Before and After

I had an interesting discussion with The Naturalist today…much like our discussion on alphabetical order. She is a very non-sequential learner–whether this is from dyslexia or being a visual thinker, I don’t know. In either case, anything with a linear order wreaks havoc in her mind.

I’ve had her tell me that in the next year she’d be a teenager. I pointed out that next year she’d be 12, not 13. She looked surprised for a minute and then said, “Oh, I forgot about 12. I was thinking, ’10, 11, 13′. In my head, 12 is somewhere with 94″. So, I already know that both number lines and alphabetical order are not necessarily so orderly for her.

But today, talking about big numbers, I asked her to find the number before the hundreds place. Keep in mind, she’d been going up to the millions place, so the tens place shouldn’t have really been a big deal. She hesitated. I repeated myself. She hemmed and hawed. I remembered my dad sitting down doing math with me, and usually it ended up with him going, “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t that hard!” and then me crying, and then him leaving very annoyed. I related…this time to my Dad. But! I stayed quiet, and she finally looked up and said, “You know, I’ve always had a problem with ‘before’ and ‘after’. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Me: ??? Before and after! You know….like this:

I actually drew it out on some paper. This is time. This is you. This is everything that’s happened before now, and everything that will happen after right now.

Her: ???

Me: “OK, when I say to you, ‘pick up your clothes after you brush your teeth’, what do you think?”
Her: “It makes my head hurt to think what you mean. It could be either way…I get very confused”.
Me: wondering how I could not know that she doesn’t understand ‘before’ and ‘after’ for 11 years, but also knowing that a major frustration is her lack of following directions or scheduling..so, it makes a lot of sense.

We spent a while talking about how she could be misinterpreting linear time, and what her timeline is in her head…like how letters dance around in her head instead of lining up in an order. I really became interested in how time was lining (or not lining) up in there.

It was hard for her to discribe it to me, much like it was hard for me to discribe before and after to her. And then I remembered a Native American Lit. class I took in college. There I was introduced to ‘sacred time’, which is less a timeLINE and more….circular. Like this ouroboros symbol:

I drew a circle on our paper. I asked, “Is it hard to know what comes before and after, because just like in a circle, if the thing that’s before hurries up enough it will eventually come after what it was just in front of?”

That seemed to be the description that came closest to what’s going on in her head. Although I suspect that her blueprint would look something more like this circular electrical wiring scheme:

As we sat talking, I was thinking how similar her view of time correlated with the ‘time as a train track’ chapter in Stephen Hawkings “A Brief History of Time”. It also reminded me of a quote by Albert Einstein:

People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

And I felt grateful that she and I were having this discussion at home, in a safe place, away from school where she’d be teased or derided about not knowing what ‘before’ and ‘after’ meant. I felt grateful that she has space to think for herself, in her own way, and develop her unique and totally out of the box thinking patterns without pressure to ‘fit in’ to a classroom environment that is at odds with how she processes information.

I am enthralled by listening to how dyslexic (and visual spatial) kids think. I believe they have a lot to offer the world, if only we could stop classifying them as ‘learning disabled’. After all (and here’s my last Einstein quote for this post, I promise!):

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

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