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Are we doing better? A mom, a daughter, and a small press.

I went to a reading the other night at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was the most fabulously successful reading I’ve seen there, literally standing room only. But it wasn’t Jonathan Franzen or Suzanne Collins that pulled them in.

It was a mom, a daughter, and a little independent press.

The mom is Dena Taylor, famous in Santa Cruz for her many-year run with the great gathering of women writers, In Celebration of the Muse. (I read at The Muse once. I got to wear my fabulous red dress, a color which I admit that redheads should not wear, but I felt pretty darn fabulous and I got a laugh out of the friendly audience of local women and some of their men, so it was great!)

The daughter is Becky Taylor, also somewhat famous in Santa Cruz for being amongst the first mainstreamed disabled people in our public schools.

The press is Many Names Press, which has been run for years by my friend Kate Hitt. Kate selects poetry and prose by mostly local writers who write from the heart and with a unique (and usually not very marketable) point of view.

Kate introducing Becky and Dena at the reading. I had to crop this photo pretty seriously because of the sea of grey and balding heads that were in the foreground! What a crowd! (And a few were neither grey nor balding!)

Kate introducing Becky and Dena at the reading. I had to crop this photo pretty seriously because of the sea of grey and balding heads that were in the foreground! What a crowd! (And a few were neither grey nor balding!)

Kate has been telling me for months that she’s been so excited about working with Dena and Becky on their memoir, Tell Me the Number Before Infinity. The book is written in alternating chapters by Dena and Becky about their experiences. The first experiences are Dena’s, finding out that her daughter had suffered brain damage at birth and would be disabled, then realizing as her daughter grew that her “differently abled” daughter’s abilities included a very advanced aptitude for math. Then we start to hear from Becky as she learns to navigate a world that assumes that a woman who uses crutches and speaks slowly and with a stutter must be stupid, deaf, or a combination of both.

Dena and Becky’s story was familiar to me. I have written before about the term “twice-exceptional” and the difficulties of raising a child who has both unusual disabilities and unusual gifts. Becky’s differences were at the extreme ends. At a time when Americans were unused to disabled people expecting to be allowed into the mainstream, Becky was unique—and often unwanted. And although our public schools in the 70’s were sadly probably better equipped to handle a brilliant child, she faced the stigmatism and misunderstandings that many gifted children face.

Listening to them talk about their experiences made me wonder: Have we improved at all? Are we doing better at accepting twice-exceptionality?

I think to a certain degree, things have improved. Certainly, the general public is much more likely to have interacted with a disabled person now than 30 years ago. Most people are at least aware that physical disabilities don’t necessarily correlate with intellectual disabilities.

On the other hand, schools are probably doing a worse job at integrating brilliant children of any flavor. Our focus on tests and standardization comes at a price: creative, unusual thinkers are devalued. They are bored at the repetition and emphasis on rote knowledge. And teachers often note that such intellectual brilliance doesn’t always correlate with high test scores, so these kids are often dismissed as unteachable.

I am glad, in any case, that Dena and Becky wrote their book, and that at their first reading they—and Kate’s press—were received so warmly. I hope that this book adds yet another little bit of strength in the resistance to the corporatization, standardization, and dumbing down of our education and our literature.

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Posted in Books, Culture, Education, Writing.

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