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I learnt how to deal with life by learning how to deal with Scrabble

It’s Scrabble Day – yes, there’s a Scrabble Day – and Caroline O’Donoghue reflects on how deeply the game affected her as a child

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I have a friend who recently found out she was dyspraxic. 

As she listed the many symptoms – bad balance, poor hand-eye coordination, difficulty in telling left from right – I found myself becoming uncomfortable.

“But, surely,” I said, with my cynical gosh-they-have-a-word-for-everything-now-don’t-they hat on. 

“That’s not a disorder. That’s just being a bit…” 

I thought back to my childhood of finding everything physical so horribly difficult. 

“That’s just being a bit useless.”

She shook her head. “The thing is, it’s massively under-diagnosed in women, because girls find coping mechanisms so early on. Girls learn to find ways to blend in.”

I went home and read about it. Is there a reason I found so many things difficult in childhood? Is there a reason why, when I turned about eight, my speech became mumbled and slurred out of nowhere? Why I was the last one to learn to tie my shoes? Why I couldn’t knit a snowman, or memorise my times tables, like every single other girl in my class could? Suddenly, the questions I had been asking my whole life – why can everyone else do this, and why can’t you? – made brutal sense to me. Because maybe, Caroline, maybe your brain legitimately is a little different to other people's. 

I don’t know whether or not I have dyspraxia, but I do know that I struggled. I don't know if my parents ever worried about me. It was the 90s, it was Ireland and my parents didn't necessarily have the tools to deal with a kid who may have been just a little more awkward than was strictly normal. They didn’t have the language. They didn’t have the resources. But what they did have was Scrabble. 

My parents were, and still are, Scrabble addicts. For years, they would end every evening with a two-hour game and I think that little carved-out space kept them sane and, just as importantly, kept them connected to one another. It was a reminder that they weren’t just Mum and Dad to four troublesome children – they were two adults who were perpetually arguing over whether “dof” was a word. And because I was exactly the sort of kid who would rather sit on their mum’s lap than do virtually anything else, soon I started playing, too. 

She never went easy on me. She had long ago memorised the list of two-letter words that she had laminated, and had no problem with point-burying me with words like “qi” and “xu” and “jo”. She’s the sort of person who never remembers to talk down to children (“What’s going to happen in a billion years, Mummy?” Her response: “Well, the sun will probably explode, pet”) which made her a brilliant friend and unconquerable adversary. 

Playing Scrabble with my mum was the only time in my entire childhood where I felt athletic. I couldn’t wrap my head around tennis or swimming or even rounders. The idea of swinging something and hitting something else felt as unlikely as being sent to the moon. I looked at the tiny trophies my brothers brought home from Saturday football in absolute wonder – it wasn’t just their co-ordination I admired, but the ability to grasp and master the rules of an actual game. But Scrabble finally felt like something that appealed, very specifically, to what I was good at. Words were the only thing that felt comfortably mine and, even if I never won against my mum, I could at least prove myself a worthy competitor. And she was smart enough to know that she could use Scrabble to make me do things I hated.

“IBEX,” I would shout, laying the tiles in front of me like a merchant trader. “TRIPLE WORD SCORE!”

“Good,” she’d nod, fingers together like Mr Miyagi. “Now what does it mean?”

“It’s a special kind of GOAT.” 

“Great. Now what are your points?”

It could take me minutes, adding up the points, tripling them, adding them to my last score, but she would wait. Sometimes she would make herself a cup of tea while I did it, but she still made me do it. And while it didn’t make me a maths whizz, it did add to the huge host of things that Scrabble was giving me – a whole set of coping mechanisms. 

Because my friend was right when she said that little girls find coping mechanisms – they do. 

Girls are very good at getting on with things – of coming up with rhymes to remember, of writing “L” and “R” on their shoes, of copying the facial cues of people around them. Girls are naturally watchers and, as a result, are natural copers. Scrabble taught me that games have rules – no proper nouns, that’s not how we play – and that you have to work within those rules. It taught me that maths was functional, not just hellish. It taught me how to be patient while I waited for my turn. As I slid the tiles around to make the puzzle work, I learnt how to work with what you have – three Os and a Q? – as opposed to what you wish you had.  

Because that’s what every awkward kid has to do – to work with the what they’ve been given, to play the hand they’ve been dealt, to savour the small victories – and to learn, magnificently, that the small victories do indeed eventually come. 

@Czaroline 

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