An Interview with Marty Castleberg: Where is Daveland?

Jan 4, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Marty, I understand you have written a book called “Daveland“. What brought it about ?

When I first started drafting it I thought it would be a humorous travelogue about my struggles learning Spanish in South America. But as I passed drafts around to other writers they were pulled in by the memoir aspect of it. I was so use to my disability that I didn’t see it as exotic, but they did. They also liked my use of the character Dave to move the narrative forward.(FYI, Dave is the name I attributed to all my little neurological quirks; if I misread something it was “Dave’s fault.”) So I started combining my knowledge of learning theory from my past life, along with some further study about learning disabilities, and began mining my own experience. I really didn’t want to write this story and fought it for years, a sure sign that it needed to be written. Who wants to share their shame with the world? I realized that if I were going to do this it would be a much different piece than the usual fair: the rags to riches overcoming great adversity narrative that’s been done to death. Yes, Daveland was going to be much different.

When I finished I had mixed emotions about sending it out into the world. It’s one thing to have your short stories rejected but I knew, given the publishing reality at the time, that I would have to put out about 100 proposals to get one interested buyer. And who wants to have their personal struggle rejected as unimportant? Plus, a publisher may not option it as an audio book, and the people who are better with their ears than their eyes were my primary audience. So, with my background as a musician and working with sound, I decided to keep the scope small and turn it into an audio-book to accompany the ebook.

I honed my narrative skills and started mixing music and getting permissions for different scores from around the world. I learned more about GATT laws than I ever wanted to. I also gathered sounds from around San Francisco, including staging my own sounds in the garbage room of my building. After about 150 music mixes, developing a new narrative voice, and thousands of sounds later, I had an audio-book that was scored with sound design—9.5 hours of radio theater. It was a wonderful project that I will never take on again.

2) When did you first get interested in this topic?

Unfortunately, the topic found me at birth. I always knew that I was different, seeing myself as a little slow, but being confronted with a learning disability is like describing water to a fish. It’s wired in at birth, which makes it feel normal. Or it’s like a tree that grows around a stationary object, fusing together, one becoming the other over time. Then one day an expert tells a loved one that something is wrong, that your normal is not the right normal and you realize that you’ve been compensating your whole life for this invisible thing that you can’t articulate to someone else because you barely understand it yourself, because you are a fish and LD is water.

3) The topic of “learning disabilities“ seems to be a problematic one—the definitions differ from state to state, and individuals seem to also be inconsistent. Your thoughts?

Wow, that’s loaded. Let’s start by parsing that misnomer: “learning disabilities.” I remember when I first started doing research a few years ago at the main library in San Francisco and the librarian lectured me about using the word “disabilities” and I wanted to say: “if I thought calling it a “difference” would make my seizures go away I would call it a difference.” Is it a disability or a difference? Yes! I feel a different disdain for the term dyslexia which I find very limiting, yet the dyslexic army insists on using it as a catch-all term, which only confuses the conversation, in my opinion.

Yet, as problematic as the word disability is, I believe the greater injustice is with the word learning. It gives the impression that its a school problem when in fact our world outside of school can be just as disorienting. (Which is one of the reasons I wrote Daveland the way I did.) Learning has never been a problem for me, its not a problem for any kid in their natural state. I believe the greatest desire we have as humans is to learn. I learned how to learn my whole life which stands in contrast to my early school experience. What I needed were teachers who understood, knew how to support those differences while adjusting for my neurological problems.

4) Some “ administrators “ simply indicate that the problem can be taken care of via technology—spell check, and calculators—is it as simple as that?

Given the choice of an uninformed teacher and a sick learning environment I’ll take the computer every time. (In fact, without the computer I couldn’t have achieved all that I have.) But that would lead to a kind of isolation that’s already problematic with an LD person. If I’m going to learn with technology (and there are lots of resources to support self-directed learning) then why am I paying tax dollars to bank roll these slackers? Over time systems organize to serve themselves and their members don’t want to be bothered by the complications of someone else’s needs, like mine.

Look, the use of technology to remediate problems is a red herring in my opinion, distracting them from the real job of reform that would allow more inclusion of learning styles/strengths and weaknesses. And because we have these ridiculous conversations the system will remain unable to reform itself. Reform will come but not from within or from government. I believe that the learners will drive this change because they now have access.

5) What about accommodations and modifications—can they help? Or do they make the person dependent?

Yeah, invisible disabilities are tough for that reason, even though brain imaging gives us a window to see a visible difference, making it real. I have a good riff about this in Daveland. So, why not take away the medications, corrective lenses in the same way we don’t allow extra time to slow processors?

Accommodations are crutches; thank god for crutches. And sometimes we need a permanent prosthetic. Some are better than others, more natural; you often barely notice. I explain to people that in some ways I’m blind, it’s not cheating for me to have extra time or to color code things because . . . SOMETIMES I’M BLIND! But you always run into the issue of people focusing on your deficiencies, occasionally using them against you.

I know this doesn’t answer your question but I think as a society we would benefit from adhering to the concept of Wabi Sabi, which is a Japanese term for embracing imperfection, knowing that the imperfection itself has a certain beauty to it. In that sense we are perfect. And, if we can’t wrap our minds around that. . . then give the small bladdered a bathroom break, give Jumpy Stewart her meds, and let the poor LD kid have extra time for his slow processor to show the world what he’s capable of.

6) What other problems do kids with learning disabilities encounter?

What shocked me when I did some investigation for Daveland was how the numbers for suicide, drug/alcohol addiction, incarceration, ect. went through the roof when looking at LD adults. However, the one thing that I heard over and over again from different cases was the devastation of self-talk. (I could’ve easily taken a deadly road in my life; and I’ve never achieved the kind of enlightenment that would eliminate self-talk.) The source of the voices are usually people in authority, teachers or parents. You combine that with isolation and you have the makings of all the maladies I ticked off at the beginning of the paragraph. Healthy education is the leverage to answer most of society’s ills, always has been, always will be.

One of the things that I found very disappointing, as I reached out to the LD community, was it’s insular vibe. The conversation tends to be dominated by non-LD academic types or those who had a very supportive journey. In reference to that latter, they either grew up in a rich learning environment with understanding and supportive parents or they had the benefit of special schools. Yet the majority of LD kids don’t have that level of support and are often left to fend for themselves, misunderstood by those closest to them. These are the people I wanted to reach, the ones headed for isolation, the street, prison, or a premature visit to the morgue.

7) How do you respond to the statement that the student is just “ different “ ?

Depends. Is different good? In a closed society, no. I grew up in a tiny town in which that kind of parsing can be crushing on a child. Now I live in San Francisco where they espouse the celebration of “different” but if you misspell your protest sign it will get you separated from the herd faster than burning a poster of Che. The thing is that we are all different in some way, it’s just that some of us don’t conform naturally to our narrowly defined curriculums so we get a label that stays with us throughout our lives.

8) In this age of high stakes testing and no child left behind—how should teachers and schools be approaching the entire issue of learning disability?

Both of the trends you mention speak to the problem of raising the bar for outcomes without dealing with resources or process. All three things need to be addressed to meet the outcomes we say we want, but resources and processes are not sexy and don’t fall neatly into the election cycle. (FYI, I do a more complete treatment of this subject in this blog post.

Honestly, I believe the public education Titanic is one of the last bastions of outdated social antiquities to fall and it has charted a course that will take an ocean’s journey to turn around. I think change, for better or worse, will come to us. (Even some reformers are saying this.) I think it’s the same shift we’ve seen in publishing, music, and regime change around the world. We are living through a zeitgeist, a shift fueled by technology. Many voiceless people have the power now to choose, having been given tools to organize and make their voices heard. For the first time kids increasingly have choices about what and how they will learn. (It took 35 years for a teacher to ask me that question.) With budget short-falls from all levels of government roosting at the local levels radical measures will be taken and services will be cut, making the leveraging of technology the logical shifting-the-burden strategy. However, this will require a structural change for teachers and schools, which may also present an opportunity. Having said that, equal access to technology will be huge. Even in progressive San Francisco, at the center of hi-tech-narvanna, some parts of town report internet access for families with school children at around 50%. Those are not good odds. Also, we need to be concerned about the cumulative effects of using technology. Technology can both foster connections and promote isolation.

I don’t see our obsession with measures going away but we may be able to handle that chore differently with the help of technology so that we can get back to the real job of learning. Or not.

9) Where can interested people get a copy of DAVELAND?

You can find everything you need by going to my website. For those interested in continuing the conversation they can go to my blog where I’ve posted some extended answers to similar questions.

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