REFLECTIONS LEARNING DISABILITIES
Whenever I read anything I write and think I have managed to find all the errors, something always comes out to humble me. So it was when I read my last entry, I found errors that made me blush. The errors were small, almost always are—a not instead of a now, stuff like that. Sadly, if spotted by others it must make them wonder I what kind of do-do I am. Humiliating. And so it started me thinking learning disabilities. I am not dyslexic, but what is called dysgraphia–what I think does not always accurately when I write. I also have dyscaculia–problems with numbers. I have been criticized by some for calling these disabilities and not simply challenges, but if severe enough such disabilities can be as disabling as blindness or deafness. My math problems fall into that category. Ask me my social security number and half of the time I can recite it correctly, same if I try to write it, the other half of the time I get confused. Same with zip codes and telephone numbers. Multiplication tables after 5 are lost on meWhen driving I may read a sign for route 95 as 59. Sugar coating the term may help some, but disability helps others and it help me go easier on myself.
I was lucky to be born at a time when the pressure on women to perform academically was not part of my life. Mostly if we went to college it was because we hadn’t found a husband in high school. My parents didn’t hover over me in regards to my education. I know now that the spread on my College Boards was incredible, but the verbal skills were high enough that I made it to the college of my choice and was even offered a scholarship to two other schools. I was also lucky that I am not dyslexic—reading has always saved my sanity.
I think my learning disability did me two favors—eventually I became a critical thinker and because I had to figure out many things on my own, I also am more creative than many. My mother helped because she valued being an outsider and passed that idea on to her children. I couldn’t rely on following the crowd because I couldn’t; eventually I accepted I was different and my mother’s praise of being different made that more acceptable. Her belief not trying was life’s biggest failure also helpful. She pushed me to try and to persist. One of her favorite motto’s was “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Another source of help was my father’s expectation I would go to college. He didn’t care if my brothers went or not, but his mother was widowed early; he believed women needed some sort of higher education to avoid dependency on the “kindness of strangers.”
I have finally realized that I am above the average bear in my thinking skills, but that followed on years of thinking I wasn’t so smart, and feeling shamed that I could not do what others did easily.
Some of my teacher’s understood in their hearts that I was neither lazy nor stupid, but worried about me and did their best to help. I remember breaking my wrist and having to take a geometry final verbally. The teacher made sure I passed but only with a D-. He would ask me a question,; if I answered incorrectly, he would tell me the correct answer and ask me to repeat it back to him. That went on for an hour until he felt I could be passed.
I entered college majoring in education. I wanted to major in English and be a journalist, but thought because of my particular type of learning disability, I would probably fulfill my high school English teacher’s prediction; he told me I would flunk freshman English; however, he also made me editor of the year book. What a mixed message! As do must struggling with a life challenge, I heard the more negative message.
My first college English professor called me to his office before grades were announced. I thought he was going to tell me I failed. He wanted to apologize that he had to give me an A- instead of an A+. I don’t think he ever understood my glee at not getting an A+. He encouraged me to change my major to English. When another professor also encouraged me to switch my major, I did.
Now, of course, with all the standardized testing, teachers don’t have so much discretion. A woman I know, even though known to be learning disabled, was pushed to keep trying to pass a standardized math test in college. She finally did, and was proud of doing so. I think she paid too high a price in terms of time, anxiety. Moreover all for a skill she probably won’t use. We don’t ask blind students to see, and some learning disabilities are much like blindness.
On the plus side, there is more awareness of such life challenges; when identified early enough, the help needed to thrive. is not more available. Unfortunately, if not identified until third or fourth grade, a child with a learning challenge often has harder time moving ahead. I see that with my two sons.
We didn’t understand my oldest son’s challenges until he was entering fourth grade. He never tried hard enough and rejects any label. Better to be blame yourself and be thought lazy, then to have some sort of brain problem. Many learning disabled people pursue that path. Sad, but not uncommon. Self blame is common, it helps you feel you have some control over your life. I saw the same sort of self protective blame in many of my foster chldren. Almost every one rejected mental health labels in favor of being bad. Better to go to detention or probation than to be out of control because of an mental problem.
I am not advocating shirking responsibility, but knowing what you can and can’t do adds to the chances you can star in your life. My oldest son has made a success of his life without accepting a label and without a college degree; I am proud of him. At the same time, I suspect his life could have been easier if he had accepted his brain worked in a certain way. Moreover, I believe a part of him feels shamed, and I hate that.
Acceptance of “what is” helps, but rarely comes easily. Our youngest son who was tested at the end of first grade eventually accepted the label, but not without struggling with why and self blame. I remember trying to comfort him after a bad day at school. He was probably in second grade by then. He was calling himself “Stupid” for not being able to learn. When I tried to explain he hadn’t done anything to create this problem, but it was something he was born with, he said:
“You don’t understand, Mom. When I was up in heaven waiting to be born, God asked who wanted dyslexia and I raised my hand, I thought it was something good. Even in heaven I was stupid.”
Floored me and all I could say was, “Someday you will see it differently.”
This son did eventually make peace with his challenge. I am not saying he had an easy time. Far from it. He suffered a great deal, and in his senior year asked to drop out and get his GED. He did that and although admitted to college, he also dropped out, midway through his first term to joined the work world. He worked at any job he could find. Eventually, he found his passion–he has a grunt with a landscaping firm. His job was to holes to replant trees. He also found a mate who shared his passion for growing things.
Both he and his love decided to pursue a career in landscaping and decided to get a certificate at a community college. Soon at the recommendation of those teaching the certificate progrom, both were enrolled in the Associate Degree program and eventually transferred from the community college to Cal Poly. By then, this son had became his own best advocate. He ultimately graduated top in his class at Cal-Poly.
Sadly both sons can still get pulled back feeling stupid and shamed. The pains of our youth can be whirlpools waiting to pull us down into a sea of despair. Even now, as I age and have more memory problems, I slip back to feeling stupid and shamed.
One lesson I learned in this part of my life’s journey was that no matter what accommodations you were to have, it is the teacher who determines what he or she will do to help. One of my sons was to use a calculator. Some teachers allowed it, others didn’t forbid it, but created the idea that it really was a fool’s tool. If the teacher thinks the child is not trying, cutting up, or a bad actor, the child will not get the help needed. What is written on paper is not reflected in the one-on-one relationship.
In almost every life situations, relationships are dances and when you are a child, you are dependent on the adult to lead the way into adulthood. Some lead with grace and caring, others invested more in power than caring. Most are split between the two. The human race is lucky that we the people are strong and that most of us, no matter the hand we life deals us , find enough caring people to lead us and enough strength within to not just strive, but also to thrive.
My sons and I have been so blessed. Stay strong.