Editor’s Note: Caitlin interned for LD OnLine in 1997.
Author’s Note: This essay was composed in response to a prompt to write about a pivotal moment in my life. There are several memorable moments and experiences that stand out in my life, but this one was different. It was a true change of course, a pivot point. I wrote this essay in 2004 while I was working on my Master’s degree in Geology at the University of New Mexico. I’ve since completed that degree and this summer I will graduate with my PhD in Science Education from Western Michigan University. The quote in this essay appears in the front of my dissertation. It is my mantra and my reminder of that night in the car.
Lore and tradition dictate that middle school is a terrible time for every teenager. I remember that I obsessed over my winter coat. It was not the right style or brand. I hated the fact that I had to wear sneakers because the then-trendy boat shoes did not offer enough support for my flat feet or hide my bulky orthotics. But what I feared most of all was discovery. In sixth grade, I had been diagnosed with a learning disability. It became my secret identity, which I concealed with the fervor of a superhero. However, the difference between me and a would-be Clark Kent was that I was ashamed.
For years I had struggled with the frustration that assignments took me longer than my peers and the belief that something was wrong with me because my friends enjoyed reading as a pastime whereas it filled me with dread. Then, in sixth grade, the label confirmed my self-doubt. I was anguished by the thought that limits on my ability to learn would become limits on my ability to succeed. Already aware of the stigma of Special Ed., I knew that a learning disability would brand me with that stigma as well. The irony is that I had always been a child with special needs because of a medical condition called arrested hydrocephalus that I have had since infancy. I was used to explaining to my friends why I could not tumble on the gym mats in P.E. class or play certain sports for concern of hitting my head. Yet only when my parents told me that I had a learning disability did I feel significantly different. It was with punctured self-esteem that I entered the gauntlet of early adolescence.
By the time I reached the end of eighth grade, my coping skills were at the verge of collapse. Each day was a challenge in endurance. There was no time to stop and figure out a new strategy. A math assignment was due. A deadline for a paper was approaching. I did get some instruction in organization from various Special Education teachers at my school. But they are not the heroes for my particular story, and those lessons were mere triage. Instead, I found strength and support in my parents and a source of hope in a speech pathologist named Kathleen.
My particular learning disability is language-based, a dyslexia of sorts. I went to Kathleen because I needed help in the processing and the expression of both written and oral communication. Like Sisyphus eternally obliged to push the rock up to the top of the mountain, I was attempting to surmount five hours of homework each night only to start again the next day. Kathleen presented me with a planner where I could estimate how long I would need for each assignment and plot my use of time. It had a bright yellow cover with red writing. I loathed it. Of course, vanity was at work again. First it was those sneakers and that winter coat; now I was fixated with planners. I wanted something small and sleek to put out on the corner of my desk during class like everyone else. Instead I felt shackled to a large flashing sign that betrayed my secret. I was different.
Looking back on it now, I do not think Kathleen ever questioned how much I thought I could accomplish each night. Instead, she let that planner make it all too obvious that I needed to revise my expectations. I resisted at first, trying to maintain some illusion that I could do everything my classmates could do and in the same way. But my commitment to the status quo was in danger of drowning me under the burden of an ever-increasing workload. One night I realized that I had to make a choice.
I was in the car with my mom on the way home from yet another session with Kathleen. I do not remember the precipitating conversation or event, but as I imagine it now the planner with the bright yellow cover played a pivotal role. I could not ignore the message recorded within its pages: I needed help. Kathleen was offering that help, but I had to be open to learning how I learn best. Why was that so hard for me to accept? I was daunted by the process and the realization that it would take time — time away from assignments, time away from fun, and even time away from sleep. I needed help, and I had to make the decision on my own to take this path. Kathleen could not do it for me; neither could my parents.
Recently I came across the following passage in The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble; her comforting words affirmed that there is no shame to struggle in learning but that to struggle is simply a matter of course.
“Certificates, matriculation, examinations, graduation. Difficult words, difficult concepts, a hill of difficulties, a ladder of steep steps, reaching upwards. Climb, climb, do not look backwards, do not stumble, do not lose heart, do not freeze with fear. Ignore the grazed knee, the scabs, the vertigo. Never look back, and never, ever look down.”
After that night in the car, instead of retracing my steps, I began to climb beyond the limits of my disability. Though I stumbled, I kept going up, up to college and then, after that, to graduate school. No longer do I look back over my shoulder for fear of discovery; I look forward to the next hill of difficulties as a challenge. And along the way, I have recorded each step — but in my planner that no longer bears a bright yellow cover.
Quotation from Margaret Drabble, The Peppered Moth, 2001, Harcourt, Inc., New York, pages 37-38.