I sat in a huge office staring out windows that overlooked Harvard Square and listened while the psychologist explained my results. After two full days of curious questions, funny inkblots, tenuous reading, awkward writing and the math I had dismissed completely, my prognosis was in. He spoke in monotone and prefaced his findings with administrative jumble. He droned on until a few words captured my attention.“Your (bla bla bla) test results indicate you are most like; a music teacher, a musician and an artist”. This news pleased me and I smiled. The tests were accurate on that account. I was artistic and momentarily I felt flattered my true calling was stated in the results before him. But that glow faded quickly as he continued. “Based on these findings, it’s interesting that you made it through high school at all!” Listening more attentively, I straightened up in my chair. What was he saying? I felt a sudden burning of my cheeks and my ears began to ring. He went on, dull of emotion to tell me that attending college would be a waste of money because I would surely, fail. And then he added, “should there be the unlikely chance any school would accept you.”
I sat there stunned. “The problem”, he declared “was with both your reading and comprehension. You are hardly able to read and when you do manage a complete a sentence, you can’t retain the information or understand what you have read”.
DUHHHHHH, I initially thought to myself. I knew I couldn’t read very well, but not incapable of it! He was saying I was incapable of reading and comprehending. These tests showed I had a real and identifiable learning problem. Somewhere in this meeting he even named it, but everything I heard coming from his mouth was foreign to me.
It felt like I had been struck by lightening. I was stunned. This made sense. If I couldn’t read or comprehend words, then it was no wonder I failed. At the age of 19, I sat there trying to grasp what I was hearing.
Throughout my life and up to this moment I thought it was me. That something was wrong with me. Irene. I remember it began when I was 5 or 6, and was left behind to repeat Kindergarten. I was very young, but aware and unhappy that my friends moved on to 1st grade and I did not.
By first grade I began to struggle. Spelling was torture. Reading was impossible. The written word made me feel stupid and small and angry and scared. Yet, somehow, I could hear a voice in my head saying, “You are not stupid, Irene”. but that was a secret, because in school I had no way to prove otherwise.
Suddenly, everything started to make sense.
Staring at the letters on a page, and reading aloud in the classroom made my heart race with fear. I waited, head down, practically in tears anticipating the embarrassment I would feel when the teacher would call my name and the whole classroom would stare at me. Glued to me, while I am stuttering and feeling scared and sounding stupid. I would hear my name called out loud. “Irene, please read page 6”. Most of the time I did not even know where we were in the book. I had started on the assigned page, but was unable to follow like the others. I got lost. The teacher would have to redirect me to the page and then I succumbed to the torture. My lips quivered as I dragged along each letter slowly. I had small personal victories, like knowing the sound of the “s”, or the “o”. But I didn’t grasp what one letter from another was supposed to do . The letters were round and angled and important, but I could not make sense out of them. As I struggled at my seat with all the eyes of the class on me, I was crumbling inside. T-Th—-e—d—oo—r—OO—ppp—Oop—e—nnnn– ed. What did I say? Am I reading? And after an unbearably long turn, finally the teacher would tell me to stop and would ask someone else to begin. As the next young voice picked up from my place, I sat humiliated, flushed and exposed. I wanted to run away and get out of that classroom as fast as I could, but I couldn’t.
Year after year, my teachers told me I was not trying hard enough or not working up to my ability, when in fact, I couldn’t read. I had to assume my difficulties in school were based on my “lack of effort”. I didn’t study enough, maybe I wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care, etc. etc.” So, I blamed me from the time I began to stumble over words in second grade. And I blamed me in 3rd grade when Ms. Emery told me I couldn’t be moved up into Mr. Guiliami’s 4th grade class the following year, knowing full well it was because I was too slow to keep up with his pace. I grew up angrily blaming myself for all my endless failings. Were it not for the little voice in my head that defiantly felt intelligent, I’d of had no choice but to accept that I was just stupid because stupid kids failed tests and took home papers and report cards with some C’s, but mostly D’s and F’s. I never imagined that I was actually right about myself. That I was smart. Or that my poor showing in school could be due to a learning disability with a name.
Inside me, the earth shifted.
As the Doctor went on, I just sat there. I wasn’t listening anymore. My mind was blasting “red alert, red alert”, The anger, embarrassment, and humiliation I felt for all those painful, shameful years was colliding with this new realization.
Maybe, I was right. I wasn’t really stupid.
I raced out of the building. Whatever had happened in that office, whatever he said made my adrenaline pump and I wanted to scream. Caught midway between rage and liberation, I made a beeline to a phone booth and dialed my parent’s number. My heart was pounding. When my mother picked up on the other end, I was antagonistic and hostile to her for a lifetime of reasons. “I can’t read”, I said. “I have something wrong with me. A long weird name, like dys-something”. Trying to repeat the term I’d heard, was like trying to be proficient with chopsticks for the first time. “He said I was most like, a music teacher, a musician and an artist, and that I could never go to college because I would fail.”
I was furious and frustrated and didn’t like all the news, but in repeating the story to my mother I suddenly felt a weight lift off from my shoulders. What was true, was that I had understood myself better than anyone. I wasn’t stupid. No more ignorance, no more labels.for me. I still couldn’t read, but all at once I was free from the burden of being stupid.