A Tale of Two Children: Spock, Learning Disabilities, and Traumatic Education

The author as a child

Let me paint for you, briefly, a portrait of a child. This child is young, no more than 10. Questions of identity, gender, and purpose are still well into his future. He spends most of his day failing: failing school, failing sports, failing at home, failing to comb his hair, failing to tie his shoes. The list of failures could go on. He can’t tell his right from his left, much less read a full chapter of a book without the words swirling around one another, opening up a wormhole of confusion. He is taught that this is his fault.

He lives in a nice house with a highly rational father and an artist mother who have enough tension between them to suspend a bridge. She gave up everything to be with her husband. Their child is in the middle of it all. There are moments of calm. He has great friends. He has beloved toys, an imagination, and a way of outlining plots to himself in a low whisper, but only when no one is listening. And he has Star Trek.

It started with Star Trek re-runs; now it’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes broadcast for the first time. For an hour, he sees his desired self in those shows. Their characters seem to rarely fail, and, when they do, they aren’t called names by their teachers or classmates. They are in sleek, fit bodies, which are not his body, a body he was taught to shame. They are far from Earth, an idea that seems more enticing to him every day. That child was me, and I never thought those bodies would work like mine.

I’d like to paint another portrait, now, of a different child, one I met last week. This child is half-Vulcan, half-human. “Emotions confuse me,” he says, perhaps trying to untangle his humanity from the teachings of his Vulcan dad. He has an adopted human sister who seems to have an uncanny ability to take things in stride, at least some of the time. After she laughs at a mistake she made, this child says, baffled, “You are amused by your own error?”  To him, errors are demons, but demons do not exist in Vulcan literature, so the evil errors that plague him as he attempts to read and write can only be of human origin. He is taught that this is his fault. He lives in a nice house with a highly logical father and a mother who is blamed for her son’s intellectual shortfalls. She gave up everything for her marriage. Their child pays the price. Later, he will trek through the stars. There, he will find moments of calm. Serving under Captain Kirk, he will often model the height of aptitude and the depths of logic. He will be far from Vulcan. That child was Spock, and he doesn’t know that I have felt exactly as he did.

In the Star Trek: Discovery episode “Light and Shadows,” we learn that Spock suffered from L’tak Torai: a learning disability Captain Leland of Section 31 describes as, “a spatial and order dysphasia, much like dyslexia.” Leland can say this clinically, but Michael Burnham understands the hell such a disorder must have put Spock through as a child. When the brother and sister are alone, she says to an unconscious Spock, “You must have been so lonely. Knowing you, you made something beautiful out of those mirrored images.”

This is when the dam burst and my tears carved canyons down my face. I still don’t know why I couldn’t learn the way my teachers and parents wanted me to as a child. I was never evaluated, and, therefore, never diagnosed. When Sarek describes Spock’s disability as “temporary” and brushes it off as something “remedied at the learning center,” I heard echoes of how my own troubles were swept under the rug. I did not grow up in an environment where the troubles of a child’s mind were taken seriously. Physical injury was tended to right away, but anything that could not be seen in the form of a gash or a cough was filed under “just not trying hard enough,” or worse, the catch-all term too many kids have heard: “lazy.”

I imagine Spock heard some form of this word, too. His teachers probably repeated it in countless parent/teacher conferences and progress reports mailed home. He was possibly sent to his room for hours on end to study words that he couldn’t make sense of. The cascade of failing grades surely led him to question the well-being of his mind as his peers sped by him in school. I can’t prove any of this happened to Spock, but it happened to me. In hearing about Spock’s learning disability, I could not help projecting my own obstacles onto him. I want so badly to cling to what I imagine his backstory to be because I want Burnham’s words to comfort me the way they were supposed to comfort him.

That is all many of us want, for someone to find beauty in the way we see the world. To paraphrase Amanda Grayson, she read Spock Alice in Wonderland because a book where “up is down and left is right” could show her son, who had no other form of support, that his perspective matters, that one person’s disability could be another’s wellspring of creativity. When Burnham takes that one step further and recognizes that, in the years since, her brother has been creating beauty out of a jumbled world, Spock presumably can’t hear her, but we can. I think we are, in fact, her intended audience. In that moment, everyone for whom conventional learning was an uphill battle received the hug we try so hard to give ourselves, a hug that doesn’t just say “you’ll be all right,” but “you were never a problem; you have always been beautiful.”

The students I now teach – many of whom have dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, dysgraphia, and other learning disabilities, diagnosed and undiagnosed – have never heard those words in their childhoods. Part of what I try to do is express to them the same sentiment Burnham tells Spock, but I so rarely tell it to myself. When I’m working with others who are in some way learning disabled, their creativity, ingenuity, and wit so obviously far exceeds anything I’ve seen in the so called “advanced learners.”  But when I encounter my own difficulty, all I can hear the voices from my past telling me I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, and it’s all my fault.

Burnham and Amanda talk about Spock

If hearing Burnham’s words to Spock was a release, then seeing Spock as learning disabled was a revelation that made me fall in love with Star Trek all over again. As I said before, much of Star Trek’s escapism, for me, was that the show largely dealt with very smart people doing very smart things. It didn’t matter how they became “the best;” they just were. In that way, these characters were, for the most part, not me. I was not a Picard. I was not a Dax. I certainly was not a Spock…until now. Imagine visiting the most beautiful house you can imagine your whole life, and then finding out that you actually live there. That’s how I felt. I loved visiting the characters of Star Trek, but it was always under the assumption that I could never be good enough to walk among them. As of last week, it turns out that I and others like me are not only good enough, we’re in lock-step with one of Star Trek’s most intelligent. That’s huge.

What people without learning disabilities don’t often understand is that the experience of having a learning disability does not exist in a vacuum. It comes with abuse. It comes with loss of self-esteem. It can come with self-harm. It can come with trauma. All of these intersect and last a lifetime. If you don’t have a learning disability, I promise you: you know someone who does. If no one comes to mind, think for a minute about anyone who might have surprised you with the way they process information. Perhaps the traditional method you used to convey your idea didn’t work for them. If someone now comes to mind, think of them as Spock. Know that, in your moment of interaction, you could have learned something from them, just as you’ve learned from Spock ever since the beginning of Star Trek.

You could have taught yourself to teach right to left, or down to up. You could have affirmed them. You could have empowered them. Did you?  If you did, that is what Burnham would celebrate. If you didn’t, heed the call of “Light and Shadows” and try approaching knowledge from many different angles. As the episode ultimately shows, that is the path to healing.

And if you do have a learning disability, or are like me and have never been diagnosed except through an early childhood of continuous frustration, we are not alone. We never have been. And the world is changing. The Sareks of old are now starting to choke up with the emotions they thought they could suppress as they learn how close they came to losing their children to the pressure the world put on their minds. Schools, including the one at which I teach, are blossoming with accommodations to finally level the playing field for all students. I could list ten tools we have on-hand to assist those with many different types of learning disability just off the top of my head. Empathy is in the classroom. Students once shoved into basement and boiler room classes are now becoming teachers and trying to build inclusive learning environments. Our current educational landscape is far from perfect, but it is discovering that today’s Spock may not necessarily have come from the advanced placement courses, but the neglected groups left to fend for themselves. Perhaps this is how Spock knew that, “One can begin to reshape the landscape with a single flower…”

It is an understatement to say “Light and Shadows” was meaningful to me. The episode was an example of what Star Trek can do at its best. Ours is a show that can reach through our TV sets and aim straight for the hearts of the hurting. It can warm us when we feel so cold and adrift. The continuing mission gives us this, in different ways for all our infinite diversity, breaking, even if only for a moment, the time-loops of trauma that haunt the katra stone caves of our minds.

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