How I Became Unrecognizable to Myself

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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From the outside looking in, people typically remarked that things came easily to me, a product of being in the right place at the right time or taking advantage of a given opportunity that fell into my lap. Even as a little girl, I knew that I had to work incredibly hard to be successful. I had nothing to hang my hat on, nothing to cultivate.

effects of a stroke
My twin sister, Gillian, and me.

My older brother and twin sister had natural, quantifiable talents: he was a gifted mathematician and could easily move from abstractions to complex problems, she was a gifted writer and singer who made her presence known.

So I was determined to be “the hard worker,” “the people-pleaser” until I could figure out where my strengths lay. I was a list-maker, a rule-follower, a goal-oriented person, but I certainly did not think of myself as amazing.

Finding My Way

My talent snuck up on me. I thought I had no original or creative ideas, so I pursued and quantified other people’s thinking. I took copious notes on what my classmates said, what my parents told me about what poems meant, what my teachers told me about the meaning of given topics.

I was a master of bad karaoke of other’s ideas and it worked. Teachers, for example are always quite impressed with their own ideas. I dutifully regurgitated their thinking and I was rewarded for it.

Throughout college, I became an arduous quotation collector, culling gems from authors and speakers who had insight into a topic that I was working on for a paper or a project.

Through my over-reliance on gleaning information from outside experts, connections of my own started to take shape.

The Beauty of the Brain

efforts of a strokeI grew into my talent of taking pieces of seemingly disparate information and transforming them into fresh ideas. I developed a skill of “combinatory play” – recombining lots of ideas through language. I used the details from others to present problems and ideas in a new way.

The left side of my brain read and extracted details to feed the right side of my brain to work its magic.

To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing at the time. Post-stroke, the workings of the brain became instantly apparent because of the deficits I was (and to a certain extent still am) experiencing. As a consultant, I was known for revealing my brain in real time, but I could rarely say something in the same way twice.

It was a product of my thinking in that moment, and once the moment was over, it was gone. I was known for my spontaneous epiphanies, rather than for my preplanning. Therefore, being well prepared or being a good writer was an afterthought, something that I did out of due diligence for my audience, but my mind was already racing to another idea.

Getting Stuck

Post-stroke, my inabilities to read and evaluate text, compounded by my inability to communicate what I was thinking, left me stuck in abstractions, desperate to translate those visual images into intelligible thoughts.

I need to tell you all of this upfront because what I had known to be true, how I organized my life, where I envisioned the trajectory of my life was gone in an instant on a cold Saturday morning.

In a matter of moments, I became unrecognizable to myself.

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