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Pia Savage

But I Want To Be Perfect: Why Can't I Do Things Correctly?

Non Verbal Learning Disorder causes panic attacks in children.

I had my first panic attack, in second grade, on notebook inspection day. As I was seven I had no idea why I felt like the room was spinning, I was going to fall through the floor (if lucky), and I couldn't I catch my breath while my heart was racing.

It was the height of the baby boom. I was in Class 2-1 that met in an annex to the neighborhood junior high in Douglaston, Queens. Supposedly we were the 40 brightest kids in the grade. Mrs. Fishman was determined that our class was going to beat Sputnik and win the space war. Our chalk board had pictures of the planets. We were supposed to read up to five books a week and write full book reports on them. For every book we read a week we would be moved up until we reached the moon, then Neptune, Uranus (which always made us laugh though we were never sure why,) and so on.

My parents had gone to Mrs. Fishman to tell her I loved to read and they weren't going to make me write a book report for each book I read. They didn't want to spoil that pleasure. It was already becoming obvious that I couldn't spell, couldn't learn the fundamentals of grammar, and was having dire problems in math. Please don't think that my parents were negligent and didn't want to help me with my book reports. My father, a self-employed CPA, limited his practice so he could be around for me and my sister.

Every night during the week he would make flash cards and we would go over arithmetic and spelling words. I frustrated him as he thought I was so close to perfect. Surely I could do more to learn the spelling words and math. I had horrible handwriting. He had noticed that I didn't hold things correctly, and that my grip was weak. I also couldn't throw a ball, and was pigeon-toed.

My father was convinced these were all parts of the same problem. He took me to every doctor he could find, and bought small balls that I would crunch in clenched fingers as tightly as possible. I didn't mind doing this or the flash cards then. I knew I was smart. My standardized reading score was the highest in the grade.

I had lots of friends, and they didn't care that I was clumsy. My best friend, Ava Altman, was also in Mrs. Fishman's class. She was short and petite; I was the tallest girl in the class, and that year thin. Ava and I could never stand in line together, as lines were always based on last name or height. If I had Ava's calming influence things might have been different that first notebook inspection day.

My parents could help me with my homework. They could devise flash cards and other tools. But they couldn't write my notes for me. My notebook was sloppy, to be kind. I didn't take good notes. My printing was atrocious.

We knew that notebook inspection day was coming but we had never been told the exact day or even week it would happen. I still remember how I felt when Mrs. Fishman announced that was the day. I prayed for death for the first but not the last time. Though I did think about how dying would cause a scene, and I was a quiet well-mannered girl who tried to follow all the rules and never spoke out of turn.

I wished that my last name was in the front of the alphabet, or that something would happen to stop notebook inspection day. That was the first time I wished something dire would happen to me and nobody else. The thought of causing physical or emotional duress to another person was beyond the scope of my imagination and Ava will tell you I had a vivid one.

Mrs. Fishman called seventeen kids to the front of the room at a time. The rest of us sat at our desks. While my friends talked, I sat and watched as Mrs Fishman smiled and wrote something good (I knew) in each notebook. She would shake their hands as she handed back the notebooks. Apparently notebook inspection day was a big deal.

My hands began feeling disassociated from my body. I felt as if every part of my body was shaking. Somebody called my name. I finally heard and forced myself to smile. I had no idea what the kids were talking about. Everybody was having a great time in this unexpected free morning. Everybody but me.

By the time I stood in line I was hyperventilating though nobody noticed. All these feelings were new to me and I didn't like them. But I had no idea how to make them stop. I was weak kneed by the time Marc Samuels brought his notebook to Mrs. Fishman. Finally it was my turn. Mrs. Fishman began by smiling but soon her smile turned to a frown. Then she began yelling. Everybody stopped talking. Mrs. Fishman held out my notebook and said it was an example of a sloppy lazy girl who couldn't be bothered to take good notes, or try at all. I had failed spelling quizzes but I had never failed anything important before.

Nothing was ever the same after that day. My childhood was still filled with joy and wonder, but I knew what fear felt like and fear was to become my constant companion.

I wrote this piece as it shows many initial elements of Non Verbal Learning disorder (NLD): A horrible handwriting; disorganized notes that would have taught me nothing had they been comprehensible; the inability to learn math though I was constantly quizzed by parents who tried and were beginning to understand that something was wrong. The panic attack that no seven year old should ever experience. I wasn't the lazy horrible child my teacher thought but a girl who aimed for an impossible to reach perfection.

© 2011 pia Savage


About the Author

Pia Savage is a writer, journalist, and former social worker diagnosed with Non Verbal Learning Disorder.