Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
This exceptional memoir was written by Writopia Lab writer Leanna S. She started writing it during a 2007 summer writing workshop, continued developing it during her fall and winter workshops, and read an earlier version of it as part of the Barnes & Noble event. Leanna's writing style, honesty, and insight has moved everyone who has had the pleasure of reading or hearing her most recent piece. I am so proud to be able to share it with our blog readers!
By Leanna S.
8th Grader & 2007 Scholastic Silver Key Winner
Waves lapped gently against the shore, and a cool breeze flowed through the open window. Ripples cast by the wind danced across the tranquil ocean and my brother’s deep breaths echoed through the bedroom. I was only eight at the time, and my dad and I were speaking in gentle whispers at our house in Long Beach. August was coming to a close, and the new school year was drawing inexorably nearer. I had been eagerly anticipating my brother Ethan’s company in school that year: picturing myself as a superior third grader stopping to wave to my little brother in the hall like so many of my other friends had done to their younger siblings. The stillness of the moment made it so serene, but the lull of my dad’s voice brought me back into the moment.
“Ethan just doesn’t understand things the way you and I do, which is why he is going to Churchill and not Heschel,” my dad told me. “He doesn’t learn things in the way that the rest of us do.”
At that moment, I didn’t really have an understanding of what I had just been told. At eight years old, perhaps I hadn’t really started to comprehend what the more significant ramifications of living with a sibling with learning disabilities would entail. But from what I had understood, I was upset at every image of Ethan and I at school together being crushed, gone, and finished like the ocean receded back into the tide.
Looking back on this, my inability to anticipate what might emanate from an event like this is surprising. Later I would discover that our attendance of different schools made up a marginal fraction of the disappointment I would experience next.
Over the course of the preceding year, my parents, with the help of a slew of occupational therapists had diagnosed my brother with learning disabilities, and they had been faced with the challenge of finding a special school that would cater to his special needs.
September opened with me at Heschel for third grade, and my brother at Churchill starting kindergarten – no significant changes, as we had been attending different schools thus far in our lives. Like the ominous calm of the ocean in the morning I had remembered so well from the house in Long Beach, the year had for the most part slipped by, untouched and unnoticed.
But when Ethan entered first grade, things changed.
The first year of homework. My brother had always been particularly gifted in reading, math, English, social studies… basically any subject offered in a first grade class you could think of, my brother could do. You would think my brother would have had a pretty easy time, but he couldn’t apply the skills that had come so naturally to him to his class work, simply because he felt no incentive to do so.
Then came the rise of the reward system.
My parents began to offer my brother a reward, sometimes a new game boy cartridge, or an inexpensive toy that my brother had his eye on, in exchange for a week of completing homework and class work on time and without protest. Later this reward system extended beyond the confines of homework and class work. Gifts were offered to my brother on a regular basis for things as simple as getting dressed in the morning, and getting to bed on time at night.
Ethan had gotten into the habit of making these annoying sounds, and in order to get my brother to control those impulses, they started rewarding him when he stopped with the sounds. I remember one Saturday Ethan had just walked his friend Orli to the door after they had spent the afternoon together. The slam of our front door meant two things: the end of Orli’s visit, and the beginning of my brother’s irritating fortissimo. I heard my brother’s feet thudding away from the door as he burst through the house with a tornado of energy imitating a Nintendo character, probably a character in his new Game Cube game he recently received for stopping making the noise. I practically exploded with rage—I knew my brother was capable of controlling what my parents thought were “involuntary noises” because all afternoon when he was with Orli they had stopped, but as soon as she left he chose to start with the sounds again. I was furious with my parents for rewarding my brother for something so infantile, furthermore, something he was unmistakably competent of restraining.
I was ten years old at the time, and I didn’t understand that my brother needed further incentive to do certain things, but I did notice that my parent were rewarding my brother for things like getting dressed and doing his homework, things they had taken for granted when I did.
As time went on, so did the reward system, and I began to get angry. I didn’t care that my brother was getting all these neat toys and gadgets; I was just utterly baffled and furious at the fact that I wasn’t receiving such attention. I tried to coax myself into believing that I didn’t need those sorts of rewards. C’mon Leanna, you don’t need any stupid game boy cartridges to do your math homework, or any buzz lightyear water gun to get to bed on time, or sometimes, Leanna, that’s so infantile, don’t be like Ethan, don’t let him and his stupid prizes bog you down.
But over time anger just morphed into plain jealousy, jealousy no amount of buttering up to myself would be able to fix. I knew the truth was that Ethan’s “stupid rewards” had gotten me embroiled in a conflict, and I wanted those childish rewards for going to bed on time, whether I really needed that kind of motivation was lost in the conflict. With every new reward, I grew more insanely jealous, my parents tried to explain their motivations behind the system, and to some degree, I understood my brother’s lack of incentive, but any sort of understanding was wasted on my complete and utter resentfulness for the reward system for Ethan’s seemingly trivial accomplishments.
The reward system bothered me, but Ethan never received anything I actually wanted until we got our laptops. Well, until he got his laptop. For many months two years ago I had been studying and preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, and I used some of the gift money I had received to buy myself a laptop. A few weeks after my expenditure, my parents bought Ethan a laptop for particularly good work in school, something I paid for out of my own pocket, but something Ethan received for seemingly (or what seemed to me as) effortless endeavors. I wasn’t jealous; I was just seething with rage. It didn’t make sense to me that my parents who had been trying to teach both of us money management skills would go ahead and deprive me of a laptop, and at the same time take money our of their own pockets so my brother (and frankly, I don’t think it was so necessary that he have his own computer in the third grade) could have one.
Over time, anger and jealousy transformed into sadness—the sadness of loss, as I was beginning to be exposed to exactly what I was missing out on in having a brother like Ethan. As my brother and I got older, and I began to spend more time at friend’s houses with their younger siblings, I noticed that their relationships with their younger siblings were a lot different than the way Ethan and I would interact with each other. My friends would involve their siblings in board games, like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, and on occasion when I would stay over for dinner, oft times involved younger siblings in debates while they ate. I was over at my best friend’s house, and we were all taking part in a discussion about communism, particularly enjoying the insight of her brother, who is only a few months younger than Ethan. But at my house, over Friday night dinner, my parents and I were sharing summer camp experiences, and of course, Ethan feels it is absolutely necessary that he interject with an intriguing account of when he and his friends pelted the girls’ bunks with rocks, a tale he later informed us was completely made up.
My dad and I had always been enthusiastic about living room board games, namely Scrabble, and an occasional game of Monopoly. When my brother was younger, my dad and I played alone, but over the past couple of years, when my brother was eight or nine, we’ve tried to included him in our Saturday afternoon Scrabble games, only to be disappointed when his interest in the game is short-lived. When we would play Scrabble about halfway through the game Ethan would say, “I’m bored,” or “I’m tired,” and excuse himself from the table and run to his room. In Monopoly, he lost interest toward the beginning of the game, so my dad would start helping manage his money because Monopoly is no fun with only two people. This prompted me to implement the rule, “No financial advisors in Monopoly.” More often than not, this sent Ethan crying to his room saying, “Leanna, you’re just a sore loser and both of you don’t want me to play.” Ethan grew tired of our games so quickly, which indicated to us that he didn’t have the patience to play.
I had never been interested in the kind of learning disability Ethan had, I guess something about knowing what he had was a little discerning, it was almost as if knowing what he had would make it all more real. But as of lately, I’ve seen some of my parents’ books lying around; titles include Parenting with ADHD, and advice on how to give “positive discipline.” For about a year or so, Ethan has been on a medication that helps him control his impulses and helps him pay attention, usually I wake up when the medicine has already started to kick in, so usually we are together when the medicine gets the best of him.
Recently we vacationed in Vancouver, where Ethan and I shared a room and were spending a lot more time together than usual. On our trip, I witnessed what Ethan was like before the medication kicked in.
It was a nightmare.
Ethan would always wake up so early, and in the midst of rummaging through his backpack to find something to do (which of course he did in the most inconsiderate fashion) he invariably woke me up. I was not very pleased with this early morning jolt, and it didn’t help that Ethan had already started with the noises and was seemingly incapable of responding to the word, “Stop.” He had a retort for every comment I could possibly, and the noises and the comebacks in collaboration with the early hour got me fuming.
I yelled at him.
That got mom and dad’s attention through the connecting door. Dad came in and told Ethan to stop, and of course, with the direction from my dad, he discontinued the sounds. He told Ethan to please leave and get dressed in the other room, and Ethan padded out of the room like the innocent little angel he could feign so well.
I was sitting on the bed, and my dad stood up next to me. Almost like a huge wave about to come crashing down on me, I had nowhere to run to, I knew what was coming. “Lee, you can’t get so angry like that. You have to understand that you can’t get from zero to 60. You need to learn to manage that anger. Do you get that heated up with your friends?”
Well of course I don’t! They never do anything to set me over the edge like that obnoxious little creep. He’s the one with the problem—so instead of understanding what a pain he is, you’re going to try to diagnose me with anger management issues!
But of course I couldn’t say that, unless I wanted a week of allowance dockage, maybe two.
“Okay, I’ll try to control it more next time.”
“It makes me sad to see you two treating each other like that. One day, you guys will need each other, to make grave decisions, to commiserate with each other when me and mom aren’t around anymore, and to share happy occasions, and it’s important that you don’t treat each other like that.”
“Sorry, I said I’d try to control myself next time.”
At that moment I was more than furious. If he was sad that me and Ethan may not be able to make those sorts of grave decisions together one day, then I was devastated. He is my brother, so I’m doing the decision making with him, and not dad.
This is where the memoir ended when I read it at Barnes & Noble in front of my dad and 50 other adults at a reading my writing class sponsored.
As I read I saw my dad grinning in his seat, and occasionally we exchanged nervous smiles. When I took my seat next to him after I came down from the podium, I was most taken aback by his reaction. “It was good. Just it was an overstatement. An exaggeration. At least in some parts. When have I ever rewarded Ethan for getting dressed in the morning?”
I explained that it was a reflection of my experience, and that he was perfectly capable of recording his own perception of what happened in his own memoir. After the reading nothing had changed, except for the occasional texts that my dad sent to my cell phone saying, “Now I’m the poster boy for bad parenting.”
But a month or so later, after my parent teacher conference, my dad left me a message saying how proud he was, and that he took notes to show to my grandparents. During dinner they told me what a privilege it was to have been able to come and hear the teachers at the conferences. That night my parents came home with an iTunes gift card to show me just how proud they were. That weekend my dad ordered me two books, and when I asked him why, he responded with, “No reason.”
My writing teacher asked how it felt, to receive a reward in the same way my brother did. “I dunno…” I said. “It felt weird.” The gifts wouldn’t help me do better in school, I thought to myself. I wasn’t going to work harder because I knew that in the end my parents would have a present for me. It’s weird, rather, that this sort of thing works for Ethan, that an inanimate object could provide an incentive and represent the pride of my parents after an accomplishment. But on the other hand, I guess it was always nice for him to know that someone would buy him something just because they were proud.
“Weird?” She asked.
“Yeah. Like good-weird. Kinda like I didn’t deserve it.” Read more!