not all arrive at once, but soon enough we had the entire set. He made sure there were word books. There were children's classics. "Puss in Boots" was more important than new shoes. Mother Hubbard wasn't the only one with bare cupboards, but Dad did the best he could. We had a dictionary and I had the desk.
I was actually very excited about starting school. Before I was in kindergarten, my mother used to take me across the street to recite rhymes to the older kids. I was just three years old when that started. I did great, too. I could out-honk Mother Goose when it came to those nursery rhymes.
But it really hit the fan when I started school. Reading and math were the toughest. I could not spell, so I would write so sloppily the teacher could not tell I had misspelled so many words. I had a hard time deciphering even the simplest words.
I even failed the second grade. Who, this side of a character in an Adam Sandler comedy, flunks second grade? That same year, I remember a visiting teacher taking me to a place in Detroit to be tested. I did the Rorschach Test with the inkblots. Everything to me looked like a Bic pen had exploded onto two sheets of paper. I strung together beads by color and analyzed pictures. I remember they showed me one picture of the wind blowing the trees one way, while some clothes hung on a line were blowing the other way, and then asked me what was wrong with the picture. Now, I may have been dyslexic, but I was not dumb. It was pretty obvious what was wrong. Afterward, I heard them talking about me in the other room. They said I had tested well and was even bright in many ways.
It was very important to my father that he owned a home. Dad took out a $100 loan and bought a small lot. He built the home himself, using lumber because it was cheaper. My dad was a very hardworking person, but he did not have cotton candy hair and his name was not Trump. The words disposable and income never met in our house. We barely had enough to get by. Dad did the plumbing and electrical himself, too.
Three years later, we moved out of our house. Times were tough, and housing was at a premium as World War II began. My folks opted to rent out our home and moved us into the garage. It was not as bad as that sounds. Dad had built the garage out of cement blocks; it had a toilet and sinks, so it was really better than most houses in the neighborhood. Many of the other folks still had outhouses. I get tears in my eyes when I look at the many pictures that my parents took of me between the ages of two and four. By 1943, we moved back into our home.
I was seven when my brother, Jack, was born. Jack would go on to become superintendent of the Madison (Michigan) Schools. I was also seven when I flunked the second grade. I was a total wreck. Everybody else in class wore bright smiles, freckles, and pigtails. I specialized in a turtlenecked glower. I was just a big, lumbering dummy. I was the only one wearing XL clothes in a sea of children's sizes. I was also the only one who flunked. I mean, that is ridiculous. A man named Donald Gardner once wrote, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth, see my two front teeth ..."
Well, I wanted some understanding, too.
With apologies to the Audubon Society, something I have a little trouble understanding even now is why I traded my yo-yo to someone in the neighborhood for his alleged talking crow. I was 11 and the talking crow was his sales pitch. Little did I know that the crow was really sick. Any sicker and Jack Kevorkian would have been perched on a branch outside our house croaking "Nevermore!" On just the second day that I owned it and not my yo-yo, the crow fell off my shoulder. An attorney might have referred to his demise as ex crow facto. I was crushed. Obviously the bird did not come with a yo-yo-back guarantee.
Jack and I had a time-honored ritual back then: we would take any animals that had died to the backyard, dig a hole, and bury them. We even said a prayer or two. So when the crow croaked and did not caw, we went to the backyard, dug a hole about 18 inches deep, and began to officially lay the crow to rest. We put the defunct bird in the hole, threw some dirt on it, and all of a sudden, the crow went "Brrrrr!"
Was it a resurrection of Biblical proportions, or did we prematurely bury the bird? Jack and I frantically got down on our knees, yanked the bird from its grave, apologetically brushed it off, and pronounced it alive. At least Jack did. I still was not too sure. It was still the deadest-looking living bird I had ever seen. Its wings were hanging at half mast; its head was hanging like one of Judge Roy Bean's customers; and if it was breathing at all, its breath was shallower than that grave.
After a few minutes, we once again declared it dead, put it back into the ground, threw dirt on it, and again it went "Brrrrr!"
That is the script we followed at least twice more. Dead or alive? It was a wanted poster in black feathers. Finally, I'd had enough. I was going to kill that damnable bird myself. I took the shovel and smacked it. I smacked it again and again. Then I chopped at it. I was a hibachi chef in a chicken coop. I was enraged. I wanted my yo-yo back. I wanted this crow gone.
Later on, Jack and I realized what had happened. The crow had been dead the entire time, but every time we threw dirt on its carcass, some air was forced out of its lungs.
That sound still gives me shivers to this day. So does the recollection of reading with the brown birds. School was definitely crappy.CHAPTER 2
The Fight Game
Despite having dispatched the crow, I'd always been taught not to fight. Turn the other cheek, even if you had just been socked in that same place. An eye for an eye? Well, even if that eye had turned black and blue thanks to a punch, that was not the Golden Rule as practiced at the Myers house in Madison Heights.
Early on, the Animal was caged.
My parents were worried that if I ever fought I would hurt someone. Remember, I was bigger than my classmates. I was Jethro Bodine and my classmates were Opie Taylor. If a fight did break out, and some little punk with spaghetti for arms and a pretzel rod for a neck smacked me, I would run home crying. Those were mostly tears of embarrassment and anger, but it did not matter. I quickly gained a reputation as a big wimp.
I'd been playing ball with some of the guys on the playground at Koss (Schoenhals) Elementary School. It was one of those hot summer days when the camels are applying Hawaiian Tropic and Bedouins are at Sears buying air conditioners.
I was called home. The guys asked me to bring them back some cold water. Well, I found out that we were going visiting and my mom had me dress in my best clothes. I took a pail of icewater back to the playground so the guys could have a drink before we left. After they finished their drinks, they took what was left and poured it on me. I ran home crying, as usual.
That was it. My mother had finally had it. She exploded like Mt. Vesuvius in Aqua Net hairspray. She told me that it was time for me to stick up for myself. I started crying even harder. She got this big piece of wood and brandished it menacingly. She asked if she would have to beat me before I fought. I was sobbing and sniffling as my mom marched me across the street to the playground. She announced that her Jimmy was there to fight. The kids, who were still laughing, began to laugh even harder. That only irritated my mom more. She asked them who wanted to be first. They all ran to accept the challenge, and Mickey Folton won the race. Mickey was one tough hombre, but it only took me about 30 seconds to kick his butt. Not only did I kick it, I turned it into steak tartare. Two more kids accepted the challenge, and two more raced home looking for Band-Aids and solace. Three up and three down, and the rest of the kids scattered.
Success comes in many different forms. The businessman and his Brooks Brothers suits and Porsche. The actress with her name on the top of the marquee. The baseball player who has just hit a home run that traveled so far its flight plan had to be filed with the FAA. Well, those fights in the playground were my first real successes, and from that day on I embraced fighting. I took to it like Charlie Sheen to tiger blood. It was the one thing I was good at. Success is an excellent motivator, and I had suddenly become a successful fighter.
I know that sounds like a lousy life plan. Real ambition in school should have a book bag attached to it. It should be written in pencil lead and topped with an A scrawled by a teacher. But I am going to be redundant here. School was nothing but frustration for me. Try as I might, I could never get things right. Reading was nearly an impossibility and math might as well have been quantum physics wrapped in Latin and served on a kaiser roll. Some kids relished it when the teacher handed back their papers. Those were the kids who always wore smiles to class. Unlike them, my dress code included scowls.
Excerpted from Animal by George "the Animal" Steele, Jim Evans. Copyright © 2013 Jim Myers and Jim Evans. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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