Hello! This is a short story I wrote in college and I just unearthed it and discovered it’s got a lot of stuff in it that I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m working with a kid just like the main character right now and thinking of her as a kinesthetic learner has really helped me to help her. Her memory is strongly tied to what her body does.
This story is inspired by a true story from this TED talk. You should watch the whole thing, but the relevant part is at about 15:18.
Here’s the story:
Ellie Walker was practicing pirouettes in her studio/living room when her mother Susan called. She had promised to call yesterday but had forgotten in the flurry of paperwork associated with producing an award winning show in New York City. She found her phone and sat on the floor to stretch while they talked.
“Ellie, I had to tell you. You remember that doctor we saw when you were about 7? Dr. Ruckus?” Susan bubbled.
Of course Ellie remembered. “Yeah, what about him?”
“Well, I just read in the Times he’s won this big award for his work in pediatric medicine and all that.”
“Yes, Ellie. I thought, since your new show has been so successful, you could send him some tickets to say congratulations and thank you. I mean, I wouldn’t be so bold, but you know, since you’ve had your name in the very same paper…” Ellie could hear her mother’s overwhelming pride through the phone and wanted to reject the idea. But Susan had a point. Dr. Ruckus had been the first to recognize Ellie’s true nature. Perhaps it would be gratifying for him to see how far she’d come.
“That’s a good idea. I’ll do that.”
The conversation continued at length as phone conversations often do with one’s mother, but Ellie’s mind wandered, conjuring up images seen with her 7 year old eyes.
She remembered the meeting with her mother and her mean old first grade teacher, Mrs. Bricks, who insisted that Susan take Ellie to see a specialist. The word “specialist” had seemed exciting at first, but quickly lost its appeal when Ellie saw the building where, apparently, all the specialists worked. It was too big and part of an even bigger hospital complex. It was gloomy and ugly and full of people who obviously did not want to be there.
The Walkers had navigated a labyrinth of hallways to find the little office of Dr. Joe Ruckus. Ellie sat in one of the waiting chairs and kicked her legs as she wondered what was so special about this Dr. Ruckus.
She noticed that her mother spoke to the desk attendant in her clippy voice. The clippy voice was Ellie’s name for the tone Susan took when she was stressed. The desk attendant told them to wait.
“Mom? Did we bring snacks? I’m hungry.”
“We have goldfish. Don’t make any crumbs, please.” Susan clipped as she produced the tupperware from her magical bag that held everything. Ellie swung her legs with substantial gusto as she ate. When Susan’s voice was clippy, Ellie’s legs were usually swinging.
“Sweetheart, would you keep still?”
Ellie twisted her ankles together to control herself. Her mother said this to her about thirty times a day. It was so hard to remember. No matter how hard she tried she would just find herself moving again without even meaning to. Not just moving. Climbing, dancing, stretching, running, jumping, twisting up as twisty as she could get.
Her mean old teacher Mrs. Bricks would shoot a look over her stupid too small glasses and say, “Elizabeth, Please!” and Ellie would sit on her hands and squint at the blackboard until her limbs started moving again without her noticing.
This was the problem for which a specialist was needed. Ellie moved too much. She rarely hurt herself because of it, but apparently there was an amount of moving that is “too much” and Ellie moved that much.
“Elizabeth Walker? Dr. Ruckus will see you now.”
Ellie’s stomach turned and she jumped up and did a weird walking dance towards the hallway. Susan quickly grabbed Ellie’s wrist a bit too hard and pulled her along and into a little room filled with doctor things.
Dr. Ruckus looked nice enough. Under his doctor jacket he was wearing the kind of clothes that Ellie’s father wore to work. Lots of browns and wrinkles. He smiled kindly.
“Good morning, Mrs. Walker.” He turned to Ellie, “Elizabeth, do you have a nickname?”
“Ellie.” said Ellie, suddenly shy.
“Ellie, I’m going to ask you some questions, okay?”
Ellie nodded, hoping she’d know the right answers.
The doctor began, “Do you like school?”
This was not the sort of question Ellie was expecting and she had to think for a moment. “Well, I like all my friends, but my teacher doesn’t like me, so sometimes I don’t like it.”
“Why do you think your teacher doesn’t like you?”
“I don’t know. She thinks i’m stupid?”
“Did she say that?”
“Not really. She just…” She bounced in her seat, searching for words, and felt her mother tense up next to her.
“Ellie has trouble sitting still.” Susan cut in. “Her teacher says she doesn’t pay attention in class. Apparently it’s very distracting to the other students.”
Ellie remembered her teacher saying all that stuff at the meeting. Remembering the harsh voice of Mrs. Bricks made Ellie’s ears hot and her feet flexed hard, holding the anger right in her ankles.
“Ellie, why don’t you sit still like the other children in your class?” asked Dr. Ruckus, almost amused, even genuinely curious. Ellie could tell he was not looking for any particular answer, but did in fact expect one.
“I… um… I don’t know. I don’t mean to be so… move-y. I mean I try to sit still, but it doesn’t work. My body just starts moving again” She stuck her feet out in front of her as straight as they’d go and they took turns pointing and flexing, warming her angry ankles pleasantly with the effort.
Dr. Ruckus asked Susan some questions now, but he mostly kept his eyes on Ellie. When did Susan first notice this behavior? Was Ellie’s father similar as a child? Was Susan? What else did Ellie do in her free time? Did they listen to a lot of music at home?
Dr. Ruckus wrote down some things and Ellie stretched her neck to see, but the writing was too messy to read.
Susan Walker was not satisfied with the proceedings. “Look, she doesn’t write down her homework and then she forgets it and doesn’t do it. And she doesn’t participate in class! She used to. All her preschool teachers said she was very bright, but we think the material may be getting too… advanced?”
Ellie knew what that meant. “I’m not stupid, mom!”
“Sweetie, I know you’re not stupid. Of course, you’re very smart, but maybe you need to be in a different class. That’s all.” She smiled and put a hand on Ellie’s arm. This was often another way of telling the little 1st grader to sit still when they couldn’t use words, like at restaurants with grownup friends. Ellie wasn’t sure if it meant that right now, or if it was supposed to be nice. She pulled away and focused on pointing and flexing her feet.
“Ellie, I’m going to need your mom to fill out some forms. Can you stay in here while we do that?” The doctor smiled just with his eyes and then swept Susan out of the room. Before leaving the room himself, he fiddled with a clock radio on one of the cabinets and then closed the door behind him.
The radio buzzed a soothing DJ’s voice into the air as he announced the next piece of music. It was a classical station. Ellie didn’t know this particular piece of music, but she liked the way the flutes twirled in the air and the violins stayed low like a stream under them.
The music got into her bones and muscles in just the way music always did. Ellie hopped off the plastic covered chair and spun, letting her arms fly up with the flutes. As she moved, she thought, “Why do I have to see a dumb doctor?” Her feet swept her around the room. “Mrs. Bricks thinks I’m dumb but I’m just-” she found the last word with her toe and kicked it up to finish the thought, “forgetful.”
She flopped over her waist as the music grew deep and slow, letting her shoulders sway and her heavy head nod. Her fingers grazed the linoleum. She liked the stretchy feeling in her back. What was so great about keeping still anyway? she wondered.
As a bright horn section joined the music, Ellie popped up and tried some jumps. Her eyes surveyed the doctor’s tools and a horrible thought occurred to her, “What if they make me wear one of those jackets so my arms can’t move! Maybe they’ll wrap up my legs!” She shook her legs out under her, assuring her hip joints that she wouldn’t let it happen. She let her arms wave freely to get the feeling of a straight jacket out of her mind.
“I would still be able to move my head.” She thought, and tried standing with her legs and arms tight and straight, imagining being wrapped up like a crazy person. She wiggled her head. She wiggled her tongue. She rolled her eyes around. She could still move, even without her arms and legs. She breathed a sigh of relief and let the music rush through her again, forgetting the doctor and the room and her mother’s clippy voice.
Outside the room, Dr. Ruckus and Susan Walker were not filling out forms. They were watching Ellie through the small window in the door.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned about your daughter.” Said the doctor, cheered by Ellie’s playfulness.
“I’m not-” Susan began, “I mean, I know she isn’t stupid. But she won’t sit still and she misses a lot of material. Her teacher thinks she’d do better in a- in one of those… special education classes.” She said the words bravely, her heart aching at the thought. “You know, where she could have more individual attention?” That made it feel better. “Or we thought… maybe you could prescribe something? and then she could just stay in her class and not have to deal with making all new friends?”
The doctor chuckled. He knew parent psychology at this point as if he’d taken a course on it at med school. He actually thought that might be a good idea for the pediatrics department.
“Look at her now.” He said.
Susan grimaced and shook her head. “I know, she’s always like this. She won’t sit still! You see!”
“Mrs. Walker, your daughter does not need medication, and she definitely should not be placed in a special education class.”
“But don’t you think it could help? I mean if she’s… learning disabled?” These words were harder to say and she almost whispered them, then coughed nervously to get them out of the silent air.
“She’s not disabled, my dear… She’s a dancer.”
They watched Ellie spin and hop around the room. Susan felt a knot untie in her stomach. Of course! How could she have doubted her incredible daughter?
“Get her out of that school she’s in now. They’ll never stop asking her to sit still. Enroll her in a dance school.”
“Where? How?” Susan had so many questions.
“There are a few around the city. Go to an open house, see if she fits in. Those kids do a lot of great work- very disciplined- and they’re some of the healthiest I get in my offices. Try it.”
Ellie and Susan went to three different dance schools in the city that summer to see if Ellie would fit in. One was too snooty for Ellie, and they left quickly. The second one was lovely but far too expensive. The third was perfect. There were no desks, two dance classes a day in addition to academics, and plenty of discipline. Susan and Ellie were both convinced.
Over the years, Ellie’s fidgetiness subsided as she concentrated on developing her dancing, and by the time she started applying to middle schools, she was positively graceful. In her non-dance classes, she was able to sit mostly still. Her body needed a rest after 3 hours of ballet and tap anyway, but no one would think of yelling at her for moving too much. There was no such thing. Everyone at her new school was like her: they all needed to move to think.
After the phone call from her mother, Ellie finished her pirouette practice. She remembered when she first put words to what she knew about all the students and teachers at her old dance school. “We need to move to think.” So while she spun in perfect circles, using one leg to throw herself around over and over, she thought of a letter to write to Dr. Ruckus. Later, as she wrote it, she rolled her ankles some more so she wouldn’t spell anything wrong.
“Dear Dr. Ruckus,
I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Ellie Walker and I was just 7 when we met. I am writing to congratulate you on your recent achievements, and to thank you for changing my life.
You saw a dancer in me where everyone else saw a fidgety nuisance. You told my mother to send me to dance school and she did. Thank you. I cannot imagine how miserable I would have been without that school.
I thought you might like to enjoy the fruits of your wisdom. My dance company has just opened a show at the Joyce Theater. I choreographed it myself. I’m quite proud of it. Please find enclosed two ticket vouchers.
Thank you again,
Please let me know if you think I should add anything! and watch the TED talk. It’s so good.