Dear Ms. Brice: Teachers Like You Make The World A Better Place

“We talked about this,” Ms. Brice said, and swung her door shut. “This is the third test you’ve slept through. Two classmates had to shake you awake.”

Ms. Brice was my fifth-grade teacher and I really liked her. Not just because I once caught a glimpse of a Jon Bon Jovi tape cassette tucked inside her desk drawer, but because she wore mismatched socks just like me and always accepted me.

Before I was a physician, I was an accomplished troublemaker. By the time I was in kindergarten, I had already been assigned the label of “rowdy delinquent.” Legend has it that I never learned to play by the rules, but the truth is, I played by the rules I was assigned.

Growing up, misfits like me were sentenced to what I called “executive function purgatory,” remedial classes that taught neurodiverse kids to be masters at planning ahead, meeting a goal, and staying focused despite distraction. There was something hurtful about being corrected for being myself: “Pay attention! Sit still! Get back on task,” our teachers would say. On most days, I tried to sit cross-legged and look stern like a businessman I once saw in an advertisement for socks. But then I’d fall asleep.

“I tried to stay awake,” I moaned to Ms. Brice, plunking my elbows on her desk. “But the tests, they’re just so boring. It’s like watching a faucet drip over and over and it’s never gonna end.”

She grinned. “Are you watching faucets drip in special ed?”

“No. But I have watched faucets drip, and these tests feel just like that.” I softly pressed my forehead against her wooden desk. “You ever get the feeling like you’ve been sent away to be fixed? Two years in special ed and that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s the island of misfit toys and nobody is coming to save me.”

“Look,” she said, laying her hand on my shoulder. You’re smart. And it’s okay to challenge things you don’t agree with. But not at your own expense. You gotta hand in the work.”

For a single beat, time stopped.

A clear, frozen moment I would never forget: Ms. Brice, in a purple quilted sweatshirt, tossing two words out like a grenade: You’re smart.

I’d never known a teacher like Ms. Brice before. One that actually liked my personality. Her smile won me over right away, as if my insistence on afternoon naps was all pretty ridiculous.

Whenever I was in trouble, she’d never put me down, even when I disappointed her; only smile and insist on second chances.

“Next time someone hands you an exam, stay awake and finish, okay?”

“I guess,” I said.

“Not a deal. Promise me, no more drool stains on your tests.”

I raised my right hand like my friend Mitchell did on his first day of Boy Scouts: “I promise, no matter how boring life is, I’ll stay awake, and pretend to listen. And if I can’t, I’ll learn to sleep with my eyeballs open.”

Ms. Brice laughed. “Not exactly what I’m saying, but we’ll work out the details later.”

Lesson 1: Be Yourself

The following week, Ms. Brice helped me carry my books down the hallway and into her storytelling group. I didn’t know why we were standing outside the classroom as if we were saying goodbye. But our silence grew heavier, too heavy to carry into the classroom.

“Stacy Myers says only smart kids are allowed in your storytelling group,” I confessed as we stood in the hall. “She said special ed kids don’t belong.”

“You belong,” Ms. Brice said, and kneeled down to the floor. “Be yourself, okay?”

I looked straight at Ms. Brice. I wanted to see my reflection in her eyes.  “This class will be different,” she said, and raised her right hand. “Scouts honor.”

I didn’t make any friends, but Ms. Brice was right. I loved storytelling. It was all I could think about on most days and it energized me from the inside out. If I was excited while telling a story, or distracted while thinking up an idea, Ms. Brice would walk by and say, “That’s creativity! That’s the way to tell a story!” I knew that storytelling was it for me. This single truth resonated from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. And for the first time, I belonged.

Lesson 2: Tell Stories

When I read studies that say being neurodiverse has a negative effect on self-esteem, I laugh because neurodiversity is not a virus that invaded my self-worth. I wasn’t born believing it was wrong to be myself. Instead, I was taught that I shouldn’t express the disruptive, hyperactive, and distracted parts of myself.

But I don’t “suffer” from neurodiversity; I suffer when people ask me to be someone other than myself. When friends or family have difficulty accepting me, it leaves me feeling lonely and unseen.

I’m not organized, or structured, and when my partner found my car keys in a cereal box, I blamed our dog. But the very same traits that bring chaos to my life also saved my self-esteem.

I wouldn’t give up being neurodiverse for anyone or anything because disruption empowers me to use my voice, my energy propels my creativity into overdrive, and exploration, not “distraction,” fuels my storytelling adventures.

For me, storytelling feels good, is easy to start, and oh so hard to quit. Far off lands, bold adventures, tall tales infused with passion and wonder, that’s the melody of my self-esteem soul. And I love every ounce of it.

Lesson 3: Find Where You Belong

When fifth grade came to an end, I drowned my face in the bathroom sink and ran down the hall to say, goodbye. “You’re soaking wet,” Ms. Brice smiled, “like you’ve just come from a wild adventure. You can come back to the group next year, okay?” she said, as she pulled the collar up on my coat.

She had instilled in me a love for learning and a sense of belonging. And even though I would spend the next twenty years learning to form a healthy relationship with my self-esteem, that year Ms. Brice planted a seed within me so deep that I was forever changed.