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My Kind of Brain

My Kind of Brain

By Melck Kuttel

unnamedThrough the human eye, letters form up at attention, their ranks splitting off to make squads commonly known as words. Most can keep these letters at attention, preventing them from falling off the line. Yet, my page differs: the letters seem to dance. My eye lacks control, and my ranks fall into disarray. Words of grotesque nature form and then split off to form other unintelligible scribbles. I try hard but can only get the letters to make simple ranks for short periods, and then the renegades resume their crazed dance, defying my authority.

A child’s path to “readerhood” is crucial in helping him or her become a functioning member of society. Many children start the journey with clear skies and a calibrated GPS system, mastering key fundamentals at young ages. My journey was filled with snake pits and hailstorms. Many years went by and I was still battling the armies of vowels. After a semester of grade two in South Africa, a teacher recognized that I needed remedial help. I followed her recommendation to attend a school designed for kids confronting a difficult path to “readerhood.” I doubt I would be where I am today had I not followed this life-changing suggestion.

My journey as a dyslexic student has granted me the luxury of assimilating knowledge in different ways. After all, a curious mind can find answers in the most unexpected places. When I couldn’t rely on letters to conform, I focused on words spoken, landscapes traversed, cultures observed, and teachers dedicated to their trade. While I have become a strong reader, I am fortunate to have retained the ability to look beyond text and written words to find meaning.

Faces tell stories that are often in direct contradiction to the facts at hand. On a family trip to Kenya, we visited rural villages with people living below the poverty line on the global economic scale. Yet the joy and warmth radiating from those we met told a story of resilience and ingenuity. I saw, through the power of observation–the same intelligence beyond reading that I was compelled to develop when words would not join my army.

I have grown to have a certain level of affection for my dyslexic brain. How else could I accept the fact that a mistakenly inverted chemical formula meant to be a common household item, could end up causing a nuclear reaction? Only a dyslexic brain could easily discern the inversion.

It would take a versatile learning style, employing all my senses, to fully engage my global education. This style accompanied my dyslexia. I attended lower school in southern hemisphere sunshine in South Africa. School uniforms were mandatory, but shoes were optional. We played rugby and cricket, and had lessons in the shade of the canopy trees when it became too hot to be inside. On Flag Day we sang N’Kosi Sikeleli, and I carried an American flag on stage to sing “America the Beautiful.”
Then, at fourteen, I spent a semester at a ski program in Switzerland. I found myself gazing at the Alps wondering what possessed Hannibal to attempt them with his herd of elephant! This country with four official languages, had 450 different varieties of Swiss cheese, with further “variety within the varieties”, which the locals told me was a combination of vegetation and techniques passed from one generation to the next. We studied European history, and Swiss Mountain Guides taught us how to read snow and avalanche conditions. We watched weather to predict whether we would be skiing ice or powder from the way the crystals set up on our jackets. By then, I was a reader but reading comprehension alone could not have guaranteed success in these places. Thanks to my dyslexia, I had the foundation to employ multiple paths of engagement, which helped me draw as much meaning out of these experiences as possible.

Melck is a freshman at University of Southern California and a 2014 graduate of the Brentwood College School in Vancouver.

Living the Opera

Living the Opera

By Giorgi Ben-Meir

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 9.20.16 AMHand in hand, I walked with my older brother Sam into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. He was twenty-four and I was five. We were there to see Georges Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen. Sam had secured some tickets all the way at the back of the main auditorium, but none of his friends could make it. At my parents’ suggestion, he took me.

That evening ranks as one of my earliest and most cherished memories. I still remember the seemingly endless stairs I had to climb, the feel of the red velvet on my chair, and the awe the performance inspired in me. As the curtains drew back and the overture began, beautiful music reverberated throughout the hall and I was transfixed. After that evening, so my brother tells me, I pestered him endlessly to take me again. And so the opera became a way that my brother and I, separated by two decades and two different mothers, grew close.

At seven, I saw The Marriage of Figaro and was awed by Susanna, the countess’ maid. My dreams of singing her arias at the Met had already been my retreat from the unpleasantness of first grade, when my teacher was fired for mistreating students. I managed without her, since it was the opera that taught me to read, and I was inspired by Susanna, who manages all that comes her way. I would pore over the pamphlets detailing the season’s offerings, pointing at the titles I could “sound out” phonetically. Lincoln Center punctuated my weeks as often as Sam could find affordable tickets. The music of the opera became my solace and retreat.

At thirteen, I wanted to become fearless and independent like Carmen, and I already knew her arias well. Just like her, I yearned to be free. I felt disconnected from my peers, stifled in an academic environment that had little musical outlet. I wanted classical music to have a larger presence in my life. I wanted to study its technical aspects and theory. I researched schools that would let me do just that, which led me to LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and the Performing Arts. My skeptical parents finally let me be part of 350 strong contingent of students competing for the 15 available spaces at LaGuardia. I auditioned with one of my favorite Italian songs, Se Tu M’Ami (If You Love Me) and was accepted.

My audition piece includes the line “Non perché mi piace il giglio, Gli altri fiori sprezzerò” translated as “Nor because I love the lily, shall I other flowers despise.” Though this teasingly referred to the ability to have more than one lover, in a sense, it spoke to what I learned at LaGuardia: to be open to other things beyond my first love, music. Surprisingly, my intensive daily musical study made me more attentive in other subjects, and consequently, my academic performance strengthened overall. I discovered a particular passion for history, which complemented the music I was learning and gave me an historical context for the pieces I sang.

I know that my love of music will continue to inform and expand my life, leading me to new interests as it does at school. I continue to go to the opera with my brother whenever we can. And though the stairs at Lincoln Center are less daunting now, I am even more astounded by the operas I see there as a young adult than when I was five. Unlike my younger self, I now love the opera not just for its innate beauty, but in the way it helps me expand my thinking and appreciate the world.

Giorgi Ben-Meir, a 2014 graduate of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, began her freshman year at the University of Southern California with her first semester in the University’s study abroad program in Paris.