Losing Focus

July 3, 2008
By Ryan Miller, Spokane, WA

It wasn't that he had never learned these things before, he had. But they never could stay in his mind; fragments returning when he never needed them, and leaving right before he did. He learned to make the best of it, essential knowledge could be correlated to objects in the room. One is the number of doors in the left wall. Two is the number of windows across from me. Three is the number of trees outside. Four is the number of sparrows playing in the...

"Henry! Please stay focused! We only have four more flashcards then we're done. Just four, OK?"

Henry nodded, an uncaring, conditioned nod, but he at least knew what he was agreeing to. He had thought he was weird for a while, always losing focus and letting his mind find more interesting things to think about. Does he think it's weird now? No, he doesn't really see in himself the ability to change. But the agitation is gone, the walking down the halls and feeling uncomfortable in his own skin. The world wasn't going to change for him, so why should he change for the world?

"Cat. "




The flashcards were never difficult, only boring. It was the science and the math he was really there for. Deep inside him, he loved science. He loved math, he loved numbers and their interaction, the way they gave a solidity to a crumbling world. But what they taught him wasn't math in his opinion, no, just child's play. You couldn't solve the mysteries of the universe like Hawking or Schrödinger with numbered building blocks, or predict the stock market with little flash cards painted their pastel blues and playful reds. He wanted more. Lots more. The rest was just boring, and as such he never gave an effort to remember.

“Thanks, Henry. We’ll work on this more tomorrow. I’ll take you to your parents.”

Strange, he never thought he was that stupid. Was he really so incapable of handling himself that he needed to be led from the room like a circus animal? His parents didn’t seem to care, when Mrs. Wren handed him off to them in the room down the hall they apparently thought nothing of it.

“Mr. and Mrs. Stiles, can I speak to you for a moment?”

His parents gave each other the look, the movement in the eyes that said, “Oh dear God, we never thought our son could get any more retarded. After all the money we‘ve paid...” Fine, he gave up. I’ll be retarded, he thought, as his mother and father left the room and walked down the hall to his classroom. The hallway was silent as his parents entered, and Henry has amazing auditory perception. He can hear them, talking, almost arguing.

“He just doesn’t seem to care anymore, almost to the point that he’s in danger of receding.”

“Mrs. Wren, the boy’s just not as bright as most, but we’re OK with that. We just want him to have the basics before he goes into life.”

“That’s just the thing. This is a trademark in gifted students, the lack of interest stems not from stupidity, but from a lack of interest due to mediocrity on the part of the lesson.”

“Are you saying you’re a bad teacher?”

“No, Mrs. Stiles, but what I am saying is let me try a different approach with Henry. See what he can do with our more advanced courses. If it doesn’t work out, we will return to the other schedule and refund your session.”

Mr. and Mrs. Stiles looked at each other. He knew they were, he knew they were thinking about how their son the retard couldn’t be fit for that kind of program. They were right, he thought, maybe I’m just lazy and stupid like they say I am. Maybe I make up the fact that I’m bored to shield myself from the idea that I’m useless. Worthless. Deadweight.

“Alright. Give him a shot. Earl, we won’t be any worse off if we try it.”

“That’s not it, honey, what if he starts thinking he’s smart because he’s in those classes, then when he goes back to the remedial stuff he’ll think he failed in some way.”

“But the opportunity..."

“I really don’t care about that. I’d much rather have our son be the dumbest kid in the world than have him be emotionally wrecked. No, I won’t have any part in it, that’s final.”

Moments passed, then turned into minutes. He could hear the chairs shifting, the handshakes, and the footsteps hitting the cheap school floors. They walked out of the room just as they had walked in, if he hadn’t heard their conversation he wouldn’t have even noticed a difference.

They walked out of the school the same way, too, wordless and awkward until his father asked

“How did it go?”

He would shrug, maybe even grunt. He would reply to him,

“Fine. Just the same old stuff again.”

And they would drive away, back home. In some ways it was his favorite time of the day, the anticipation of freedom and the semblance of it he could extract from the passing homes and people. He was free to think his own thoughts now, completely free, and he could see and hear and feel all the things that he cared about, not the school. Nobody to laugh at him, nobody to make him feel stupid.

Gym class, some boy behind a locker. “Hey Henry, I hear you failed your math test again today? How does it feel? To be the stupidest kid in the school? Do they make you wear a diaper? Huh? 'Cuz I bet you’re that stupid!”

Kids, walking down halls, happy, laughing, enjoying life. He enjoys his, but not in the same way. He enjoys his because he has no other option. They enjoy life because they can be whatever thy want to be, a million opportunities lay before them and they explode in joy and rapturous excitement while he watches and plays games in his mind and gives himself opportunities for happiness.

Thoughts like these plagued him; his open, emptied mind would quickly fill with images and words from the day and the days before it. It wasn’t his intention to ponder his school life, but a wondering mind finds what will most occupy it. In the case of Henry, at his precarious age of 12, social issues are more important than wondering why cell phones work through walls.

Sometimes he could catch himself in the middle of his thoughts, thinking about what it would be like to win a sporting event, and change to something more interesting. But occasionally he would be pulled from his thoughts by the grinding, jarring sound of the garage door. Too late now, all there was left to do in the day was read, read and watch TV. Sleep came after all that, a last priority. He would eventually reach the point, however, where the Discovery channel would sink into a blurry haze and the drone of the announcer would become a audible mass of misshapen syllables and inflections. Then he would turn out the light, and his last thought would always be

“Tomorrow I’ll be smart. I know it.”


"Henry! I swear you lose focus just like you were back in school again!"

The words bounced around inside Henry's ears, words that, to him, held no significance save for the slight vibrations that they created in his eardrums. What was that? Phonetics? A meaning? He pulled at the words, recognizing familiarity...

"I'm sorry, it's just this room's charged with a lot of memories for me."

Mrs. Wren sat across from him, at the same desk she had taught Henry from twenty year prior. She smiled.

"I understand. I suppose I should learn to expect that from you, after all you have been churning up a lot of things I never knew about you. Everything you just told me, that is a fairly in-depth observation of a thought life... That was you, all those years?"

Henry thought back, he had never told anybody else about what he went through those years. About the kids in gym class, about his parents not wanting him to succeed. Another perspective was almost startling, he didn't want to react. He almost wanted to zone out again, force a change in topic.

"Yeah. Everyday till you convinced my parents I should be given an IQ test.”

“Mmm. That was quite interesting wasn’t it? 165, correct?


“Incredible. And to think all those years we thought you were retarded. I apologize for that, Henry, I should have seen it sooner.

“No, don’t bring that on yourself. You were simply my teacher. It was my parents who are to blame, if anyone. Looking back they mirrored the same form of indifference I did those years, they simply didn’t want to change me, even if it was for the good.”

“But eventually they did want to change you.”

“With your prodding.”

“Henry, after I began to see that you weren’t really slow, that you were just bored, I couldn’t stand aside. I had to prod, I would have taken it to the state if I had to. And look at all you had to show, everything nobody saw for all those years.”

“In a way I’m glad they never saw it.”

“Why? Aren’t you content with what you’ve become?”

“A neurobiologist? Of course, but as I look back it gives me an insight to another part of the child population that no one ever sees.”

“But we do see them, I see them everyday, in my classrooms.”

“You see them. You saw me. But did my parents, the other kids I grew up with? No, I was like a vapor, I was in the room, but whenever something violent or tumultuous happened I would be blown away, high into the clouds where I could escape the insanity below me.”

“Have you thought about this before?”

“I used to.”

Mrs. Wren leaned forward in her chair, filing though various papers strewn across her desk. She pulled one out in particular, and handed it over to Henry.

“What’s this?”

“A list of children that I taught in the five years you were with me.”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“Look at the colors to the left of every name. Do you see the highlighter marks?”


“I didn’t know you back then as well as I know you now, but you displayed many signs that showed you were a highly introspective, introverted young man. I taught many children like you, and I began a study, to see what you all would become in twenty years time.”

“Alright, how did we turn out.”

“Red mark to the left of the name signifies they went into the medical field.”

Henry saw six names with mark, out of a list of fifty-two. His name was one of them, towards the bottom of the list.

“Purple marks mean they went into some form of engineering.”

Ten marks

“An orange mark mean they are now in a position of teaching, pre-school to professorship.”

Five marks.

Henry noticed an overabundance of green marks, some adjacent to orange, purple, and red marks. He had a green mark right next to his red.

“What do the green marks mean?”

Mrs. Wren smiled, reached out her hand for the list.

“Those are the children that showed indications of an isolated life-style, the children that would fit under the “nerd” or “geek” category. These were the kids that you can identify with, the ones that nobody ever saw.”

“You see Henry, the people nobody saw as kids, they see now. It’s an amazing reversal, these kids went from being outcasts and watching the athletes rule to becoming leaders themselves, except on a societal scale. Astounding, but it’s been happening for years.

Henry smiled.

“That’s very good to know, Mrs. Wren.”

Mrs. Wren smiled back, and put the list back underneath a great pile of papers on her desk.

“Thank you, Mrs. Wren. It’s been great seeing you again, but I have to get home. It’s nearly eight o’clock.”

She nodded, and pulled out a manila envelope from her desk.

“I found these a few days a ago, thought you might like to have them. For the memory.”

He thanked her again for the envelope, shook her hand (He never really stopped being awkward),and left the room. As he walked down the hallway he unfastened the metal prongs holding the envelope closed, and reached inside. He pulled out a mass of small cards, and on them were various, pastel-colored pictures.





And a small sticky note, affixed to the very last card.

“These were the last remedial flashcards I showed you before you began your advanced coursework. In reality, only three of them were remedial. I pulled “Ennui” from a 12th grade vocabulary deck, just to test my theory about you. You didn’t even stop, I’ll never forget how you just blazed though it. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself, Henry. You have no excuse not to. Signed, Mrs. Wren.”

Henry smiled. Ennui.

How appropriate.

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This article has 1 comment.

Pie said...
on Aug. 24 2008 at 7:29 pm
This was fabulous - very insightful, and from my own experience, both as a parent and a 'nerd' you nailed it. I appreciated how hopeful it was in taking it to years from the original beginning, and reminding us all that the story wasn't told - was hardly even begun - in school. Keep writing. You have an interesting, perceptive voice.

Parkland Book