Content note: Mentions of racism and violence against Native American and Indigenous people as experienced by the author, descriptions of ableism
By James Bird
When we say someone is smart, what does that mean? Does it mean they performed well in school? If it does, then I’m the opposite of smart. I was awful in school. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to read or write, or that I didn’t understand the concept of math. I just couldn’t learn the way my teachers wanted me to. I was different, and none of my schools had time for different.
What made me different? Was I a product of my environment? Maybe. I lived in poverty and bounced around from school to school after each eviction sent my family on the search for another apartment and my single mother in pursuit of another job. Learning in those circumstances would be difficult for any kid. But did that make me not smart? Sure, I wasn’t an honor roll student, but none of the other kids knew about section 8, HUD housing, food stamps, hotel vouchers, and how to pack everything you own into two black trash bags in under thirty minutes while the sheriff tossed your furniture out. I knew these things. This qualifies as smart, doesn’t it?
But that was life outside of my brain. What was going on inside was the other reason people thought there was something wrong with me. The doctors explained it like this: If everyone has a sack of water around their brain, and lightning strikes, the water absorbs the blow and allows the brain to only receive a small charge of electricity, letting you learn safely and normally. My brain was made without the sack surrounding it. I take the lightning—information coming in—head on. I learn from each strike, but not the way others learn new things or process information. This meant that I dissected what I heard or read, seeing how many other words I could make from various words. I’d then play with the letters, trading vowels with words in the next sentence to make new words.
This made reading very difficult and reading aloud nearly impossible. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I’d hand in assignments that had nothing to do with the lesson, but every letter from each question was used to create a story. I’d hand in my story and hope the teacher enjoyed it, but I was always failed. I was always placed in the back of the classroom, the place for students the teachers had given up on. I was allowed to hand in my silly stories and I managed to pass with Ds.
But I loved words. I collected them to make stories. Always stories. I had to tell stories.
It got worse in high school (or better, depending on how you look at it). I was failing all of my classes. I was reprimanded constantly for not paying attention, for not focusing, and for fooling around. But I was paying attention, just not the way they expected. I was different.
Being reminded I was different wasn’t new to me. We were the poor family. I was the kid who didn’t have a dad. I was the kid who wore the same pants every day. And we were always the only Native American family anyone knew. And in school, we were taught that Native Americans were the bad guys. The savages. The ungrateful killers who refused the bible and scalped all the innocent white people who just wanted to flee their oppressive homelands and make a better life for their families.
This was my identity I was given. I was a poor Native American boy with no dad and oh, yeah, there was also something wrong with my brain. That’s who I was to people on the outside, but that’s not who I ever was. Not really. I was different, yes, but I didn’t yet know that didn’t mean I was un-teachable.
Throughout high school, the lightning strikes and my grades got worse. I was sent to doctors and put on pills. These pills were intended to calm the storm inside my brain. At this time, I was frequently having seizures. I’d wake up in a hospital completely humiliated, knowing everyone at school would be talking about how I snapped during class, started spitting, and was flopping on the floor like a fish out of water. It was so embarrassing. I even quit playing basketball, where I was my school’s MVP, because of the fear of having another seizure on the court, in front of everyone.
I found myself depressed for the first time in my life. I didn’t want to live anymore if it meant worrying that my next trip to the hospital could happen at any moment. I stopped sports, I stopped hanging out with my friends, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this weird condition. All I had left is words. So I kept writing my stories.
I was taught how to tell stories by my mom. Her wildly imaginative tales always made me feel better. And that’s what I needed, to feel better. I plunged headfirst into storytelling. I became obsessed with comics, movies, and books. I didn’t have a dad in real life, but I chose to no longer live in the real world. I took all the life lessons a father bestows onto his son from Lawrence Fishburne in Boyz N da Hood. He was my dad. Tom Sellick in Quigley Down Under taught me to always fight for the oppressed; he was my dad too. Wes Studi in Geronimo taught me to never give up. Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands taught me it’s okay to be different. I had the coolest dads. I was happy again, all because of stories. They saved my life.
Around that time, my mom became fed up with doctors and meds, and told me, “Maybe you’re not the one with the problem. Maybe everyone else is.” And I chose to believe her. I kept watching movies and reading books, and finally understood my desire to tell stories. But what was my story?
For that answer, I had to know where I came from; who was in my blood. So, I dropped out of high school and got two jobs in one mall. I worked nonstop for a couple of months, enough to help Mom with rent while I was away, and then I left. With one backpack stuffed full of clothes, I moved to Minnesota. Where my mom grew up. Home to our people, The Ojibwe.
It was there where I reconnected with my blood. And although Minnesota had many more trees, lakes, and friendlier people than California, not everything was different. My relatives were still poor. Life was still hard. But something in the cold air made sense to me. It was there where I realized something that shaped the rest of my life: Being different isn’t just okay, it’s awesome. Finally, I felt free. I didn’t have to learn the ways they wanted me to. I didn’t have to be who they wanted me to be. I could finally just be me.
I realized my Ojibwe people didn’t learn how to live their lives in a classroom. They learned differently. And that way was my way. Through storytelling. It’s in my blood. It’s in my DNA.
I knew what I had to do. My purpose had been staring me in the face the entire time. I went back home to California. I re-enrolled for my senior year in high school, and immediately went to speak to a guidance counselor. And by luck, I landed in Mrs. Wilkin’s office. She was a an odd white lady known for keeping bugs as pets in her classrooms.
She looked over my grades and I shared with her the epiphany I‘d had in Minnesota. That day, she told me something I will never forget: “I’ve never said this to a student before, and I doubt I ever will again, but school is not for you. You need to listen to that blood, and move to Hollywood so you can tell the world your stories.”
And that’s what I did.
But for my storytelling plan to work, I needed to be smart. Strategic. Clever. And well prepared. I decided not to master one medium of storytelling but to study all mediums. That way, once I found my favorite form, I’d pursue that, but still know a little about everything.
I thrust myself into acting classes, fashion design school, creative writing workshops, photography, music, and even painting. This was all so that when I got on set, I’d be able to know what I’m talking about to whoever I’m talking to.
Years went by and it was all going according to plan. I traveled the country with photography. I got my AA in Fashion Design. I got small acting roles here and there. I wrote scripts after scripts and I finally began directing. I became my own teacher and student. I let my blood run through me. I no longer felt like I had learning disabilities. I began to feel that my brain, which I once hated and begged to be normal, was in fact extraordinary. And this happiness led me to my wife, Adriana Mather. She was the first person, besides my mom, to love my brain. And together, we set out to embark on a new medium of storytelling; writing books. And here I am now, writing Native American stories and living with my beautiful wife and son, Wolf.
I asked above what it means to say someone is smart. I don’t think it has anything to do with their grades or how quickly they catch on to new lessons or assignments. A smart person knows who they are and knows what they want. And if you don’t know who you are yet and don’t know yet what you want, that doesn’t mean you’re not smart, it just means you’re still learning.
Another word for that is living. We learn every day. For some it’s calculus, for others like me, it’s storytelling. And if you’re someone with a brain that doesn’t quite fit in the way everyone says it’s supposed to, just think about this: If someone with a ‘different’ brain was there when the constitution was being written, and when it came to the part that “All Men Are Created Equal,” maybe someone would have had fun with the letters and switched out the C for a T. Think of how ‘different’ this country would be today. We need to be treated as equals. We need different brains. We need to tell our stories. We need you.
The Brave by James Bird is on sale now.
Perfect for fans of Rain Reign, this middle-grade novel The Brave is about a boy with an OCD issue and his move to a reservation to live with his biological mother.
Collin can’t help himself—he has a unique condition that finds him counting every letter spoken to him. It’s a quirk that makes him a prime target for bullies, and a continual frustration to the adults around him, including his father.
When Collin asked to leave yet another school, his dad decides to send him to live in Minnesota with the mother he’s never met. She is Ojibwe, and lives on a reservation. Collin arrives in Duluth with his loyal dog, Seven, and quickly finds his mom and his new home to be warm, welcoming, and accepting of his condition.
Collin’s quirk is matched by that of his neighbor, Orenda, a girl who lives mostly in her treehouse and believes she is turning into a butterfly. With Orenda’s help, Collin works hard to overcome his challenges. His real test comes when he must step up for his new friend and trust his new family.
James Bird is a screenwriter and director at the independent film company, Zombot Pictures; his films include We Are Boats and Honeyglue. A California native of Ojibwe descent, he now lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts with his wife, the author and actor Adriana Mather, and their son. The Brave is his debut novel.