MY FATHER: AHEAD OF HIS TIMES – ELLIN CURLEY

Most of us believe that our current beliefs have been our beliefs forever. Of course we know that germs cause disease and that the earth is round. But people didn’t always know these concepts as “facts”. We once thought the earth was flat and had no idea what caused disease. Someone had to propose these “new” and “revolutionary ideas.And someone just as assuredly had to argue against them and give the proponent of the new ideas a hard time.

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My father was a brilliant, innovative thinker in the fields of psychiatry and the social sciences. All he got initially was a lot of grief and aggravation. Even today, only a few academics have heard of him.

His name was Abram Kardiner. He had a long and varied career in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry from the 1920’s to his death in 1981. He deserves at least part of the credit for three major contributions: the idea of interdisciplinary studies, the concept of early, “pre-school” education, and acceptance and understanding of PTSD.

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Everyone knows that interdepartmental studies are the best way to thoroughly understand at least history and cultures. Didn’t we always apply the tools of sociology, economics, political history, art history and other cultural history to the study of history? The answer is no. In fact, the concept was anathema until the 1960’s.

When I went to Barnard College in 1967 (the sister school to Columbia University), I was one of the first classes to be able to take an interdisciplinary major. At the time, I was old enough to understand that my father’s struggles at Columbia University in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s had cleared the path for me to be an American Studies major in the 60’s.

My father studied with Sigmund Freud in 1921 and came back to New York to help establish psychoanalysis as an accepted and respected “new” field of science. But he was also interested in sociology and thought that using psychiatry to better understand the individuals in a society would help understand the society as a whole. So he decided to study more primitive cultures (anthropology) to further establish the interrelationships between the individual (psychiatry) and the society (sociology).

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Unfortunately at the time, each academic field was considered a totally separate entity. No one was allowed to stray into another academic’s carefully guarded territory.

For more than 30 years, my father was bounced back and forth between the psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology departments. No one wanted to claim him. He was “tainted” with methodology and ideas from a different discipline. This sounds ridiculous today, but even now, the only department at Columbia that recognizes his accomplishments is the Department of Psychiatry, the department he helped found.

When I had my first child, I enrolled him in play groups and I planned to send him to preschool when he turned three. My father, once again, had been on the front-lines years before, espousing the importance of the first three years of life. He believed that early childhood intellectual and social stimulation was necessary to foster a child’s ability to learn and to adjust socially throughout it’s life. His writings became the basis for Head Start, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s program which provided pre-kindergarten for all kids. Dad also focused attention on the optimal environments for preschoolers to develop well intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

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Reading to your children, playing counting games, and talking to them — these concepts, now so familiar, became part of the standard of early child care because of my father. He helped prove, scientifically, how important these activities are both for children and for the society.

When a member of our family was ten, he had a tonsillectomy — and awoke during surgery. This resulted in PTSD as well as a myriad of other issues. Guess who was one of the first people to study PTSD and recognize it as a psychiatric syndrome?

You guessed it. My dad! He studied World War 1 veterans and built on Freud’s concept of psychiatric trauma. He published a book called “The Traumatic Neuroses of War” in 1941 but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War, in the 1970’s, that PTSD became a hot topic. Luckily, by 1991, further advancements in this field, building on my father’s work, helped our family cope with the aftermath of childhood trauma.

So, thanks Dad! You cleared the way for me to have the college major of my dreams, a well-educated toddler, and a family member with doctors who could understand and help him. I wish I could tell you your name is now known throughout the world for your amazing contributions.

But I understand and appreciate what you have contributed to society and now, maybe some blog readers will know, too.

BASKING IN THE ROSY GLOW OF A REINVENTED PAST

THE ROSY GLOW OF WHAT NEVER HAPPENED

The big day was coming up — my 50th high school reunion. I was not going, but somehow, I was on the mailing list. I found myself deluged with email from “The Reunion Group.”

I couldn’t (wouldn’t) read all of them, but every once in a while, I opened one. Just to punish myself. I was always sorry.

The discussion rambled from planning the event, to each person telling the story of his or her far-better-than-my life tale of incredible triumph, to reminiscing about the school song. Which had to be the definition of ” sublime to ridiculous.”

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We never sang that song. Not once because no one knew the words. I did because I found them goofy and memorized them for kicks.

Why do people need to transform an experience rich with a mix of memories — good, bad, and indifferent — into a Lifetime movie re-titled “the best years of our lives?” It wasn’t anyone’s best years. They cancelled our Senior Prom. Due to lack of interest. I know because I actually had a date for the prom, but he and I were the only two people who signed up, so they cancelled it. Which says a lot about the truth of those times.

A few of the “reunion list” people also went to elementary and junior high school with me. We got to know each other better than we ever wanted.
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Fifty years later, these folks are literally singing the praises of Jamaica High School —  huge, over-crowded, and sometimes dangerous. A school in which if you didn’t get into the “college-bound” group, all you got from the school was a place to sit while being bullied.

Why do these people — most of whom have, at least on the surface led a charmed life — need to cast a rosy glow over a time that wasn’t rosy? My former classmates were intent on reliving a past that never happened.

It was what it was. The whole collective stumbling down memory lane thing seemed a bizarre form of self-hypnosis — or possibly delusions. Why? It’s years later, but I don’t have a sensible answer to that.

High school was far too weird to make good fodder for a daily prompt. I didn’t go to my 50th reunion and if anyone is alive for the 55th, I still won’t. This is as close to a speech about it as I’ll ever make.

BINGE LEARNING

I could easily say that, at my age, I don’t need to learn anything new. It would be untrue. To be alive requires we learn and change.

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I’m an immersion learner. If I’m interested in something, I read everything I can find about it … these days most likely on the Internet rather than in the library. The Internet is a great thing — an unlimited library with access to everyplace on earth where knowledge is stored. Terrific for binge learners like me who get obsessed and need to find out everything.

This is no recent phenomenon in my life. I’ve always been like this, reading about whatever has grabbed my attention until I felt I knew as much as I needed to know.

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That was what was wrong with school for me. We touched on everything, but rarely got an opportunity to delve. Later, when school was finished and I was working, I began to catch up with stuff I had just tasted in high school and college.

I’m still learning, still collecting information. And that’s at least half the reason I blog, because I have a head full of stuff and this is where I can make some arguably constructive use of it.

AN ADHD SUCCESS STORY – A GUEST POST FROM DAVID KAISER

Hello everyone! I am the 35 year-old “success story,” David, that my mother Ellin wrote about in this blog entry. I put success story in quotes because, like all of us, I am still a work in progress. Frankly, have not entirely let go of the demons of growing up — and living with ADHD.

I have a few thoughts to share, especially with those still battling these demons, parents with ADD and ADHD children, as well other family members who face these challenges.

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It’s easier as an adult to see the strengths of having ADHD (hyper focus, for example), than to see it as a child. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, at least completely.

Everyone can benefit from what I was taught in college and learned on my own about dealing with learning disabilities. ADHD or LD is not a prerequisite to benefiting from being embraced and embracing yourself as an individual. I have seven non-verbal learning disabilities as well as ADHD. There was and is a lot of stuff going on.

Focus on your strengths. Use them combat your weaknesses.

No one is good at everything. Some of us are square pegs and will never fit in typically round holes. Concentrate on things you are good at. Build your career of things you do well and about which you are passionate.

Of course you need to get through school first, but even there, by focusing on what makes you special and unique, you can push through, in college more so than high school.

In college, the answer is more important than how you reach the conclusion. That’s where I struggled in high school. I would say, “I can get the answer, but not your way.” That never seemed good enough. In college, and even more in the professional world, answers are critical. Unique perspectives can prove good, as well as profitable.

Be organized! Find a way to do it comfortably and effectively. Organization helps everyone.

Never forget that everyone is an individual and unique. Encouraging all youngsters to do what they are good at and rewarding them for it would help everyone. Further, instead of telling everyone they are a “winner,” which, even to children seems disingenuous, reward them for what they do well. Help them develop a sense of purpose and pride in their individuality.

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Everyone should be taught to embrace what they do well and not forced to focus on what they do poorly. Especially not at the same time.

Everyone needs to learn math even if writing is their specialty, but if you focus on figuring out what makes someone good at writing, it will help them with math and other studies.

This would be a big improvement educationally for every child, ADHD or not.

UNLESS THE COWBOY THING WORKS OUT

My father drops me off and just leaves me there in front of the huge brick building. Little me, standing on the wide sidewalk, autumn leaves swirling around my ankles. I’ve arrived but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next. I’m four and starting kindergarten.

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Some weird timing things made me the youngest kid in the class. And the smallest.

All the other kids are bigger, taller, bulkier. I will always be the shortest or second shortest until high school, which is a long way off.

I wait for help. Eventually someone collects me, asks me my name, herds me towards a group of other little kids. Some of them are crying and all of them look lost. If a parent stuck around to watch over us, I never saw them.

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1951 was not the year for coddling kids. When the time to leave the nest came, mama birds gave a push and out you fell, tiny wings flailing.

Kindergarten was in a huge room on the ground floor. They didn’t want the wee ones getting run down by the bigger ones. Or getting lost in hallways.

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The ceilings are miles overhead and the windows go to the ceiling. Miss O’Rourke has to use a hook on a long pole to open or close them. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows.

The teacher looks ancient. Blue eyes behind steel-framed glasses and frizzy grey hair. She’s tall, talks loud … and slow. Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

When nap time comes, we’re supposed to put our blankets on the floor and sleep. I’ve never taken a nap, at least not that I can remember. And I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have one. It won’t be the last time I’m the class oddball.

Worst of all, I don’t have crayons. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons.

She’s busy. I got a new sister a few months ago. She cries all the time and mom didn’t have time to come to find out all the stuff all the other kids’ mothers know.

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I sit in a chair, very quietly, while everyone naps. Or pretends. I don’t think they’re asleep, but they all lay on the floor and pretend. Mrs. O’Rourke takes that time to write in her notebook.

It’s a long day. I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive. She doesn’t worry about me. I’ll find my way. It’s just the walk home is long and uphill. I’m tired.

I don’t know why I had to do this. All we did was play with toys. I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I’ll be 19, graduating from college. When I learn the answer, it won’t make sense. School will be where I sit around doing things slowly so other kids can catch up with me. Or math, where I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even know what questions to ask. Who needs that stuff anyhow?

I’m going to be a writer. Unless the cowboy thing works out.

PIANISSIMO

GROWING UP WITH A PIANO – STRIKE A CHORD

My mother believed that children needed not just food and a roof over their heads. We also needed culture. Art. Sculpture. Literature. Dance. Music. Moreover, a properly brought up young lady had to play an instrument.

She had grown up poor on the Lower East Side where so many immigrant groups settled after passing through Ellis Island. They didn’t have much. A tiny flat, two adults and six kids. And a piano.

No one knew where the piano came from, but it seemed to have always been there. There was no money for lessons, but my mother taught herself to play. Not brilliantly, but well enough to bang out a tune and sing along.

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When she and my father bought the house in which I grew up, a piano was the first major purchase. First a Baldwin spinet which fit neatly in a corner of the living room.

Eventually, I outgrew the spinet and for my 14th birthday, I got a Steinway living room grand.

Some of my best memories of childhood are little me, sitting on the piano bench with my mother as she sang. Mom sang all the time. Sang, hummed. Half the songs I know I learned because my mother sang them. I don’t think she realized she was singing. It was just her way.

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When I was four, my brother was deemed least likely to succeed at playing an instrument. He wasn’t completely tone-deaf, but pretty close. I, on the other hand, could pick out his music with two fingers, even though I was tiny and my feet were to short to get near the pedals. My piano teacher (formerly my brother’s piano teacher) said “Let him go play stickball. I want her.”

So began my musical career.

I was a small child. Thin, short, buck-toothed, wildly curly hair. Not a particularly pretty girl. I improved some with age. Classical beauty was never mine, but classical music was. If you had hands and gave it your heart and hands, the piano would love you in return, frizzy hair and all.

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I progressed quickly, though I was never as good technically as I needed to be. I was a good interpreter, but not a gifted performer.

The biggest problem were hands. Tiny hands. To this day, I can barely reach a 9th with either hand. Most classical music was written by men with big hands. I was at a disadvantage unless I was playing “small music” which fit my little paws. My favorite composers were Chopin and Beethoven, but I had to pick pieces to find those my hands could manage.

Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique” was my performance piece. It was a loud piece, one of the few that made the family shut up and listen. I never got used to being asked to perform, then having all the aunts engage in a lively discussion while I played. It’s a family thing, I suppose.

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I never conquered Beethoven, though I got close, sometimes. It was a struggle. I didn’t notice how much I was struggling until I got to Grieg piano sonata in e minor, Opus 7. I was 15 and it had yet to be recorded. My teacher thought I could be the one who did it.

NOTEIn the preceding performance by Glenn Gould, you hear only the first movement of this sonata. There are three more movements, totaling 28 pages of music. I like the later movements better. This is not one of the great piano performances because Gould played everything too fast.

I never worked so hard in my life as I did on that sonata. I practiced until I thought my hands would fall off and every once in a while, I managed to get it right. It was a big piece of music. After months of trying, I knew I would be almost good enough to perform that piece.

I majored in music at college for the first few years, but it wasn’t happening. Almost good enough in classical piano equals not good enough. Because for me, it was piano or nothing  — and I didn’t have it — it was over. I moved on.

I have a piano today. Electronic. The arthritis in my hands has stopped my playing, but music, especially classical, is embedded in my heart.

LIVING WITH ADHD … BEFORE IT WAS FASHIONABLE – ELLIN CURLEY

My son had ADD and ADHD in the 80’s before the diagnosis came into fashion. He was going to an expensive private elementary school in New York City. He was bouncing off the walls and “disrupting” his class.

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He spent a lot of time out in the hall, resulting in huge gaps in his basic reading, writing, and arithmetic knowledge … and only exacerbated the situation. Eventually the school called my husband and me into the office and told us our son had a problem. They told us we should get a tutor and a therapist to handle it. They could not (would not) deal with it.

We already had a therapist and didn’t think a tutor was the answer. We decided to move the whole family to our weekend home in a small Connecticut town where the public school system had a Special Ed Department. Shortly after the move to Connecticut, a new therapist diagnosed my son with ADD and ADHD. She put him on Ritalin in its most basic and unrefined form. The drug has come a long way since.

ADHDBlogRitalin was a mixed blessing. It had major side effects and only worked a few hours a day. At least we finally had a diagnosis and knew what was wrong.

The local public school had staff and programs to help my son academically and socially. We were surrounded by caring people who were at least trying to help.

Unfortunately, back then, understanding of ADHD and how to help kids with learning disabilities was very limited. In the end, all they could do was hold his hand and get him through each year. It damaged his self-esteem. He never developed confidence that he could succeed at anything.

We were lucky. We found a college in Vermont. Landmark College is solely for kids with learning problems. There, for the first time, my son was given tools to cope with his issues. He learned ways to work through and around them so he gained a sense of control over himself and his life. He began to function well. The school taught him how to build on each small success.

He learned to tell when he could get things accomplished and when it was a waste of time to try. He learned how to break each task down into manageable steps, to organize his time, work space, and work.

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He uses these skills in his job with a hedge fund in New York. He uses them to get the laundry done, to keep his house stocked with essentials.

He’s doing well now, but it saddens me to think how different he might be today if he had learned these coping skills in kindergarten rather than college. He could have skipped years of feeling inadequate, helpless, and hopeless. He might have enjoyed learning, explored other career paths. Above all, he’d feel would have felt better about himself.

Supposedly, schools and parents are better equipped in 2015 than they were thirty years go. Hopefully they have learned to support families and children with learning and behavior issues. I know there are many new drugs, presumably more refined and effective. Hopefully, new approaches to ADD and ADHD are more sophisticated. I hope kids with disabilities are given the tools to take control of themselves and their lives at an early age, before the damage is done.

That’s what I hope. Everyone talks about it, I’m just not sure what the reality is.