I’m finally enjoying school. Instead of bearing the stigma “learning disabled” like a backwards scarlet letter, I’m seeing how the top students live. Except now it’s not my own book bag I swing on my way to a New York City public school.
“Mrs. Wells, you have a gifted child,” the school’s guidance counselor confirms when we discuss my 8-year-old son, Haskell. I always assumed my child might inherit the dyslexia that marred my school days, and I was ready to walk that extra mile for him. As it turns out, I still must walk an extra mile to support my son, but not in the direction I imagined.
Under the auspices of a devoted teacher, Haskell came out of kindergarten reading and writing at a second grade level, able to reel off a thank you note about a “beautiful Thanksgiving dinner” that was all correctly spelled, my husband assured me — because I wouldn’t know.
Since then, Haskell has floated to the top of his class. In third grade he spends time in fourth grade for reading and math, still complaining that he “knows the answers already.”
What a surprise for me! How opposite from my own third grade days: Haskell is the quickest boy, where I was the slowest girl. His teachers adore him, while mine were impatient and spiteful.
Dyslexia (dys meaning difficult, and lexia meaning words) is hardly uncommon. Millions of people have trouble learning to read, write and spell, in every alphabet. According to the Dyslexia Institute in Britain, this congenital disability affects between 4 and 5 percent of the world’s population. Studies show that boys and girls are equally likely to be dyslexic, but more boys have received treatment. I’ve also learned that we dyslexics tend to remember images better than symbols like letters and numbers.
In the 1960s, when I was in school, the disability was not the household word it has become after decades of study, and after glamorous celebrities have confessed to being dyslexic. My learning disability was not the “gift” that author Ronald D. Davis proclaims in the title of his 1994 book, The Gift of Dyslexia. There was no cache; dyslexia was a mysterious scourge.
My parents were vexed by it. Like my son, they are not dyslexic. Both were overachievers who were promoted twice, and each was admitted to college at 16. I was the first problem either Mom or Dad had in school.
They sent me to optometrists who issued me prescription glasses and bifocals at the age of 8. They sent me to psychologists who, despite batteries of tests and hours of observation, offered no conclusions. I had a diagnosis for myself, though. Why else would a kid be asked to perform strange exercises like a laboratory monkey? I was brain damaged, or just plain stupid.
Until eighth grade, I was placed either in special-ed public school classes or enrolled in a private school for the learning disabled. We were given thick, oversized pencils encased in a rubber grip; even our supplies seemed abnormal. My classmates were restless, twitching boys, epileptics, the cerebral palsied and mildly retarded. Or they were foreigners who had not grown up speaking English. Altogether we were a misfit crew who were not yet compassionately known as “challenged”.
Then my son started school and his classmates chimed out, “I wish I was as smart as Haskell!” Their parents now call me to ask my plans for Haskell’s education and want to bring me their own plans to approve. Suddenly I have become an authority on the formula for success. As I listen politely and offer them reassurance, all I can think is: “Do they have any idea that the Wiz Kid’s mom lives a double life as high school dropout?”
Haskell, of course, knows the truth. He refers to my dyslexia as “a condition” and is fascinated that I didn’t know how to read until I was 13. Often he assists me with tasks like spelling and calculating restaurant tips; sometimes he makes fun of me and scolds me for not getting my Bachelor’s degree. He knows that both my own and my husband’s family are full of Ph.D.s. So he would rather do his homework with my husband, sister or mother looking on. I’m not offended by his preference for someone more engaged than I, who knows the answers and will not shudder at the sight of math equations and composition books.
On an unlucky night, when I’m the only show in town, I don’t encourage good study habits. It tends to grow late and his homework remains untouched. Then deadlines plague Haskell and we erupt into fiery spats. He may lash out at me: “Did you know that you’re totally useless, Mom?”
I can’t argue. But for my son’s sake I have found experts close to home who fill in when I’m deficient. My husband has taken over homework duty whenever he can and my mother has researched public school programs for gifted students. Last spring we struck gold; Haskell was admitted into a fine, local public school. What a relief! I did not want him to molder at the head of his average class with its disruptive kids and burdened teacher. I did not want to leave him too long where a polished apple of confidence would over-ripen into arrogance. He is the child I do not want to see “left behind” any more than his low-performing counterparts.
While I haven’t put myself in a position to directly help dyslexic children — by working as a guidance counselor, for example, or facilitating in a Davis Dyslexia Correction program — I recognize them in the music classes I teach for Head Start, or in friends’ families. Then I know to provide the warmth and playful bolstering they need, because I remember how badly I needed it.
Haskell does not need this brand of sensitivity. He has more need of his grandmother’s attention to schools and his father’s energetic supervision of homework. Sometimes my son is best served when I step aside and let others assist him. So I’ll continue to take pride in Haskell’s achievements and I’ll enjoy my second chance with school. All the more so because I’ll not forget my own earliest lessons.