I was born in 1951, premature at 16 weeks, in an era where many such births were fatal.
Premature babies that survived had many difficulties, and the chances of survival into childhood were very slim compared to today. I spent many weeks in an incubator, though my twin had come home sooner.
Our mother was not expecting twins.
In that era, two or more distinct heartbeats were the usual sign of twins, triplets, or more fetuses. However, in my case, being the smallest and weakest heartbeat, my mother was expecting only one baby, a boy or a girl.
I survived my early arrival. But this story isn’t just about premature birth. Rather, the label that the medical professionals at that time placed on me.
They told my parents that because of my premature birth and lack of brain development, I would be “mentally retarded”.
This is what I was told at an early age to understand why I was different than my twin.
I was also told as early as I can remember that those same medical professionals highly recommended my parents place me as an infant in an institution for the “mentally retarded” as I would never grow up to be a productive adult, but a burden on them—a very common prediction of that time.
Two years after my birth, I became seriously ill with another very common problem for toddlers of that era: Mastoiditis.
Another cause of death for infants and toddlers back then was an ear infection, often misdiagnosed or improperly treated, which invaded the mastoid bone and then entered the brain, eventually causing death in many cases.
As told by mother, the right side of my head swelled up to the size of a basketball and I survived that near-death experience only after several surgeries where my infected mastoid bone was removed entirely, and the infected brain cells removed.
The only medical record I have seen of that era mentioned that my seventh cranial nerve was severed, leaving the right side of my face paralyzed, similar to Bell’s Palsy, but permanent.
I also lost all my hearing in the right ear. Again, another label was placed on me to add to the first one at my birth. I was now physically handicapped due to that paralysis and total hearing loss in my right ear.
From 1955 to 1970, I was bullied in public school by classmates and teachers alike for being “retarded”. My classmates, not all, but enough, mercilessly tormented me with names, calling me “retard, stupid, crooked face, stutter freak”.
I was told by my parents that I shouldn’t let the names bother me, and was told that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names shall never hurt me”.
But the sticks and stones they threw did hurt me. The shoving and kicking hurt me and the names were equally hurtful emotionally.
My grades were failing, I couldn’t read, or read aloud without stuttering and stammering. My first five years in school were grades of E and F, and being passed on from first grade to the sixth grade with no hope of becoming a productive adult.
I found myself eventually repeating the third, fourth, and fifth grades. Most teachers abused me emotionally through their lack of training in dealing with a child who has physical and mental handicap issues.
Their official excuse for passing me on to the next upper grade was: “I don’t have the time to deal with Bobby’s special needs, maybe the next teacher can.”
The next teacher had the same excuses until I entered the sixth grade, where I was sent into the new special education programs in the public school system briefly and then set back three grades.
By the time I repeated the fifth grade twice in 1964, I had physically been beaten by a teacher on the playground over the fact that I didn’t hear him behind me yelling at me to give him the ball. When I did toss it over my back, it hit him, knocking his glasses off.
He grabbed me by the throat, lifted me up, and proceeded to strike me repeatedly in the head until he was forced to throw me down to the ground by the principal.
I had to be carried off the playground by my own fifth grade teacher, too shocked to even cry. To this day, I am still marveled at how she managed to pick up a 14-year-old boy. That abusive teacher was forced to retire that day.
By the time I finished my sophomore year in high school, I managed to pull together my grades and physically skipped my junior year by attending summer school, hiking 25 miles away for eight weeks, and went right into my senior year that fall.
At graduation in 1970, at age 20, my high school counselor made it very clear to me that I was not college material, nor factory worker material, and so got me a job digging ditches by hand, washing municipal maintenance vehicles, and reading municipal utility meters with the promise that this would be the only kind of work fit for me with my physical, mental handicap, and emotional issues.
But my dreams focused on one thing: I wanted to be a writer of adventure stories with heroes.
When asked what I dreamed of by my mother, she would tell me “to get my head out of the clouds or I would turn out like my deadbeat father chasing after failed dreams one after another.”
After high school, I found myself going from one job to the next, working for no longer than four months. I was then on welfare for nearly 23 years dealing with that self-fulfiling prophecy from those labels put on me since birth.
I wasn’t a stranger to suicide attempts; my first came at age 18. Nor was I a stranger to the belief those labels were real, and that the high school counselor’s assessment of me was real. That I didn’t have what it took to go to college, but to go dig ditches for the rest of my life.
Yet, I still dreamed of something better than digging ditches or washing dishes for the rest of my life.
After my mother’s passing in 1992, I woke up after my last attempt at suicide, and in 1995, I entered community college seeking a degree.
This time I was serious at age 44, and three years later, I graduated with that AAS degree, with a 3.48 GPA. A year and half later, I returned to work toward a BA transfer, and I brought that GPA up to a 3.5 GPA, made the National Dean’s List, and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
I thought:”How is that for a “moron”, Miss High School Counselor?”
Unfortunately, I didn’t finish that BA transfer plan to a four-year college, as I was diagnosed with diabetes and had student financial issues. In 1998, I finally got my SSI disability and, seven years later in 2005, my first heart attack with two stents. After having open heart surgery, I got through the COVID pandemic without contracting the disease.
In 2020, I finally stuck my heads back into those clouds my mother warned me about and finally published my first e-book for teens, an adventure story in five parts under my pen name, Rowlen Delaware Vanderstone III.
Today, as of 2023, I just finished the final draft of my 48th eBook, at age 72, and will soon send it off to a publisher.
Forty-eight e-books in the genre of fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi fantasy, mystery, adventures for teens, a chapbook of poems, and a few plays. I would like to tell everyone that those clouds my mother told me to stay away from, are not that scary after all.
In that last year of my mother’s illness, we mended the fences between us; there was a lifetime of repairs needed.
I know she is proud of me now for proving those labels were wrong. She refused to give me up as an infant. Though in my youth and later years I often wished she had. I am thankful she didn’t.
My life today isn’t perfect, nor am I really the famous writer I dreamed of being in my youth with all kinds of awards and money.
The only person I needed to prove to that I could write and be published was not any adoring fans reading my stories—it was me. I was the one who had to prove to myself that I could do it after decades of trying and being rejected by traditional book publishers.
One rejection was enough for me to shelve my work to collect dust for a decade or more; I was the self-inflicting bully. I believed that I was suited to manual labor, digging ditches for the rest of my life because of the labels placed on me from birth and in my school records.
Those scars may never go away. The scars may appear deep at times, or just at the surface. They are just that; scars caused by others.
It is the ones you give yourself that are the most painful and debilitating. They can break you or mold you to be a better person. Stand up and prove that we are not made to become our labels, but we can turn them into what we want to be.
Just don’t let those labels defeat you.
Robert Vergeson is an author and a retired administrator for private adult foster care homes.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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