My sixth-grade class milled about noisily in the back of the room, whispering and giggling. None of us were eager for the start of our afternoon classes. Sister stood leaning against the teacher’s desk in front of the room watching us. She finally barked impatiently, “Recess is over, class. Sit down and be quiet!” I knew that tone of voice and instantly obeyed, as did most of the class. True to form, the last students to sit down and be quiet were two boys. As long as I’d known them, since first grade, they stood out as incapable of being quiet or of staying seated for more than a few minutes.

         Waiting until the only sound in the room was the occasional clank of the heat registers, Sister picked up a paper from her desk and slowly walked back and forth in the front of the room, grilling the class. “What is the first thing you do when you begin an assignment?”

One student volunteered, “Put on our thinking caps?”

Sisters black veil swished back and forth as she emphatically shook her head and tossed out hints, “We ask you to do it at the top of the page, along with the date. It’s one of the first things you were taught to do in first grade. It helps your teacher grade papers.”

We were stumped. In the silence that followed, we heard the kids in the classroom down the hall singing a folk song for music class. Out in the hallway, the janitor was using a pleasant-smelling solution to clean the floors.

Coming to a halt, Sister faced the class and held up the paper in her hand for us to see. It was graded with a big red F. She loudly exclaimed, “All the answers were right on this paper! There is just one thing missing. The person who did this assignment failed to sign the paper!”

One boy put his hand up in the air. Sister looked at him. Feeling that was permission to speak, he reasoned, “If everyone else in the class signed their papers, you know whose paper it is.”

Stamping her foot in impotent fury, Sister growled in a dangerously quiet voice, “You’re missing the point. You have all been directed to sign your papers since first grade. This person is getting an F. Since he is the only one who didn’t sign his paper, this time, I know who gets that grade!”

I have always been very good at following instructions, especially if they are simple one or two sentence directions. It wasn’t until several years after my sixth-grade teacher went on a “sign your paper” rampage that I realized I had a major problem with complicated directions.

My first indication became apparent the year Mom started to crochet. She made lovely doilies featuring pineapple and popcorn designs and lacy chain link nets. Admiring them, I decided to take up hook and thread also. The directions told me to, “Chain 5 and connect.” I understood that and could even follow the next set of directions. “double crochet twelve and chain three”. After that, the words of the directions lost all meaning. As far as my brain was concerned, the pattern could have been written in Hungarian. I could read the words, but couldn’t comprehend them.

Feeling shook-up, I put down the crochet needle and thread, reasoning that not all people are called to do fine needle work. As the years went by, though, I discovered that anything with more than five or six instructions makes my brain turn to mush.

In the last few decades, I have heard a lot about attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other neurological disorders that impede education. Looking back to my grade school years, I wonder if some of my classmates had ADD, and were not misbehaving as our teachers said they were. I also wonder how to classify my inability to follow long written instructions. Is my difficulty a personal quirk or a failure? 

Give me instructions that show pictures however, and I can do whatever it is that needs to be done. So, I’m not incapable of following directions. My problem with directions is like being blind. Pictures are my braille.

Pictures are my braille…except for origami instruction pictures!!

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