Being left-handed - A curse or a gift?
When I was big enough to go for a walk with my father in Panama, where I was born, I would pick up a rock with my right hand and then my left, to throw it into the ocean. I remember my father telling me years later that I was trying to figure out whether I was going to be left-handed or right-handed.
My father, as it turns out, was a genius, right-handed, and a linear thinker. He was an engineer and was able solve problems methodically, logically, and mathematically.
I ended up being a left-hander and was a global thinker, thinking in circles and taking forever to put ‘2 and 2 together’. My thinking was erratic, emotional, and unpredictable - so problem-solving or thinking clearly was like driving in fog; I could do it, but it was a terrible struggle.
Later, I discovered that the thinking style of right- and left- handers is different (Alipour, Akhondy, & Aerab-sheybani, 2012). I wish someone had reassured me of this as a boy.
To add to my troubles, my mother left my father and me when I was four and I got no counseling or therapy to help me cope with this. Like so many abandoned kids, I blamed myself for my mother leaving and thought I deserved to have a hard life. The combination of emotional trauma and thinking that was ‘all over the place’ made my life into hell on earth.
As if that weren’t enough, I also had a severe reading problem due to dyslexia. I could read individual words, but whole sentences, paragraphs, and pages simply wore me out. Dyslexia is more common among non-right-handers or those who show mixed-handedness (Wlassoff, 2018)—again, information that could have been used to ease my life.
So, here I was growing up with a man almost 60 years my senior (my dad), who could read a 300-page book in a couple of hours and talk at length about the story. Meanwhile, I would take two weeks to read the same thing, hardly remembering anything. It became depressingly apparent as time went by in my youth that my father and I couldn’t have been more different.
As I pondered this from childhood through my 20s, it didn’t seem so astonishing that this man, who was amazing in so many ways, could only watch me grow up, having no idea how to help me. Aside from riding my bike, my father didn’t teach me much of anything the way fathers usually do, not even how to tie my own shoes. We were father and son, but I might as well have been from Mars - of course, this was all ‘my fault’.
For years I thought my father didn’t want to spend time teaching me anything because he knew I wasn’t worth it. After thinking about it for 30 years, I realized that my genius father simply wasn’t a teacher. He did give me a clue one day, though, how he felt about teachers.
When I was about 14, he asked me what I wanted to be. I said I thought I might want to be a teacher. With a very serious look on his face, he said, ‘oh…teachers are very special people.’ He clearly didn’t think I could be a teacher and I have to admit his comment stabbed me in the heart, but I was too ashamed to say anything.
As an aside, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my father wasn’t a teacher, meaning that he didn’t have teaching inside him. Of the global adult population (15 yrs. & up) which is about 5.3 billion (PRB, 2018), about 84 million are teachers (Roser, 2019)—so teachers comprise only about 1.6% of the total adult population.
Despite how my father seemed to feel about my abilities, I had actually started teaching in the 6th grade. At the age of 11, I was able to figure out that if I wanted to know something well, I should try to teach it. I wasn’t a very good student, but at least this helped. From the 6th grade to my senior year in high school, I took the time to teach whatever I could to my classmates.
A great story about this concerned one guy who I had helped in 8th grade math. Paul was very cool and tough; in fact, I never saw anyone challenge him. He looked like a panther walking down the hall in school. From then on, he was my protector. Even when he wasn’t around, everyone knew he was my friend. It was like having Iron Man as my bodyguard. Paul never forgot my helping him, nor I how he protected me, and we remained connected by an unspoken bond for years. I find myself wishing him well as I write this.
Calming the storm
From my early experiences teaching I knew that I did have an ability to learn and that I could change people’s lives through teaching. I was also smart enough to know that I needed to look, listen, and learn when my father was around. He couldn’t teach me, but I could learn from him, nevertheless.
Slowly, and I do mean very slowly at first, I caught on how to think in a linear fashion. I studied tons of math and science in school and knew that scientists and mathematicians thought in linear ways. But I was adding a new language, not replacing my existing language because, as it turns out, there was nothing wrong with the way I thought, it’s just that my brain worked differently than 90% of the population (Willems, Van der Haegen, Fisher, & Francks, 2014). So, I had to figure out how to teach myself in the ways that worked best for me and, after years of effort, trust myself to ask questions in class framed in my own perspectives. I was scared, at first, to ask what seemed like simplistic questions like, ‘if a cube is square, how can it have 6 sides?’. But then again, my best teachers always said, ‘there are no stupid questions’.
After years of study in graduate school along with years of teaching, I developed my own theory about the quality of people’s knowledge, which I liken to Swiss Cheese. What I mean is that if you cut slices from a block of Swiss Cheese, these slices have different holes, of different sizes, in different places—meaning that we know many different things to different degrees, quantitatively and qualitatively.
Good teaching in K to 12 can improve how much students know about a subject, but also how well they know it. In the 21st century, too many educational systems concentrate on the quantity of students’ knowledge and not enough on the quality, but it’s the quality, or the ability to process information, that allows effective critical thinking such as problem solving, analyzing, communicating, & decision-making (Lai, 2011).
A great example of this is the Egyptian K to 12 public school system, which uses the ‘learn, test, and forget’ or ‘layer cake’ pedagogical approach, which devotes little time to critical reasoning training, the foundation of which is to connect ‘many things to many things’ using spiral teaching (see McComas, 2014, for spiral vs. layer cake teaching).
Egyptians who are gifted with natural critical thinking skills (~5% for all populations) are very intelligent and resourceful, whether or not they are ‘educated’, but too many of Egypt’s young citizens aren’t being equipped with the reasoning skills that would help them determine their own futures—I know, I taught there for 4 years.
As someone who was born to be a teacher, the gift of being an emotionally crippled, dyslexic, and scatter-brained left-hander, was that I had to do the agonizing work of ‘learning how to learn’ in a world that did not understand me, and therefore I could put myself in my students’ shoes. Mind you, I don’t feel sorry for students who are disenfranchised by life, instead I give them the tools to challenge themselves to rise above others’ expectations and find their gifts—if only they would work hard enough.
If you are left-handed and feel a bit crazy like I did, there is solace in the fact that many of the very smartest and most creative people in history were also left-handed. Some of my favorites include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Aristotle, Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain.
I can only hope that my father is able to look down upon me now and see that I am a different kind of genius than he was. He never knew about all the things that I had to teach myself how to do as a boy, young man, and man—even how to read, but I did it. I guess that truth is we are all cursed and blessed, but if we are lucky, we have enough self-awareness and good people around us to push us to find our own potential.
Alipour, A., Akhondy, N., & Aerab-sheybani, K. (2012). Relationship between handedness and thinking styles in female and male students. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 32, 22–28.
Lai, E. R. (2011, Jun). Critical thinking: A literature review.
McComas, W. F. (Ed.) (2014). The language of science education: An expanded glossary of key terms and concepts in science teaching and learning. Boston: Sense Publishers.
PRB. (2018, Aug). 2018 world population data sheet with focus on changing age structures.
Roser, M. (2019). Teachers and professors.
Willems, R. M., Van der Haegen, L., Fisher, S. E., & Francks, C. (2014, Feb). On the other hand: Including left-handers in cognitive neuroscience and neurogenetics. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 1-9.
Wlassoff, V. (2018, Feb). Handedness: What does it say about your brain structure?
Dr. A E Schneider holds several graduate degrees from Columbia University, including a doctoral degree in Science Education, as well as master’s degrees in TESOL, Organizational Psychology, and Counseling Psychology. In 2015, Dr. Schneider took a master’s degree from The American University in Cairo, in International and Comparative Education. Please visit the links below if you interested in services that include professional editing, research paper development, business and conversational English, business coaching, teacher development, or school improvement. Special discounts offered for Thai residents.