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Coping With a Learning Disability, My Life Long Companion

You'll be moved by the story of a former Army Green Beret who has struggled with a learning disability while defending his country.

By LTC Taylor Beattie

The following account is written for parents, school administrators, teachers, coaches, and individuals coping with a learning disability (LD). My aim is to present one insider's perspective, which commences with early childhood and transitions through high school into adulthood. This story chronicles my personal struggle, eventual acceptance, and adoption of personal management strategies to cope with my constant companion, a learning disability called dyslexia.

End of the school year, second grade

Sometime during the last week of second grade the teacher, Ms. Baugher, asked me to meet with her in the back of the room. In a gentle, inviting tone she asked if I would like to stay in second grade and help her with the incoming class. In my young mind, I knew I was not qualified to be her teaching assistant. In fact, I was pretty sure I was not qualified to move onto the third grade, and that, I realized, was the bottom line of our conversation. I was going to be held back. But she left me some wiggle room. I declined the offer and returned to my desk. That night my parents were more direct regarding my status for the following year; there was no wiggle room. I liked Ms. Baugher and the notion of spending another year with her was not all that bad. On the other hand, the embarrassment of staying in second grade while my classmates moved on to third would be exquisite. I comforted myself with the notion that I had the summer to get used to the idea.

This was not the first sign that something was interfering with my ability to learn. When I was in first grade, my poor mother would cringe when she saw the teacher standing with me in the carpool line, my plump, white-knuckled fist full of the red-inked casualties that were my handiwork. Somehow I survived first grade. My performance in second grade, however, called for drastic measures. This was okay with my parents, as the school was engaged and working a solution rather than throwing in the towel on their son.

Richard Lavoie, a nationally recognized expert in the special education field, opens a workshop for educators with, "We all know LD means lazy and dumb." This elicits some knowing chuckles from an audience of teachers, but it's like a punch in the stomach to me. "Lazy and dumb" were often used to characterize my academic performance.

First day of Second Grade, Take 2

In spite of my hopes, summer did not last forever and I reported back to the old second grade room. While experiencing some embarrassment meeting old classmates headed to third grade, things were going okay. After sitting through the introductions, rules of the classroom and so forth, we started our first class: math. The book was the same text used the year before. I turned to the first page with the teacher. I ran my hand down the smooth new page and wondered what had happened to my old book. By now Ms. Baugher and the rest of the class were 6 pages ahead while I considered the disposition of used textbooks.

Ms. Baugher determined quickly that repeating second grade was not the answer to my inability to read, write, and learn math in step with the rest of the class. It was 1965 and there was not a clear understanding of what we refer to as a LD today. However, I seemed intelligent and normal in every other way, so sometime early in the school year Ms. Baugher referred me to the head of the lower school, Mrs. Smith. For the purposes of the school in those days, Mrs. Smith was the learning specialist. I spent about an hour with Mrs. Smith and was given a number of square-peg-in-round-hole type tasks and a few problem-solving exercises. I remember that I enjoyed talking through and solving hypothetical problems. Mrs. Smith reported back to my parents that she believed my problems could be associated with a disorder she had been reading about recently called dyslexia. She believed that the problem was not serious and that I was capable of being an effective student at the school, with some additional help.

My parents were not thoroughly convinced that I had any disorder and sought an outside opinion. I have a relatively clear memory of my one and only meeting with the psychologist. He told my father that I was an auditory learner, that I possessed high verbal ability, that I was certainly intelligent and certainly dyslexic. However, they were not to worry because dyslexia normally disappears around the onset of puberty. "He'll grow out of it," he assured my father.

Now, no parent is particularly receptive to the notion that their child is anything but normal. My mother continued to insist that she knew deep down that I was intelligent and, therefore, normal. My father, a physician, embraced the words "he'll grow out of it" and saw the solution in tutoring and athletics to refine coordination.