There aren’t many events from the first grade that I can remember with vivid detail, but one of the few that I can stuck with me because of the profound impact that its lesson had on me later in life. In this class it was very common to do little projects, which included cutting up and gluing pieces of paper. When the teacher brought the box of safety scissors around the class she asked each student if they were right-handed or left-handed. I had never heard this term before. (remember, I was in first grade) so when asked I admitted that I didn’t know.
“If you don’t know you’re probably right-handed,” she told me as I received my pair of scissors. When it came time to cut one of the pieces of paper, I reached for the scissors with my left hand without a second thought. I found the scissors were awkward to hold, and the blades tended to pull apart rather than slide past each other. It simply wasn’t cutting the paper.
I reported this to my teacher, who immediately saw the problem. “Oh, you must be left-handed then.” She took my scissors then handed my a different pair, this one with the letter “L” engraved on them. I returned to my seat and, already holding them in my left hand, began cutting the paper. That was indeed the problem. So, continuing the assignment, I glued a few pieces from one worksheet to the other and picked up the scissors with my right hand. Once again, they wouldn’t cut! I walked up to report this to the teacher again.
“These scissors are giving me issues too.”
She looked up and saw that I was holding the “lefty” scissors in my right hand and asked in frustration “Okay, stop messing around! are you right handed or left handed?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
She took out a piece of paper and a pencil and handed both to me.
“Anything. Write your name.”
I picked up the pencil and instinctively wrote my name with my right hand.
“There, you’re right handed.” She swapped me scissors and ordered me back to my seat. But when I tried cutting again, I was having the same problem as before. This teacher was notoriously impatient, and not wanting to push her buttons any more than I already had, I began trying to reason out what exactly was going on. I knew what right and left were, but could it be that certain scissors must be used by a certain hand? But why would some scissors be made for one hand and others for the other? Wouldn’t it make more sense for all scissors to be for one hand, and just train us to cut with that hand?
I switched hands, and sure enough, now I was able to cut just fine. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I leaned over to another student who I knew was one of the smarter students in class and asked, “What does it mean when you’re right-handed or left-handed?”
“Oh, that’s just which hand you do everything with” he responded.
“Well I do everything with both hands.”
“But it’s easier with one hand than it is the other. Here, write something down.”
Once again I picked up a pencil and began writing.
“See? It’s easier to write with your right hand. That means you’re right-handed. Now try writing with your left hand and you’ll see what I mean.”
I switched hands, and continued writing just fine. I was covering what I was writing with my hand and smudged the pencil lead a bit but otherwise my handwriting was almost unchanged.
“It’s awkward not being able to see what I’m writing, but not a big deal.”
The other student watched, then smirked. “Looks like you’re ambidextrous.”
“It means you can use both hands the same. Most people can’t do that, for me it’s really awkward and weird using my left hand.”
I sat there a moment taking this in. “Really?”
He took my pencil and demonstrated with his left hand. As he had predicted, he wrote very slowly, held the pencil awkwardly, and his penmanship dropped several notches. He assured me that this wasn’t intentional, and I was just different that way. “Consider yourself lucky.”
It would be years before my family knew that I was ambidextrous, only because it wasn’t a big deal to me. Yet. (although it did lead to some funny mind-fuckery with my grandma) The subject re-entered my mind in about fifth grade, about the time when my obsession for learning was just getting started. The Internet didn’t exist yet at the time, at least not in a usable for like we know it today (Gawd that makes me feel old) but I had discovered the school’s encyclopedia collection and began looking up any subject I could find that I didn’t know about.
For some reason anything that I didn’t know became fascinating for just this reason. This would explode later when I received my first Encarta CD in 1997, but even this early I was getting my fix from the school’s library. One of the subjects that I came across was laterality, or the study of the “preference for one side of the body over the other.” (as Wikipedia puts it, I don’t have a copy of the original encyclopedia I was using at the time)
According to the article, true ambidexterity is “rare,” though no actual statistic was given. Ambidexterity is far more common in people who are left-handed but were forced to learn to use their right hand. This absolutely fascinated me, but not nearly as much as what I had read next: There was once a social stigma for being left-handed, and still is in some parts of the world. In fact, the word “sinister” is derived from “sinistral” which literally means “left-handed.” Left-handedness was considered devilish and a result of the influence of Satan. It was common for “sinistrals” to be persecuted, and hide their orientation.
Because a sinistral is likely to be awkward trying to function with their right hand, being left-handed was often associated with being awkward or clumsy. In China the left was considered the “bad” side where as the right was the “good” side. Even in Mormonism, Christ (or anything righteous for that matter) was at the “right hand of God.” We were to hold the sacrament trays only with our right hand. We were to hold the right hand to the square.
“Psshhh,” I thought, “If I lived in a society that persecuted lefties it would be very easy for someone like me to pretend to be right handed. Just develop habits and suppress the urge to use my left hand for single-handed tasks.” But luckily, our society was so thoroughly beyond such a silly notion that I only learned of it from a book. What was more mind-boggling to me, however, was that this was something that the vast majority of society live with every day, and I don’t. I had to read about it just to wrap my head around the concept. That point absolutely fascinated me, because from a philosophical standpoint, anything that affects me may not affect everyone, and just because something doesn’t affect me, doesn’t mean that it affects no one.
I returned the book to its shelf, quite proud of my new wisdom.
The years went on in my schooling career, and soon very few of my friends knew I was ambidextrous. In fact I almost completely forgot about it, because I had so little reason to think about it. (except when using scissors). I had simply developed a habit of writing using my right hand, so I won’t cover up my words as I’m writing, and all other tasks were done with whichever hand was most convenient at the moment.
In 2000, when I was in high school, some students in my programming class began talking about a suicide. Naturally I asked if this was a friend or someone I might know. They said it wasn’t, and that the suicide happened in California, but I still might be interested in it. Stuart Matis was the victim’s name, but that wasn’t the part that caught my attention. He was gay, and was so distraught over it that he took his own life.
I didn’t believe this at first. The [Mormon] church teaches that no one is actually gay, they are social deviants with a heinous sin. So how could this possibly happen? How could this be true? Why didn’t he just choose to be straight, like everyone else? The moment I got home, I visited Google and searched for the suicide. I found an article on Newsweek about the incident and found that there was not one, but two suicides. Clay Whitmer was the second. He took his own life after his friend died, who he failed to save. Whitmer was also gay.
By now I had a torrent of thoughts going through my head. All those years of seminary teachers talking about how awful the world is because they think that homosexuality is acceptable. How the world is so perverse that it accepts “Gay,” “Lesbian,” “Bisexual,” and “Transsexual” all as legitimate genders. How disgusting those people are for their unrepentance. How homophobic I realized I had felt.
Then my own words seemed to whisper in my ear: Just because something doesn’t affect me, doesn’t mean that it affects no one. If there was any moment where I felt the “still small voice,” this was it, even though I recognized those as my own words from years earlier. I didn’t know Gay people exist because I’m straight, unaffected by the issue, and never witnessed any manifestation that my belief was wrong. How could I have known? Gradually, my homophobia melted away, and was replaced with shame and compassion for people who had been bullied. No one chooses to be left or right-handed. They discover which they are by observing which hand they write with. I never confronted my seminary teacher over this, but I played out the scenario in my head:
Being gay is a sin, and a choice!
I never chose to be straight, and even if I did, why would I choose to be Gay and be bullied? Stuart wanted to be straight so desperately he ended his life over it!
But there are people in the church that have overcome their homosexuality!
I…wait, how can that be? Did they fake it?
This one had me stumped. Were the “recovered” gay people in the church faking it? The answer, it turned out, was sitting right in my hand; in the form of a ballpoint pen.
If I was living in a society that persecuted sinistrals, I would get caught using my left hand, and would be bullied over it. With no reason to believe that I wasn’t left-handed—I had been caught using my left hand afterall—I would then change my habits and use my right hand exclusively, and do so without any awkwardness; and thus be “cured” of my left-handedness, all the while unaware that I was ambidextrous all along.
Something else struck me. Years earlier I had assumed that if I was ambidextrous in a society that persecutes sinistrals, I could just change my habits and move on like it’s no big deal. But what if I only found out in the first grade when I had no idea what laterality was? I would have been immediately persecuted the moment I was caught using my left hand, and with no context on which to base my assumptions, I would have actually believed that I was left-handed and somehow inferior because of it. I would have been subject to the same fearful self-loathing that religious gays experience, simply because I didn’t know any better. That assumption that I would have been just fine was clearly way off base. And if something as ultimately meaningless as laterality could cause such trauma and emotions, imagine how much more intense the emotional situation must be for something that’s actually meaningful such as sexuality?
I sat there staring at that pen for what must have been a half hour, in shock at this realization. Not only do gay people actually exist, contrary to my previous belief, but bisexual people did too; and it’s not a stretch for someone who is bisexual to find someone of the same gender attractive, think they are gay or lesbian, then fight the urge and suddenly be “straight.” I could easily see myself in that situation over dexterity. It fit perfectly, and was consistent with these suicides from people who couldn’t be “cured” no matter how desperate, and with the idea that other people really can be “cured.”
I had to develop a new set of morals that would supersede anything told by the church. This set turned out to be relatively simple: Does this action harm anyone else in any way? And if no, does it harm me in any way? Finally, the optional third item: Does inaction harm anyone?
Adherence to the optional third item became my metric for how good a person is, but that’s a blog post for another day.
It took me some time to identify what the first chink in the armor of my brainwashing was, and this was it. It would be another six and a half years before it unraveled and I truly saw reality for what it was, but from this point forward, my cognitive dissonance kicked into overdrive and I became a “liberal Mormon.” Now that I have identified ambidexterity as the source of that realization—and interestingly, the reason I swore never to bully or allow bullying of homosexuals—for the first time it became something special and self-identifying. If only I knew in that first grade class what a gift that would turn out to be, for the first chink in my armor was the direct cause of the second, far more devastating one.