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Book Excerpt: Designer Dana Buchman’s "A Special Education"

Special Needs

The Wonder Year

Some people, when faced with a major life change, make a conscious effort to slow everything else down. A woman who’s having a child for the first time might decide to lighten her load at work. Someone who is taking on new responsibilities in her job might hold off on starting a family that year.

I have never been one of those people.

For most of my life, I have been a serious doer, undaunted by the notion of having too much on my plate. If anything, I would jump at the chance to juggle more for all the world to see. I had been encouraged early on by my mother and my grandmother to be a high achiever, and I got hooked on the accolades they showered on me. I wanted to be a superwoman, the embodiment of the “having-it-all’ feminist ideal that became so popular when I was in college in the 1970s.

 

Fashion designer Dana Buchman's book A Special Education: One Family's Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities written with her daughter, Charlotte, describes the gradual discovery of Charlotte's learning disabilities as well as Buchman's own path to self-discovery. LD.org is proud to offer the first chapter, "The Wonder Year,” which illustrates how even a highly successful and creative businesswoman can find understanding and helping her child with LD a major challenge.

A Special Education

If there was ever a year when I got to shine, it was 1986, probably the most action-packed and thrilling year of my life. I did it all then: I was newly married to my husband, Tom; we had our first daughter, Charlotte; and the Dana Buchman designer label was born. I had everything I had ever wanted. It was a series of dreams come true. I had this amazing husband — not only handsome but brilliant, loving, and supportive of my career! Then, I received the offer of a lifetime for a young designer, the chance to have my own label. It was practically handed to me on a silver platter by my mentor and boss, Liz Claiborne. (The Dana Buchman label is owned by Liz Claiborne, Inc.) To top it all off, I gave birth to this perfect, beautiful little creature whom I just loved instantly.

 

Could it get any better? My life was picture-perfect — on the outside, at least. People thought, “Look at her, keeping it all together, doing everything at once with so much grace and style.” On the inside, though, I was a bit of a mess, and I didn’t even know it. I was so out of touch with my emotions, so into living the dream and seeming “perfect,” that I don’t think I even knew how overwhelming it all was. Here I was, under tremendous pressure to prove myself in designing my first collection, and at the same time, I was just learning how to care for a baby. These were two insanely demanding endeavors unto themselves, let alone in combination.

 

It was in the next year, when Tom and I started to notice that there was something amiss with Charlotte and her development, that it started becoming harder for me to hold it all together. The idyllic picture of my “perfect” life began to pixelate like a frozen image when the DVD player gets stuck. In the years that followed, that picture would take on a different hue, colored by the experience of having a child with serious learning differences (LD) and motor deficiencies.

 

That Girl From Memphis

My adult life has been shaped by many things. Being the mother of a child with LD has turned out to be one of the major, defining details. It’s been a rigorous education — nineteen years and counting. And now it’s hard to recall a time when LD-speak wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.

 

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s and 1960s, I can assure you I never heard the term learning difference, or even the less politically correct learning disability. Back then, unfortunately, the kids who had difficulty reading and spelling and doing math were labeled the “dumb kids.” Knowing what I do now about LD — how it is the result of different brain wiring rather than a lack of intelligence -- I tend to think many of those kids were probably pretty bright, and it breaks my heart to think of the kids I and others judged unfairly.

 

Me, I was always near the top of the class, an A student who loved sitting at the front of the classroom, raising my hand for the teacher to call on me. I was the youngest of three kids in a family that placed a high value on academic achievement.

 

My mother never worked but was an avid reader. I remember her reading Plato when I was quite young, telling us to be quiet because it was very difficult. At one point, she offered to pay me $50 if I’d read Shelby Foote's The Civil War (I did!), but bribing me was rare; mainly she just inspired me to read by her example. At 60, she enrolled in Memphis State University to get her master's degree in English. I was an undergraduate English major at Brown University at the time and had just learned to write papers. Ironically, my mother would send hers to me for guidance and correction. From my father, I got a strong — almost fierce — work ethic. A child of the Great Depression, "Whirly," as I called him once I got too old for "Daddy," worked very hard. He was a co-owner of a steel-fabricating plant. The plant opened at 7 a.m., and my dad was there, right on time, every morning. My parents awoke at 5:30 a.m., and at 6 a.m., my mother brought breakfast upstairs on a tray. We kids were always welcome to join them for breakfast, piling onto their big bed or perching ourselves on their armchairs with pieces of the morning paper. It's probably no surprise that I've always been a morning person, getting up at the crack of dawn, getting to work early.

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