“I’m sure I’m dyspraxic,” the woman said, “though of course they didn’t call it that when I was young. They just called me Clumsy.”
She was a sprightly, slender lady, perhaps sixty-five or seventy, with a lively and engaging face; I liked her instantly, and was willing to claim kinship.”Same here,” I said.
“Oh!” she said. “Do you get left and right muddled up? Were you a late walker? Terrible handwriting?
“Apparently I used to walk around on my knees,” I said, “and I was terrible at sports -”
“Oh yes! Last person to be picked for the team! And they’d put you in goal to keep you out of the way, and then you get told off when the ball goes in -”
” – And the other kids hate you because they think you’re not trying!”
It was like one of those conversations where you find out that someone you’ve just met has got the same favourite book as you, or spent their childhood holidays in the same place – that sense of shared understanding and validation of the way you feel.
Now, I don’t really approve of the medicalisation of normal human variability. It implies that perfection and normality are the same, whereas, as we know, nobody’s perfect. Notwithstanding the significant effects of severe Asperger’s syndrome, there are some people who apply an amateur diagnosis of “somewhere on the spectrum” to anyone who they think is a bit odd. This implies that there is a group of perfectly well-adjusted and socially able people who are nowhere on it; and if I’ve ever met any of these paragons, I don’t know them very well. Taken to extremes, the allocation of a Latinate term to every diversion from the ideal could lead everyone to be treated for imagined or insignificant flaws, and the consequence in terms of human misery could be dire.
It also smacks of hypochondria – encouraging people to pride themselves on their interesting health conditions. “I’m not clumsy, I’m dyspraxic,” I could say, as if the trail of broken crockery I leave behind me makes me somehow more virtuous, a heroic figure struggling against the tragic handicap that Fate has dealt me. Or: “I’m not a miserable cow, I’m a depressive.” (Actually, I’m both.)
All that said, though, I love the idea of being “dyspraxic”. I think the main reason is that when a new descriptive term enters the language, it is relatively light on negative connotations; it means, as Humpty Dumpty put it in Alice in Wonderland, “just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” It stands between the characteristic it refers to, and the connotations which that characteristic has collected.
In “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Wolf observed that, in Western culture, beauty – particularly in women – is seen to correlate with all the virtues – goodness, intelligence and lovability. Being thin – which in this narrative is an implicit requirement for beauty – is, if possible, even more loaded with connotation. It is assumed to imply self-control, application, and industriousness.
We aren’t under as much pressure to be dextrous as we are to be attractive. Quite apart from anything else, there’s not much you can sell people to make them less clumsy, whereas you can bombard people with adverts for skin creams and diet plans. However, the same sort of process applies in both cases: being clumsy is associated with all manner of other characteristics, all of them negative.
Being bad at sports, as I and my friend identified, means a lack of team spirit. You can’t possibly be trying hard enough to win, so therefore you can’t want to be part of the gang. Sportsmen and women are heroic, morally and physically. Olympians return to the country garlanded with honour. “Sporting” doesn’t mean dexterity, but moral nobility – the ability to be magnanimous in victory and steadfast in defeat.
It’s worse, I think, for boys. Girls and women are permitted not to care about sports, but men who don’t like football are, you’d think, practically eunuchs. In “A Room with a View” the last straw for Lucy is when her fiance Cecil refuses to play tennis. Her brother Freddy has complained that “there are some chaps that are no good for anything but books.” Cecil says, “I plead guilty to being such a chap.” Forster has already signalled Cecil’s lack of sexiness by describing his failure to kiss Lucy properly, whereas the hero, George, simply grabs her and snogs her whenever he gets a chance. Cecil’s inability to play tennis is even worse. Poor Cecil. Can’t play tennis, actually asks a woman’s permission before engaging her in sexual activity; who’d want him?
Inability to play a musical instrument is an indication, firstly, of a lack of application; secondly, of a lack of finer sensibilities; thirdly, again, of a lack of sexiness. Nineteenth-century girls who’d been taught to play the piano were encouraged to play for potential suitors. And it has been repeatedly observed that a sure-fire way for a boy to get the girls is to acquire a guitar.
Breaking things is carelessness, a lack of regard for your own property and that of others. And as for having to hold your hands out in front of you to see which one spells L before turning left – well, that’s just stupid.
Now, I’m not going to set up a “Dyspraxic and Proud” group. Firstly, because the word “dyspraxic” has entered the English language in a jocular sense. People use it in a similar way to how they would use “vertically challenged” as a comically elevated version of “short”. It has come to mean, in fact, “clumsy.”
More importantly, in order to be actually proud of something you really have to think there’s something good about it. And I wish I wasn’t so clumsy. It’d have been great to have avoided all that PE-lesson-related hassle. I’d have bloody loved to have mastered a musical instrument. And I do wish I hadn’t broken one (was it only one?) of my husband’s collection of Piccadilly Records mugs.
However, presumably, it’d also have been nice to have been drop-dead gorgeous. Just as we generally find out that worth and lovability aren’t the sole property of the beautiful, so those of us with two left feet need to appreciate that it doesn’t make you a bad person. That is, it would be silly to be proud of being clumsy, but there’s no need to be ashamed of it.