Part I: Living with a Disability—Before ADA, Assistive Technology and Enlightened Attitudes

I was born to Gustav and Maria Anderson on October 7, 1931 in Worcester, MA. I was given oxygen to […]

I was born to Gustav and Maria Anderson on October 7, 1931 in Worcester, MA. I was given oxygen to begin life. My mother wasn’t allowed to see me for hours after birth. She was at wit’s end as she’d lost a son two years before during childbirth. Outside of these concerns, I seemed to be a normal child.

Around the time I began to spoon-feed myself, my mother noticed that my right hand would begin to shake when close to my mouth. This became a daily condition of great concern to her. The doctor—who had also brought me into the world—was confronted.

He assured my mother that this was nothing to worry about and I would most assuredly grow out of it. My parents and sister, Gerda, had immigrated from Sweden in 1926, so the doctor’s word was gospel as he came from Swedish immigrant parents. And in his defense, “essential tremor” (what my condition came to be called) was not in the medical books at that time.

All of my mother’s friends wanted to know—sometimes not too kindly—how her son was coming along with his eating. This was the early 1930s, in a ghetto where only Swedish was spoken, and gossip was the major entertainment of the day. Sounds cruel—and it was.

The big test would be how I made out in school. Trouble began in the first and second grades. This was when we got the small pencils and began writing and doing math problems. I had to do something to control my shaking so I could impress my teachers. First I tried bearing down on the pencil to steady my condition, but this proved disastrous. I would no more sharpen the pencil and I was heading back to the sharpener. This called attention to me.

A few words about the teachers in the thirties. City public school teachers couldn’t be married; once employed, they hesitated to leave for a life of marital bliss. They kept their jobs and waited out their pensions. Teachers could work well into their seventies—not an ideal situation. This practical choice caused the teachers to be very disheartened. Tolerance was not in abundance.

By the third grade, I had begun to use my left hand to guide the right, with some success. There was, however, no way I could keep up with most of my classmates. About this time, I began making a fool of myself to get their attention. This got me front row/right seat through most of grammar school. Although I became popular, my report cards spelled disaster.

My behavior got me to the principal’s office on a regular basis. Among the several hundred pupils in the school, the principal came to know my full name and my mother’s particularly well. I look back with regret as my mom had enough trouble with the English language without the principal telling her that I was a bother in class. However, she believed that I had done nothing wrong as I had convinced her it was the bad teacher.

Around fourth or fifth grade we began penmanship with pen and ink. Whether I did the “bear-down method” or used the left hand as a steady rest, the result was a mess. Moving in a downward motion was OK but the upward motion sprayed ink all over.

Fortunately, most of my school friends were fairly high achievers. They gave me help with difficult endeavors and at times I felt almost their equal. They became my confidantes and mentors. They gave me something to mimic and goals to follow that had nothing to do with handwriting. Two fellows in particular were involved with the choirs in their respective churches. I, too, got involved with the children’s choir in the local Lutheran church.

Another friend and I spent Saturdays in either the historical society or the art museum. This friend’s family had been in the area for decades with ancestors as far back as the Revolution. I sort of associated myself with his historic background. Another outlet for me.

However, kids can be mean. To those who weren’t my friends, I was known as “wacky” and “shaky,” and it was said that I must have masturbated to cause such a condition. To compensate, I would play the part of a clown by making silly gestures to gain recognition. This distraction was temporary and my contortions would do me more harm than good as they always led to reprimands.

Even teachers were sarcastic, especially when I got promoted to the next grade. Writing my name in the class register was a particular problem. One time the new teacher was standing beside me when the register was handed to me. With that extra set of eyes bearing down on me, the shaking became worse, as did the writing. Her pointed question was: “What seems to be your problem?” In my rather childish manner I tried to explain, but I don’t think it came out right.

One’s scholastic records and a report on one’s situation would precede a promotion, so I’m sure this teacher knew of the problem and welcomed me with lowered expectations. On two occasions, I was kept back half a year because of my marks. Our reporting system went A through D, where D was failing. I never saw an “A” and very seldom a “B,” except in music and art. Conduct? Even now I’m embarrassed to think of that grade on my report card.

I continued to pay my regular visits to the principal’s office and was introduced to the dreaded “red tan.” This is where the principal would take one of your hands and hit it with a ruler until it was red. Ten to twelve hits per hand would do the trick. You would think that I would get the message. Every time I realized that my behavior was pushing the envelope, it was too late and I was on my way again.

A little about Mom. Coming to this country was not her choice. The whole experience was my dad’s idea. Many a day I would see her sobbing at the kitchen table. She had left her parents and seven siblings in Sweden with the possibility of never seeing them again. Not long after she lost her first son she lost her mother. Dad had trouble finding and keeping a job due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. All this made my mother vulnerable to my lack of good judgment plus she felt guilty for my shaking. In those days, such a guilt complex was common to Swedish immigrants.

Standing at the threshold of being held back from graduation, I had a major decision to make: I could continue pulling at my mom’s heartstrings with “poor me, you don’t like me because my hand shakes,” or change my ways.

A change in our circumstances helped me at this time. My parents moved to the country, where I would join them later. In the meantime, I remained in town with Gerda to finish this stage of my schooling. She had come to this country at an early age—she knew the school system and that homework was a way of life. Plus, she had no sympathy for the shaking and ran a tight ship. Needless to say, I graduated from grammar school.

In 1946, trade school was the place for troubled or less gifted students. All the educators encouraged my parents to enroll me in a trade school. I knew that wasn’t for me. Most of my friends had enrolled in a college curriculum and I wanted that as well.

Luck struck again for me. The school system in the country, where I’d joined my parents, didn’t have a trade school connection and thus I had only one choice: a business curriculum. Not exactly what I wanted but it was high school. At first I thought this would be a new start and maybe a change that would be good for my future. However, once I got involved with the students and the teachers, the “old” me came back. The new school, new students and new home took their toll.

Homeroom began with filling out the register again and all my neighbors were curious as to why I couldn’t write like them. I got through that without the teacher being involved. I guess I was used to sitting front row/right side and there I was again with an audience. The teacher wrote her name on the board as an introduction to the year. As she wrote she said, “Good morning, my name is Miss Themisticlese.” From my seat came, “What’s your first name, honey?” Miss T., as we called her, didn’t know what to say as this was her first teaching position. The class just hooted and I became famous. I had arrived, right back to what I had left.

I must say though that both the students and the teaching staff treated me so much better—not exactly as a special person but with encouragement I had never experienced. However, my scholastic background didn’t do a thing for me and was compounded by the shaking. I would get discouraged. I couldn’t keep up with my pals. They never said too much about my state of affairs and I was never made fun of. It bothered me, but not them.

Watch for Part II of this article in May.

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