Learning Differently or, "The Candyman Can"

Once upon a time, I gave birth to a perfect little girl, with big blue eyes and a wide smile. She exuded peace and serenity. A friend of mine, who is psychic, visited us after Anna was born. Gazing into Anna’s exquisite face, my friend murmured, “She is an old soul.”


As my baby grew, I noticed that she was. . . quirky. On the one hand, she dazzled us with her vocabulary, and communication skills. Keenly observant, and eager to please, Anna was always her preschool teacher’s favorite.


“She gives the best back-rubs,” purred one teacher.


“She is practically perfect in every way,” pronounced another.


On the other hand, Anna was not a traditional learner. Before starting kindergarten, she was supposed to memorize her home phone number. We rehearsed the number again and again, but she couldn’t do it. Each time she failed, her little face fell, formerly bright with an expectant smile. It frustrated her and mystified me.


One August morning, we relaxed in the backyard, while I pushed her on our red and blue swing set. Back and forth she swung, attempting to recite the 10-digit number, blond pigtails bobbing in the sunlight. After weeks of practice, she still couldn’t get it. Suddenly, I had an idea.


We had been listening to “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. For those of you who don’t know it, the song starts like this, “Hi Nancy, Hi Helen, What’s the story, Morning Glory?...”

Unlike her phone number, little Anna knew these lyrics backwards and forwards. Impulsively, to the same tune, I began singing, ‘2 1 5, 3 2 1, 5 4 1 3” and stopped. “Now you sing it.”


Anna’s high clear voice rang out, “2 1 5, 3 2 1, 5 4 1 3!” She never forgot her phone number ever again.


This was one of several learning quirks Anna had. I think she was in middle school before she could reliably recite the four seasons in order. Yet, she sailed into the academically gifted program. I couldn’t explain the dichotomy, but I did my best to embrace it. Besides, she had a whole new old-soul gift emerging.


In first grade, Anna made a friend named Steven (not his real name). Steven was a sweet skinny boy with a serious speech impediment, and he could not pronounce “R” well. Shy and awkward, Steven did not connect well with the other boys. However, 7-year-old Anna befriended him and they became pals.


One day at recess, the class ran out to play in the grassy field. The other boys gathered to kick a soccer ball, leaving Steven far behind. Anna stuck near her friend. “Let’s pretend like we are lions,” Anna suggested.


“OK.”


“You first, Steven. You are a lion. So, you have to roar. Shout RRRRRoar!”


“Wwr-oa” yelled Steven. In that way, Anna, quite intentionally, got her friend to do speech therapy exercises during recess. No one asked her to help him or suggested this strategy to her. She created it on her own, her first health intervention, but not to be her last.


Toward the end of first grade, Anna was invited to Steven’s birthday party, even though she was the only girl there. His mother approached me, smiling.


“Are you Anna’s mom?”


“Yes, I am. Hello, it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for inviting Anna!”


“Steven talks about Anna every day. We are so grateful to her. You have no idea what it’s been like for him.” And Steven’s mom began to cry, tears of gratitude streaming down her face. We cried together.

***


By the time she hit high school, Anna decided she wanted to be an occupational therapist. We thought this was a brilliant career choice, as it would build on her old soul strengths of perceptiveness, compassion, and creative healing. Still, occupational therapy would also require statistics, biology, chemistry … all subjects heavy in memorization. It wouldn’t be easy.


Junior year, Anna struggled with Algebra 2. Despite her efforts, she had trouble understanding the concepts. I reached out and called a math tutor. On the phone, I struggled to convey the problem, “Anna is incredibly smart but sometimes she learns… differently. I can’t explain it exactly. Sometimes she needs concepts presented in a radically different way. Let me tell you how she learned her phone number…” I launched into the story of Anna, the backyard swing, and the song.


“I get it! Perfect, I can do this!” exclaimed the tutor.


“You can make up songs about algebra?” I asked, dubiously.


“You bet I can.” And she did! Somehow this tutor translated Algebra 2 into song and dance. I never knew how exactly, although I frequently overheard Anna and the tutor laughing together. Dancing and singing, Anna passed Algebra 2 with flying colors.


***


Fast forward seven years, Anna just graduated with her master’s in occupational therapy from one of the top programs in the country. It was a long and challenging road, although to be fair, some classes could not have been easier. For example, psychology and communications were so natural she barely had to study.


Anatomy, on the other hand, reduced her to tears. It was the same dichotomy as when she was little: anything having to do with people was a piece of cake. Anything having to do with rote memorization was inexplicably hard. But, knowing her own learning style, Anna devised her anatomy . . . dances. Hand on a hip for this bone, hand on a shoulder for that one. Class by class, test by test, Anna persevered. Finally, she arrived at clinical placements.


Anna’s first placement was on an intensive care unit in a city hospital in the middle of COVID. Imagine the wall of death, ventilation, vomit, blood, and defecation that hit her, all at once. Imagine being 23 years old, living in a strange city, encountering such devastation. Anna went into emotional shock briefly, but quickly bounced back. Once she calibrated to the grimness of the ICU during covid, the creative helper in her reemerged.


“Mom!” She called one afternoon. Her voice chirped with joy.


I put my notes away and sat back to talk. “Yes? What’s up?”


“So, there was this young girl in the ICU (details changed for her and other clients described). She was developmentally disabled, blind, and all alone. She couldn't talk much, but she kept repeating this one phrase, ‘The Candyman can. The Candyman can.’ And everyone is saying, what the heck does that mean? But I knew. I started singing to her, “Who can take a sunrise? Sprinkle it with dew. Cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two. The Candyman. The Candyman can.” And she settled right down. The more I sang, the calmer she got, so I just sang ‘The Candyman’ all day.”


For three months, 23-year-old Anna worked the ICU. She motivated a man unwilling to do his exercises because of intense pain. “It hurts!” he yelled, “it hurts!”


“I know it hurts, but let’s do the exercises,” said another therapist.


“YOU DON’T KNOW! You DON’T know how much it hurts!” The room fell silent.


Anna knelt in front of the man’s wheelchair, and locked eyes with him. “You are right. We don’t know how much it hurts. I’m sure it hurts terribly, and I am sorry for that. We are trying to help you get home. If you do these exercises, even though they hurt, you will be strong enough to go home. So, will you do them?”


He did.


In Anna’s second clinical placement, she helped refugees adjust to life in the United States. One of her clients was from Afghanistan, and he could not read either Farsi nor English. Distressingly, he couldn’t read his own mail. Although he had been in the program for awhile, no one had figured out how to help, other than giving him programs that painstakingly translated one word at a time.


But. . . the Candyman Can. After research, Anna discovered an app that could “read” the English mail, and “say” it aloud to the man in Farsi. The man tried the new app and realized that the letter he was struggling to decipher was just a piece of junk mail. Anna snapped a photo of him, joyfully dumping his junk mail in the trash.

***

We are all wired differently. Some kids learn easily through traditional classroom instructions, sitting quietly in their chairs, hands folded, attentively listening. But other kids… don’t. That’s just not how their brains work and not how they learn. Some kids need to learn while they are running or dancing. Some kids learn while they sing or some other unique approach. We can’t help them by forcing them to learn the way other kids do.


I wish that every child who learns differently could receive attuned parenting and education. Most of Anna’s success is due to her grit, hard work, and determination. She also succeeded because she had people who believed in her. I am a psychologist, so I had a sense of how to help my daughter flourish. I was also lucky enough to be able to raise her in a great school district, and to be able to afford that math tutor. It pains me to think of all the kids who learn differently, without these supports, who leave school feeling defeated because they never understood Algebra 2.


If you know a child who learns differently, keep engaging. Try new things and keep looking for what works. Love them and look for their gifts. I bet they are in there, somewhere, those little gifts that make them special. Like the Candyman said, “Mix it with love.”


You never know how far a child can go.


Anna and the author, at Anna's graduation.



Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.