I almost flunked out of first grade. When the other kids were learning how to write, I just sat there in a daze as my teacher got more and more frustrated. No matter how many times people showed me, I just couldn't hold a pencil right. Whenever I tried to put words on paper, they came out as unreadable squiggles. The teacher had to move on, the other kids learned to recognize me as the class moron, and I was drowning in blank paper.
I was drowning in blank paper.
Then I got lucky: I was pulled out of first grade and put in Special Ed. They told me I was a Special Needs kid. Even though I was aware I was a fuckup and could tell everyone was disappointed in me, I was too young to feel major shame about it. It was all just school to me.
Then an even luckier thing happened to me: I was sent to a teacher who had just started working at the school, and she basically saved me from slipping through the cracks. Ms. Pennington, the Special Ed teacher, was a gentle woman with truly incredible reserves of patience. Her voice had a hint of a Southern accent and she always seemed to be laughing, not with malice but with sympathy, as she coached me on the secret of making a recognizable letter "A.” I remember her hands twisting as she showed me how to arrange my fingers into the incomprehensible sigil that would equip me to hold a pencil.
Much later, my mother told me how proud I was when I finally managed to write a real, "exact A" — so pleased with myself, long after all the other kids were writing crisp sentences. This was part of the magic of Ms. Pennington: She somehow made me feel excited about mastering the arcane secrets of lettercraft, rather than ashamed that I was so far behind.
My difficulty with writing was both physical and perceptual. I had zero coordination: I constantly stumbled over my own feet as if I'd forgotten where I had left them. When Ms. Pennington took me to the local children's hospital to be tested, I was diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder, meaning that I couldn't quite turn sight, sound, or touch into awareness. She spent hours teaching me how to throw a frisbee: how to stand, how to hold my arms. On the weekends, my parents took me to special phys-ed classes, where I learned to swim alongside other developmentally disabled kids.
Ms. Pennington was the constant voice in my ear as I wrestled with the pencil, even with other kids in the room who were also struggling with their own problems. She found a way to turn my tendency to daydream into a tool for getting me to learn, and in the process, made me into a lifelong storytelling addict.
She’d give me gold stars and praise every time I got a letter right, but one day she offered me an even better, bigger bribe: If I mastered all my writing skills and got up to speed on my classwork, I could write a play, which would be performed at school.
The reward was irresistible, given the kind of kid I was — a mumbling oddity, slouching around the schoolyard making up weird stories in my head and living in a dream world that was as real as the red brick schoolhouse, the games of dodgeball and keepaway that went over my head. I had imaginary friends, and imaginary adventures, and a whole imaginary life.
I had imaginary friends, and imaginary adventures, and a whole imaginary life.
Ms. Pennington’s bribe worked perfectly. Toward the end of first grade, I wrote a play called The Bad Cad. The Bad Cad was a flamboyant troublemaker, who lived to mess with an unnamed authority figure. That authority figure, who may or may not have been the school principal, endlessly tried to assert control but was foiled by the Bad Cad every time, who dumped buckets on his head and left things for him to trip over. Ms. Pennington told me later that you could even see my penmanship get smoother and more legible the longer I worked on it. It was my first work of creative writing.
It was the first time I can remember feeling like there was a point to school.
The whole idea of a "special needs" child brings an instant stigma to mind, because every child is supposed to have the same needs. We spend a lot of energy, as a society, coming up with systems to make sure every child makes uniform progress. Ms. Pennington did the opposite: She was somehow able to spend so much time with me and come up with a whole individual program, while simultaneously doing the same thing for a bunch of other kids. It still blows my mind.
Recently, my mom told me that she remembered hearing one of the moms at my school boast to some others that her child was in Ms. Pennington's Special Ed class. Word had gotten out that there was this one teacher giving extra one-on-one attention to the learning-disabled kids. Artisanal. It even became a status symbol among the trendy parents.
Once I could actually write, I spent my time scribbling terrible Doctor Who fan fiction in all of my workbooks. I never got particularly good at schoolwork, not until sometime in middle school. But if it hadn’t been for Ms. Pennington’s help, I might have slipped through the cracks completely.
Not for a second did I ever believe, as a child, that my disability made me any less the hero in my own story.
Not for a second did I ever believe, as a child, that my disability made me any less the hero in my own story. I give Ms. Pennington all the credit for that. To this day, when I make up stories about kids who misunderstand and are misunderstood in turn, I don't ever assume that'll make them passive, or a victim, or weak. The figure of the misfit child has been a constant presence in my fiction, going back more than a decade. Kids who are lost in a thorny maze, who can't make any sense of a world that everybody else seems to understand perfectly. Kids who find themselves at odds with others, despite having all the goodwill in the world. But I don't write about them because I am trying to make some kind of a Statement about how their difference is actually a superpower or a source of unique insight. Instead, I think, I'm trying to figure out what becomes of them. Especially the ones who don't get rescued, the way I did.
In the end, Ms. Pennington didn't just teach me how to hold a pencil. She made me a writer.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky (Tor Books, 2016). She's the editor of io9, a blog about science fiction and fantasy, and organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in Tor.com, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and dozens of anthologies. Her story "Six Months, Three Days" won a Hugo Award.
To learn more about All the Birds in the Sky, click here.