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Memoir

“I dropped out of high school due to ADHD and depression. Public libraries saved my life—and now I’m getting my master’s degree”

Nancy Dutra found refuge in local libraries, self-teaching her way to a GED, a bachelor’s degree and now graduate school

By Nancy Dutra| Photography by Shlomi Amiga
“I dropped out of high school due to ADHD and depression. Public libraries saved my life—and now I’m getting my master’s degree”

Until I was 14, I was a bit of a keener. I was excited to start high school, and I’d totally bought in to the fantasy I’d seen on television: football, cheerleading, dating. I had every intention of going on to college or university. Shortly after I started Grade 9 at York Memorial Collegiate Institute, I met some older kids who’d dropped out. They’d shoot pool across the street from school. I hate to admit it, but I thought they were losers. I remember thinking I would never be like them. Dropping out seemed like a stupid thing to do.

But, despite my initial enthusiasm, I soon found myself struggling with my new workload. I couldn’t concentrate, and I started falling behind, especially in math class. Some of my teachers seemed to think I had a bad attitude, but I was really just overwhelmed, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get organized. By the end of the school year I was discouraged, and things only got worse over the summer. I became so depressed that I was barely eating. When I started Grade 10, in 1993, it was all too much for me. I decided not to go back to school.

I spent months keeping this decision secret from my parents, who had emigrated from Portugal in the 1970s. I took advantage of their broken English and limited understanding of the school system. I’d impersonate my mom when officials called our home, telling them I was too sick to go to school. Sometimes I was able to hide out at my house, but mostly I spent my days at the library. At 15, I was a year too young to quit school legally, and eventually my vice-principal called and threatened to charge me with truancy. So I let a woman from the school board sign me up for an adult day program at George Harvey Collegiate Institute.

I was by far the youngest person at my new school—everyone else was over 30. Usually, I’d finish a unit in one night, but often I’d hand my work in late because I was skipping class. Sometimes I’d wait a whole month before turning it in. Whenever I did come back to class, I’d learn the teacher had been marking me present even when I was absent. He would often ask about why I was in adult school in the first place. I’d just shrug.

I didn’t know it then, but I had ADHD and dyscalculia, a math-related learning disorder. Eventually, once it was legal for me to do so, I dropped out officially. Over the next few years, I registered in five different high schools—not including summer school—but only ever earned 12 credits.

Despite how it must have seemed, I loved learning. I went to my local library—the Maria A. Shchuka branch—almost every day. My favourite spot to read and work was at a rectangular wooden table two or three rows in front of the librarian’s desk on the second floor. I was too afraid to hang out on the main floor in case someone I knew came in and recognized me.

My school life and mental health were in ruins, but I always looked forward to going to the library. There was no such thing as arriving late, and I could explore any topic my heart desired rather than being forced to study subjects I wasn’t good at or interested in. With the help of the librarians and card catalogues, I became an armchair traveller, a lover of philosophy, a teen obsessed with reading about puberty and dating. I learned about body language and tested my observation skills on other patrons and staff. I read Rolling Stone for music and Entertainment Weekly for TV and movies. I learned about feminism from Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within, which one of the librarians recommended. I’d take notes while reading and write lists of all the new words I was learning.

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At the time, I didn’t have any money of my own. I couldn’t afford therapy, and I didn’t want to worry my parents by telling them how hopeless I sometimes felt. Honestly, I didn’t think they could help me. But, at the library, I read about depression and ADHD—a condition I’d long suspected I had. Through books, I learned coping mechanisms, like intentional fidgeting to help me focus or planning to arrive an hour early to help me arrive on time. Gradually, I understood how to organize myself. My confidence and mental health improved drastically.

Nancy Dutra sitting outside a library building

One day, I found an ad in one of the library’s local papers for the Generalized Equivalency Diploma, or GED, test. It planted a seed in my mind: Could this be my ticket to a formally recognized education? I put it off for a few years, but by the time I was 22, I wanted a fresh start. I was nervously biting my nails when I called to register for the test. I didn’t feel the need to cram; I’d been studying on my own at the library for years. I passed on my first try. I was proud that I’d been able to educate myself and relieved to be officially done with high school.

Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I taught myself how to play a few chords on the guitar using a Blue Rodeo songbook. I immediately knew that I could write songs. It felt so natural to me. I’d never taken any private music lessons, but there were books and internet articles available on the subject at the library. I read about the lives of other musicians and about songwriting, and then I started performing as a singer-songwriter.

After years of dropping into and out of postsecondary programs and courses, I earned a certificate as a mentor artist and started working in elementary schools, partnering with teachers to deliver workshops that connected the curriculum to the art of songwriting. The first time my supervisor evaluated my work, a six-year-old student told her, “Miss Nancy taught me how to be confident.” I felt useful, and I loved what I was doing. Whenever I was stressed, I remembered the calming effect of being surrounded by books. I’d visit the Jones library, the Danforth/Coxwell library, the Beaches library or the Toronto Reference Library to create my lesson plans. I kept that job over the next decade while I got married and gave birth to my first daughter.

I started taking my daughter to the library in the months after she was born. One day, I attended a music circle for caregivers and their babies at the Gerrard/Ashdale library. Sometimes, when the facilitator looked like she was singing or speaking in a low voice, I couldn’t hear what she was saying at all. I wondered if she was just mouthing the words. I asked the mom next to me, “Can you hear the teacher when she’s sort of whispering?” She nodded.

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I began to experience more and more difficulty with my hearing. I struggled teaching classrooms full of children, and singing with my band became awkward because I couldn’t hear my voice properly. Finally, I got tested and learned I had otosclerosis—abnormal bone growth in the middle ear that causes progressive hearing loss. The hormonal changes of pregnancy exacerbate the condition, and by the time I had my second child, at 38, I’d lost nearly 40 per cent of my hearing in both ears. I needed to reinvent myself.

So, twenty years after I first dropped out of high school, I enrolled at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus for an honours bachelor of arts. I was at least 15 years older than most of my classmates and often got mistaken for a TA. It made me feel self-conscious, so I retreated to my sanctuary: the library. At first, a librarian thought I was a staff member, but when I explained my situation, she reassured me that I had a lot to offer as a mature student. The librarians taught me how to do online research for my assignments and stressed the importance of asking the right questions in order to get relevant results.

For the first time in my life, I started to feel like I was good at being a student. I fell in love with school. I relished the readings and found myself branching off to research topics that were only tangentially related to the lectures. I did every extra-credit assignment, just because I could—even though I was busy raising two children. In the end, I earned a double major: one in music and culture and one in English literature. I made the dean’s list every year of my program, won a writing award and graduated with high distinction. Now, I’m doing a master’s degree in creative nonfiction and I’m working on my first book.

When I was a teenage dropout, I never imagined that I could graduate from university, let alone pursue a graduate degree. Looking back, I see that librarians were my teachers, and I had a world full of textbooks at my disposal. It was a chaotic road, but spending all that time with books nourished my imagination. I’m grateful for my time in public libraries—it made me who I am today.

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