Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wait, What's This Called Again?

My name is Heathen, and I have a disability. It's not a physical disability, nor has it ever been diagnosed by a professional. It's self-diagnosed, but that doesn't make it any less debilitating.

My disability is a condition called “word retrieval deficit.” I think everyone has it sometimes. You know the word or name, it's on the tip of your tongue... but your brain can't quite formulate it, and you feel like an idiot. (Sometimes it's also referred to as TOT, for "tip of the tongue.") I once saw a preview for a documentary about the tobacco industry featuring an interview with a beauty pageant winner. In answer to a question, she said something along the lines of, “Well, the thing is, we're just really dependent on tobacco for the... umm, the... what's that word?” The interviewer supplied it: “Economy.” The audience in the movie theater erupted in laughter. And I thought, “Hey, just cause she forgot the word 'economy' doesn't mean she's dumb!”

It easily could have been me in that clip. I'm pretty sure some people have encountered my word retrieval issue and thought I was missing a couple of marbles. For instance, for years I worked once a month as a check-out girl at a co-op I belonged to (it's kind of famous, some might even say infamous... you may have heard of it). I loved my job, and often thought to myself, “I wish I could do this full-time. I love chatting with people and asking about their plans for the food they're buying, and it's SO much easier than teaching!”

However, there was one aspect to my check-out girl job that I hated. Every time anyone bought fruits or vegetables, which was pretty often, I'd have to look them up on my little computer alphabetically. It was here that my disability became a problem. I'm not only talking about rare foods like rutabagas or kumquats; I'm talking avocados (and it's a rare co-op shopper who goes home avocado-less). I dreaded Brussels sprouts. Cabbage was my nemesis. I think it even happened once with broccoli.

Of course, I would spot the problem food quickly and save it for last, racking my brain for the name as I scanned barcodes. Then I would pick up the food and tap through veggie names on my screen while frowning, as though I knew what I was doing but the computer was acting up. Sometimes I was able to save myself this way, by coming across the word in the computer. More often than not, though, I would give up and smile charmingly at the customer. “What's this called again?” I would say, trying to pretend it was a normal question. Usually, they would pause with disbelief, not sure if I was joking, then say “Umm... cabbage?” like they were trying to figure out what the trick was, or wondering if this seemingly normal girl in front of them was actually mentally disabled.

A few years back, I took a “science for teachers” course in Costa Rica (best course EVER). One day, our assignment was to apprentice with a local craftsperson, and I was assigned, along with my sweet young classmate Grayson, to a furniture maker. It was great: we spent the day sanding and sawing, and by the end of it we had built a table. Grayson had taken about 8 years of Spanish in school, and I have never studied it, but he was very shy, and I ended up doing most of the talking (I'm good at getting by in languages even when I don't speak them). At one point, the furniture maker wanted to ask Grayson a question and turned to me to translate, but couldn't recall Grayson's name. “Como se llama?” he asked me. All of a sudden I had no idea. “No entiendo,” I replied. “Co-mo se ll-a-ma?” he repeated, very slowly. I cast a horrified glance at Grayson; why didn't he answer? Surely he must understand at least THIS much Spanish! The situation got even worse when the furniture maker managed to utter his first English words of the day: “Wat hees name?” In my mind, I was trying to go through as many male names as I could: Sam? Chris? Michael? Robert? Of course, I was NEVER going to come up with Grayson. Thankfully, at this point Grayson saved me by supplying the furniture maker with his name.

I like to think that I've learned to cope pretty well. Before interviews, I mentally go over words I'll probably need, like “constructivism” and “balanced literacy” (just now, it took me about five minutes to come up with that last one; I had to go on and then come back). When I'm taking a class and want to share my thoughts, I carefully think through what I'm going to say before I raise my hand. But still, there are moments when you just need to use the word “cabbage” and discover with horror that your mind is completely empty.

I've stopped feeling bad about it. It's even happened to me in interviews, and I just laugh and say, “Sorry, I have problems with word retrieval,” and move on. After all, it's the 21st century. Everybody has a disability.

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