i can’t hear you


I rarely talk about my stroke anymore, I am so determined to put it behind me. But occasionally, I’ll be reminded that I’m not exactly the same person I once was, and it takes me a little while to absorb that fact. Sure, we’re not the same person we were just 24 hours ago, because of all the things that happen to us in a day and all those things change us in tiny ways…but when you are changed by illness, especially at a younger age, there’s a sense that your life was…disrupted, that these changes don’t come about by normal process. Of course, illness is a part of life, but there’s an anger/discouragement attached to that…disruption.

I’ve been back to 99% with a few palpable differences for about a year now. A couple differences: I now like beer (I used to hate it), I have huge empathy with people who have learning disabilities, especially those who don’t have very visible/obvious disabilities.

Also–the stroke damaged my verbal/auditory short term memory the most. I had quite a few tests measuring brain functionality in the months following the stroke, and they all indicated an almost 100% loss of verbal learning. Over time, much of my brain function returned (the things I missed most and were glad to see back: being able to HAVE a short term memory..and my coping skills, so that I wouldn’t break down and cry or fly into a rage at every insult or setback). Apparently, the thalamus helps with coping mechanisms.

But these days, my verbal short term memory is still very nearly absent. I am not an auditory learner. I took a test alongside my students trying to figure out if we’re 1) auditory learners, 2) visual learners, or 3) kinesthetic learners. Many of the students came out in some sort of combination, with no one single learning style dominating. But when we shared our scores, everyone was surprised: I had nearly zero auditory learning capability. What I had suspected was confirmed.

That means–if you introduce yourself to me, and I don’t see your name written down (or quickly figure out a visual mneumonic device like “Robert is wearing a red scarf. R for Robert. R for Red. Robert. Robert. Robert. RED SCARF!….what was his name? Red scarf?”), it is nearly impossible for me to remember you. This was painfully obvious to me at a literary reading the other night when the other writers and I introduced ourselves to each other in a noisy room. I had to ask them several times what their names were, and still struggled. (The next day, when our group picture was published on the web, with our names written down underneath, I learned their names immediately–precisely because it was all visually enabled learning).

Now, some of you may think this is completely normal, and it may still fall within normal range–but for me, this is a CHANGE from who I used to be. I used to remember names like a wizard. (Now that I teach, I take the student roster and read it over and over again and over and over again so that I can memorize student names within 2-3 classes. It’s important to know people’s names).

At the reading, I stuck to the two other writers who were the kindest to me. I have learned that memory can also go through the emotional center/avenue of the brain–even in the day after my stroke when I was most addled, I remembered the name of my wonderful neurologist, and I couldn’t figure out why I remembered him and no one else. Two years later, my thoughtful primary care physician told me that I probably remembered him because he was kind, and his name was processed by the emotional center of the brain, bypassing normal avenues. Ahhh–and so to this day, if you are kind to me, I will probably remember your name even in a crowded room where your name isn’t written down.

Afterwards, a few Stegner Fellows introduced themselves. I asked for their names over and over–I still didn’t remember. Alas, there is no picture of them on the web with their names written underneath, so their names are now lost to me.

I have always favored one on one interaction over group interaction, but these days I avoid group interaction because it reminds me of the ways in which I struggle.

This deficit has helped me as a teacher, because I try to engage all learning styles: I will write things on the board, read what I’ve put on the board, I will pass out handouts, and then read what’s on the handout. I will put students in small groups, and have them act out exercises. When there’s class discussion, I’ll write key words on the board. After small groups, students will write their answers up on the board. I try to incorporate auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles in my classroom, and at the same time, tell my students that many other teachers will just lecture and expect them to take notes (and thus I teach them note taking skills). I understand what it’s like when a teacher makes you learn in a way that is impossible to you.

When the school year began, I enrolled in a workshop to learn about all the district’s teaching software. The instructor sat us in front of computers, gave us handouts, and then said, “Do NOT turn on the computers. Do NOT touch the computers! Don’t open the handouts! Just LISTEN TO ME.”

Oh.My.G*d. I wanted to scream. None of what he said was going into my brain. I wanted to take notes, because instinctively, that was a way to visualize what he was saying, but he chided me for writing on the handout that was not to be touched. I put down my pen and gave him a dirty look. I wanted to walk out of the room. I suddenly empathized with students who have behavioral problems, I was so frustrated with the situation and my own helplessness. I was furious. I sighed.

I raised my hand and asked, “I am not an auditory learner. Can you please put something up on the screen? Can I open the handout?”

He said no. I was so mad, I disregarded him from that moment on. I tuned out.

Acceptance. It’s hard. Friends tell me this loss of mental ability/memory is just old age–and it very well could be (is 36 old?), and many times, I do shrug it off. I’m grateful to be in the place I’m in now–to be able to write, to just be myself again, to experience life and all its details. But occasionally, like when I’m at a party and I can’t remember people’s names, and I feel like I’m coming off like an absent minded dork for not remembering when everyone else can…I’m reminded of who I am now.



Filed under Life, The Stroke

20 responses to “i can’t hear you

  1. This is an amazing and important lesson on learning and kindness and . . . wow, thank you. My father used to tell a story of rushing to class and nearly colliding with another professor, who asked him, “Are you going to teach your students as much as you can teach in an hour, or are you going to teach them as much as they can learn?”

  2. heather

    This is such a good reminder for all of us. I love running discussion-based classes, but I have to remind myself that a lot of people need visuals, even if it’s just writing key ideas on a blackboard. (And, ironically, classes without visuals often left me clueless when I was a student.)

    FWIW, my colleague takes a photo of each of his students early in the semester, with each student holding up a sign w/ his or her name. This way, he learns their names. He’s not apologetic about it at all–and he definitely knows all of their names, often years later.

    • Elizabeth and heather: i have learned so much from both of you, teachers who really excel at what you do, and teachers who show such great compassion!

      Elizabeth: what a great quote. I wish more teachers kept that question in mind.

      heather: I’m glad that you accommodate all learning styles. I love how your colleague does the picture thing! What a great memento, too.

  3. anonwupfan

    I had a professor that would have us all make nameplates out of 3X5 index cards. He’d collect them all at the end of class and have us pass them back out in the beginning. Nobody thought anything of it.

    Few people (thankfully!) know what it is like to not remember ANY of the names at the party. As someone who knows, thanks for taking your readers along.

    Keep shrugging. –AWUPF

  4. Such a moving post, Jade. You sound like a wonderful and compassionate teacher.

  5. I agree that was a moving post. I was lucky to have great teachers growing up, and it’s great to see that there still are great teachers out there.


  6. If you’re interested, I would love to be added to your sites or blog roll.


  7. When are we going to share a beer?

    It’s difficult to explain to people that even when all test results are back to normal, your memory and emotions can still be different than before.

    It doesn’t help that I work with geniuses at MIT. It’s intimidating when you’re doubting your own brain when you know every other brain in the room is breaking neurological speed records.

    • thank you everyone, for all the encouragement and your insights!

      Andrew: Yes, we need to share a beer, so we can give each other an in-person high five for getting through it all, and for welcoming our new selves to the world. πŸ™‚ If I ever get out to MIT, I will def give you a heads up.

  8. Eve

    Jade, I was thinking that a dirty look is not enough for this professor. You’re not the only student he’ll ever have with a similar difference; as a forerunner for all of them, what’s wrong with stating, “X years ago I had a stroke that left me with zero ability to process by hearing alone; therefore I need to take notes. If you have a problem with this, I’ll be happy to discuss ADA requirements with you after class. In the meantime, I beg your pardon for taking notes.”

    This man needs educating. As many as 6% of his students will have some type of learning disability, and as many as 10% a processing disorder. Time for him to come into the modern era.

    • Eve–he was such a l0zer–part of why I was sooo angry at him was that I did just that. I raised my hand and told him I had had a stroke which left me with almost no verbal/auditory learning capabilities, so I need to take notes, or log on and fiddle around. He said no dice. I told him “that’s not fair, how am I to learn?” and he just chuckled at me. I was fuming. At that point, I lost all ability to respond rationally and so I shut down.

      • anonwupfan

        I’m pretty sure at that point you can just take notes anyway and kick him in the stones if he gets too close

        …or maybe just whip out ye olde Jade Park Poisoned Pen and have at a letter to numbnutz’ boss.

        …or a full-page ad in the SF Comical.

        Sorry, I’m out for blood on this –god, what a jerk!

        • yah. i just waive him off as ignorant. i’ve been through worse, like rampant cruel racism…and friends who were insensitive during my recovery–so a random ignorant teacher doesn’t elicit as much rage out of me. just a big sigh. πŸ™‚

      • anonwupfan

        The ignorant are OK, they just need an education. No one should get away with being that insensitive to someone’s learning requirements in a professional environment.

        Now if he wants to be a jerk to people on his own time, well that’s his problem.

  9. (followed a link from Shakesville)

    I’m a reaserch coordinator for a brain injury research foundation, and in that capacity, I see a lot of data from the studies we (and other sites) run. One thing that stands out again and again when we look at life outcomes (we’re not just interested in short-term effects!) is that adjustment to a new way of thinking is deeply frustrating. “Well, of course”, you are thinking, but it’s amazing how many people refuse to understand that simple fact.

    I also teach life-enrichment classes for adults (and I’m a historical interpreter for a museum in Virginia), and looking at the many different ways in which adults learn (at 36, you’re 4 years younger than me, young’un!) has also been incredibly valuable to me as I hone my teaching skills. But it’s been reading blogs like yours that has prompted me to be much more aware of the different ways that people struggle with an unaccomodating society, and made me be much more aware of the ways in which I teach.

    I want to be the teacher that not only helps everyone in my class, but the kind of teacher who doesn’t make anyone feel othered, just because their learning methods don’t fall into lock-step with “standard” forms of teaching. Everyone should be able to learn in the manner that produces the best results for them.

    Thank you. πŸ™‚

    • attack_laurel–thank you for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment! I know you must be an awesome teacher, and I commend you for doing such good and supportive work. Thank YOU.

  10. Hello. I’m 45. I had a stroke fourteen months ago. My right arm and leg are still pretty much gone. But my mind is very slowly getting better. It’s still hard; maybe 20% better now. In any case, I read your case, and I sympathize, and I root for you.

    • Hi Scraps
      It will get better–it takes awhile, but it does get better. I wrote a lot on this blog (I could write “in-the-moment”) throughout the recovery process, and there were times I felt VERY frustrated at the pace with which I recovered, and the lack of support…but know that it will get better. Do you know about strokenet? (http://www.strokeboard.net/) It helped me out a lot when I felt particularly isolated.

      I root for you, too. πŸ™‚ It’s been three years since my stroke–it was a tough road at times, and support makes all the difference.

  11. I feel a little embarrassed to admit this, but I rock at remembering names and I honestly would always be a little judge-mental about people who couldn’t. Unintentionally I would categorize such people as being somewhat of an egomaniac, assuming they just weren’t taking out the extra few seconds to remember a name. Thank you so much for writing this post… my grandfather had a terrible stroke in his later years and my aunt recently had one as well. With two such close family members having had strokes, I should’ve thought twice before placing judgement on others but it wasn’t till reading this blog of yours that it even occurred to me that sometimes even when one wants to remember something, tries even, they perhaps just can’t. I’ll try to be more aware of this the next time I catch myself getting frustrated. Thanks again!!

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