What did it mean to have a learning disability?
It’s hard for a person who isn’t dyslexic to imagine what it’s like – plus, it’s a little different for everyone who has it. As an adult, it makes my life harder. I make a lot of errors in reading, but I can correct them because words are a context that helps restore the correct data. Not so with numbers, which are inherently arbitrary. It can take me several minutes to address an envelope, and I still might get it wrong. I might dial a phone very carefully, yet still get wrong numbers. I can never trust numbers I read or write. I ask my graduate assistant to read numbers to me because I can hear correctly what I can’t see correctly.
I’m trying to guess what a kid like me would experience in today’s schools. Educators are supposedly more aware of disabilities like dyslexia or ADD, but parents tell me that it doesn’t show in their teaching or in their dealings with students.
If anything, things have gotten worse: imagine how well a child with ADD will perform in classes with no recess, or in a series of standardized tests that lasts for 8 hours? This amounts to discrimination and has been described as child abuse.
Starting in 1960:
Age four: nearly died from spinal menningitis. Damage to motor coordination and cognitive abilities. Some hearing loss. Never completely recovered, but regained normal strength within 13 years. Did this somehow contribute to the learning disability that became apparent later? Neurologist Daniel Amen believes it might.
Kindergarten: had no energy or ability to play outside of school. Slept until time for school, came home from school and slept. Vision poor, fitted with bifocal glasses. Learned to read, began lifelong habit of reading for pleasure.
First through sixth grade: Spend extensive hours at home with microscope, telescope, books, soldering iron and old audiovisual equipment. Slowly gaining strength and physical mobility. Parents have several heated conferences with teachers and principal.
First grade: was unable to pass reading because could not concentrate on “Dick and Jane” materials. Handwriting extremely poor due to motor coordination. Was informed by teacher and parents I wasn’t trying hard enough. Was informed by fellow students I was “stupid.”
Second and third grade: Labelled “Poor Reader” and placed in remedial reading class though had begun reading newspapers and magazines at home. Falling severely behind in arithmetic. Could not spell at all. Homework becoming an emotional trauma. Was again informed by parents and teachers alike that I was not trying hard enough, and by fellow students I was “stupid.”.
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth grade: frequently bullied in school, academically poor. Still completely unable to spell, still in remedial reading. Doing very badly in math. You guessed it – “Not trying hard enough, not living up to potential.” “Retard.”
Father hires graduate student, as tutor to help with arithmetic. (Bill Wynveen, if you’re out there, please contact me. I owe you a steak dinner.) Bill concludes student could not memorize tables of “math facts” but is entirely capable of mathematical logic. Makes chart of multiplication tables for student to use when processing problems. Chart confiscated by teacher in 6th grade, Mrs. W.
(She should have been arrested for impersonating a teacher, but was “accredited.” The sadistic witch personified the line from that Pink Floyd song – “When we were young and went to school/ there were teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could/ By pouring their derision over everything we did/ exposing every weakness however carefully hidden by the kids…”)
Tried to learn to play the flute, simply could not muster the necessary motor coordination. Began to enjoy drawing. Grew up in house crammed with books and periodicals – father was professor in Information Sciences – read everything could get hands on, not aware it wasn’t written for kids. Still informed I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
Seventh & Eighth grade: Remedial English teacher catches student reading Time magazine inside inane textbook, kicks student out of class (Thank you, bless you, finally free from remedial classes that never did anything but make me feel stupid.) Science teacher Frank Marvin takes his own lunch hours to teach student how to use slide rule (it was 1970 – no calculators. But it was a compassionate thing to do. Frank, if you’re reading this, a steak dinner for you, too.)
Ninth and Tenth grade: end of math. Slide rule confiscated by trigonometry “teacher” who insisted memorizing math facts is so important that no other math can take place until that goal is reached. Following year, student flunked algebra, being completely unable to keep symbols straight on paper. Dyslexia made reading slightly difficult as always, but it made math nearly impossible: numbers and symbols don’t have word-consistency to correct character errors. Never took another math class, ever.
Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh grade: Spent these years getting in fights, in trouble in school, and in trouble with the law. Just a “bad kid,” I guess. After giving a severe, well-deserved drubbing to a bully, was never again informed by classmates that I was “stupid.” Continued to be informed by parents and teachers that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Spent every possible moment in Art and Shop classes under Bob Rock and Leroy Werkhoven. Would have gone completely insane without those classes. Enjoyed history class under Arley Vansel. Wish I could find those guys to tell them how much I appreciate them.
Twelfth grade: moved to new school, was assaulted by jarhead PE teacher Mr. L., who felt I wasn’t patriotic enough. Had excellent English teacher Mrs. Kirk. After 11 years of being told I wasn’t trying hard enough, finally stopped trying. Thought constantly of quitting. Barely scraped out of high school with a low “C” average.
Worked as a mechanic for one year, found a college that would take me, completed 4-year program in 6 years. Have had many jobs, was under-employed for eighteen years after college. Love my current job as computer support person at Illinois State University. Now I am 25 years behind in retirement fund accumulation.
What does it all mean?
For today’s schools, maybe nothing. Maybe since I was in school, awareness of learning disabilities has blossomed, research has found the best ways to accomodate, and enlightenment has come to education. And maybe pigs fly.
More likely, if you see a kid who isn’t performing well, he is trying his brains out, but something is wrong. Look harder! Don’t accept the surface answer. And you’d better move fast! Not many kids wait until the last year of high school to stop trying.
This recollection originally written sometime in 2002 and moved from my old website to my new blog in January of ‘05