When I was in the 4th grade at St. Joan of Arc school, the Sister who taught me (her name long gone) wrote on my report card, “Dennis is a very bright young man, but he is a dreamer.” Both my parents and I would have felt a bit better about it if she had replaced the conjunction with a simple semi-colon: “Dennis is a bright young man; he is a dreamer.” It would have felt more like a compliment. But, alas, this seemed to echo what most of my teachers said. I was only remotely attached to what was going on around me, but I had an active internal world.
Thus, years later, I became a great fan of Calvin, who would regularly be rudely awakened from some elaborate dream by his teacher hovering over him and the sounds of a laughing class. Been there…. lots of times. I liked school work. I really did. I particularly liked worksheets, word puzzles…any sort of deskwork really. I was worst at paying attention to what was going on at the board. Now this might be explained by when the folks with the eye charts visited St. Joan’s and informed me that I was severely nearsighted (20/400)…..which helped to explain why I did not know what was going on at the blackboard or hit a fastball. I was immediately fitted with glasses…you know, those clear ones that Mom said no one would even notice…but by then my learning strategies had been set and my interior world was simply too omnipresent to let in much information from the outside. This also explained why I always sat immediately in front of the TV…like a foot away. While my new specks brought the world into focus, I retained the ability to check in and out of the present…Meredy would say, to this day. If I was watching a TV show or reading a book, people could speak and then shout at me and I would dream happily on. Then I’d wake to hear everyone laughing. “Dennis is a daydreamer” was a label that stuck with me through school. My test scores were high; my attention span, at least for certain things, very low. I tried to pay attention, but there was too much competition with the fantasies that kept creeping in, the small connections, the detours…what later Buddhist teachers would call my monkey mind.
In college, after years of frustration at having to go back and read a paragraph twice…or more precisely, to find the word or sentence that sent my mind off on a tangent, and I would slowly, often with a pencil pointed at the page, re-find the meaning of the passage. I began to break all of the rules that I was taught about the sin of pointing to the page as I read and began reading with pen or pencil. In this way I could put the point down on the page and let my mind drift for a moment, make a few relevant or irrelevant connections, and pick up the passage again. Also, college let me actively read with a pencil or a highlighter and I began to write notes on the margins, a practice frowned upon in high school as the books were not mine. (In fact, I discovered that I could read as almost as quickly as my pen could run over a page.) This made a huge difference for me.
Yet, as I write this now, I do not regret so much what I missed on the blackboard, but I do often wish I had been more present and aware of the world around me when I was young, for it would have helped in the years that followed. On some levels, I was deeply involved. I was fascinated by the world: by new things, new people, ideas, art, architecture, music, and the exploration of new places. But I believe that I was also blind to other people’s needs. Ignorant of bigotry at a time that the Civil Rights movement was rising, it was just a blip on my radar that a black family moved into the house on our corner then abruptly moved out a few months later …or as I later came to learn, were bought out by neighbors. I would finish a drink and toss the bottle from my bike, just as by high school, I would toss my cigarette butts out the car window or leave my beer cans on the beach. I was also oblivious to the possibility that other kids might also feel inadequate, lost, confused, apprehensive, anxious or depressed. In fact, a large part of my childhood was spent under the suspicion that everyone else knew what was going on but me, that reality was all some elaborate hoax…one day a curtain would be raised and the Wizard or God or whoever was running the show would reveal themselves, the cast of players would step out for a bow and we would all have a good laugh…or not. Perhaps I am still waiting.