Don’t Listen to the Mustn’ts, Shouldn’ts and Can’ts


by Suzanne Reisler Litwin 

Growing up isn’t easy. When you’re young, all you want is to grow up fast. When you’re old, all you want is to be young again.


I wonder if there is a time in your life when you are just fine at the right time. Not wanting to grow up or grow young.


When I was young I had challenges in school. I was in the “low” learning groups for all subjects. I hated being in the low groups. I wanted to be with the “regular” kids. Being in the low learning groups made me feel different and inadequate. I know now that’s not how it was, but that’s how it felt.


I wanted to grow up FAST into a smart person. So, in my spare time, I would read and write – of course. I would work on “Think and Do” study books to practice math, English, writing, spelling and subject matter. In the winter, I would ski and then work on the “Think and Do” books.


I really wanted to be a smart person. It seemed that the smart kids got a lot of respect in school and I wanted that. Although I tried hard to be a smart kid, I couldn’t break into the regular learning groups in elementary school. But…I was a really good athlete – so that helped along the way. I couldn’t spell, but I could run super-fast!


High School – God help me! I was placed in some “remedial learning groups”. That’s what the low learning groups were called. In high school, I was tested for learning disabilities. Yup! I had one, a Spelling Disorder. It’s characterized by the inability to spell correctly, remember spelling patterns and words.


Bottom line, I couldn’t spell for s**t.

Note to self: computers were not available to me at this time – 1976 to 1980.


This spelling disorder affected every subject in school. Basically, I understood the content, texts, and tests. I just couldn’t spell the words correctly when writing. Which made it difficult for my teachers to grade my work and most of the time; they couldn’t understand what I was writing.


Often teachers would tell me, “Suzanne, look up the words in the dictionary to find the correct spelling.”  That was infuriating!!! How was I supposed to do that, if I had no clue how to spell the word in the first place!


I graduated high school – I didn’t enjoy the process at all. Still… I could run really fast!!!


When I was in College, I told my parents I wanted to be a teacher. That’s right, a teacher who couldn’t spell!


This was going to be an uphill battle. I was ready for it. Those “Think and Do” books were my mantra. I had the drive to be a teacher who couldn’t spell!


Franklin Spell Checker

A little device which helped along the way was my Franklin Spelling Corrector. See the picture for this device. With it, I could type in a word, how I thought it was spelled.  In most cases, it gave me the correct spelling. Although, I really didn’t know if it was correctly spelled.


In 1984, a personal computer became available to me. I got an Apple IIC. See the picture. This was the beginning of being a smarter kid! I had the tool I needed to help me write and be understood with few errors.


I did all my assignments using my personal computer.  A major turning point in my life was being able to use the automatic SPELL CHECKER! Learning and life changed at that moment. My love affair with computers started right then. Now, I was able to be what I wanted to be despite my inability.


However, the world of spell checking only lives within a computer. The outside world doesn’t adapt in the same way. I graduated McGill University with a Bachelor of Education and now I was pursuing my teaching license. I had to complete a 2-year stage program to qualify for my license.


While teaching, I had to go through many teacher evaluations which were administered by the university and the principal of the school I was teaching in. These evaluations made me vomit either the morning of or right after the evaluated lesson. They made me so nervous.  I wanted to succeed so badly. I wanted to be a smart kid. I wanted to be a teacher, despite the fact that I couldn’t spell.


After one of the evaluations, the principal told me, “A teacher who can’t spell is like a truck driver who can’t drive! Reconsider your profession, Ms. Litwin”.  After that fireside chat, I b-lined to the washroom and tossed my lunch!


I had the handy Franklin device, I had a spell checker on my computer, but I just didn’t have the ability to spell correctly on the blackboard! When I wrote on the black or whiteboard, I…failed. This was evident during every evaluated lesson. Reminder, it is 1986-1988, there are no smart boards yet.


I doubted myself. I questioned my choice of profession. How was I going to get past the blackboard?   Maybe the principal was right. Maybe being a teacher was a really bad idea.


I decided to be completely honest about my disability. At the beginning of the school year, I told all my students that I couldn’t spell well. I asked them for help. I told them, “If you see that I have spelled a word wrong, please tell me right away. I’m human. I’m imperfect. I’m learning every day too.”

Eventually, I did pass my teacher evaluations and I got my teaching license. I didn’t stop there. I completed a Master of Arts Degree in Educational Technology, specializing in Computer Assisted Learning (my love!).


And…I’m also a writer and author who can’t spell! Go figure! My first children’s book, The Black Velvet Jacket, has a spelling mistake in it too!


Now, with the use of computers and smart boards I rarely spell a word wrong – I think? Still, when I write on a black or white board I often make spelling mistakes. My students are alerted to notify me quickly. It’s like a game now.


My personal journals are loaded with mis-spelling that I can’t even identify. My brother always makes fun of my spelling problem. He says that he recently went on Google translate and it goes from English to Suzanne or Suzanne to English.‎


Bottom line, don’t let any disability stop you from doing what you want to accomplish. Don’t listen to the, “Mustn’ts, Shouldn’ts and Can’ts.”


I couldn’t and did!

Suzanne Reisler Litwin is an instructor at Concordia University in The Centre for Continuing Education – Communications Department. She is a writing instructor at The Cummings Centre. She writes a weekly column in The Suburban Newspaper and at the West Island Blog. Suzanne is a freelance contributor to The Suburban Newspaper, West island Blog, Wise Women Canada, The Metropolitain, and Women on the Fence. She is the author of the children’s book, The Black Velvet Jacket. Visit to read more of her published articles, books, and poetry.


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