Starting at age 7, Andrew* began telling his story about his struggles to understand and manage his learning disability and also to identify his strengths and talents. With help from his parents and teachers, he has provided us updates for each subsequent school year. His journal chronicles one boy’s journey through public and private schools, the special education system — and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
* Andrew’s last name withheld to assure confidentiality.
Second grade: Discovering my dyslexia
I am dyslexic. I was born this way. Being dyslexic is not that much fun.
Many smart people are dyslexic. Some famous dyslexic people are Charles Schwab and John Chambers, who runs a big Internet company.
When I was in first grade I was not doing good. It was hard for me to read. It made me act mad. In first grade, kids used to tease me. It made me feel sad.
When you are dyslexic it’s harder not to fight back. In first grade, I had a fight with my teacher. It was about the word “bot.” She said it was not a word. She looked it up in the dictionary, and it really was a word! I felt happy. (Bot: the parasitic larva of a botfly.)
My parents took me to the University of California, San Francisco, to be tested by Barbara. She said grown-ups should tell me the words in reading. I could do sixth grade puzzles that other kids couldn’t. I was smart, but I thought I was not because I had trouble reading.
Things are going better in second grade. Reading is funner. I’m not so angry anymore.
I am a very fast runner. I am very good at math. I am improving in reading. You’ll find out the rest in third grade.
“From the very beginning, Andrew’s mom and I saw that he was especially smart…We also noticed he seemed more impulsive than other boys his age….and it seemed to us he was never listening. In first grade he was a newcomer to his public school. The more he was shut out by other kids, the more he tried to get attention by misbehaving. We enrolled him in a private school where [with positive supports from his teacher, his mom, and me], his behavior improved. But his [academic] progress wasn’t much different from public school, so we had him assessed. We learned he was bright and dyslexic. In second grade, good things happened. Andrew worked with his teacher and an education specialist to develop tools to keep him focused and ‘on task.’ With help, he could negotiate the school day.” — Andrew’s father
Third grade: More reading, less teasing
Remember in second grade I was reading small books, and I was sad because I was getting teased a lot? And because I was getting teased, I acted angry.
Well, now I am doing a lot better. I’m in third grade, and it is easier because things are different. I am better at reading than I was last year, and I’m not getting teased as much.
I’m a little more organized, but I have some difficulties, like spelling quizzes. I kind of feel left out a little bit because I see other kids doing a lot better, but I feel good about my work now.
“As a third-grader, Andrew progressed nicely. As parents, we were challenged to help him focus his playfulness productively. Spelling was still difficult for him, but his reading vocabulary grew and he read chapter books. He played with friends, went to Cub Scouts, and participated in sports.” — Andrew’s father
Fourth grade: Getting organized, gaining confidence
As you know, I am Andrew, and I am still dyslexic … duh! I am in the fourth grade now and at a new school, Farallone View Elementary.
My new school is great, but it was hard at first because kids like to pick on the new kid a lot. But that’s how it goes at pretty much every school. Kids who pick on other kids are usually the ones who get in trouble a lot. So I just don’t bother them and try to stay away. If they do tease me, I just walk away and try not to show any tears because if I do, then they’ll just keep it up.
I have improved in reading and writing, and now I am starting to learn cursive. My favorite subject is social studies because it’s interactive. I get to draw a lot and learn about other people and places. My favorite month of the year is Black History Month when we get to read stuff about Martin Luther King, Jr., and other great black leaders.
The first quarter I didn’t do very well in math because I forgot to turn in my homework. In the second quarter, I did a lot better in math because I remembered to turn in my homework! The trick was to write the assignment down in my Cub Agenda. When I finished the assignment, I stuck it in my binder in a special plastic pocket so I would remember to turn it in the next day. I can’t wait to see how I do in the third quarter.
I used to think I was stupid because I wasn’t doing well with everything that had to do with reading and writing. A lot of people have helped me, like my mom and my daddy and my brother Will. And Barbara, she helps me because she is my tutor, and I’ve known her since I was 6. Barbara figured out how to help me. She knew I wasn’t stupid and told me, but I didn’t believe her at first.
For Christmas, my Auntie Lou and Uncle Billy gave me the set of Harry Potter books. I didn’t think I would be able to read them. Then one night at bedtime, I picked one up, and I couldn’t stop reading! Now sometimes I read until 12 at night, but usually my parents don’t know. I love reading all kinds of books, but my favorite books are about Harry Potter.
For the people who are reading this now, you need to try new things all the time. I didn’t think I could read Harry Potter, and at first I couldn’t. But I kept trying, and now I can. Just don’t give up on yourself, keep trying, wait a year, and believe that you can do whatever you want.
Fifth grade: Finishing strong
Wow, I’m in the fifth grade and at the top of the food chain here at Farallone View Elementary School. I’m going to get used to this! I went from struggling student to confident worker, and I could not feel better about myself. I have taken a big jump in school and now feel that I don’t have to hide and make stuff up to be cool.
I like school a lot because it is a lot of fun, but I still have to work hard, mostly because I have dyslexia. My handwriting is much better, but it’s still challenging. And I’m more organized but I still see my tutor, especially for spelling because I still need help. When I am not at school I’m playing baseball, doing Boy Scout activities, or playing Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic the Gathering, and Lord of the Rings.
I remember when I didn’t like to read, but books were everywhere so people expected me to read. Now that I look back on elementary school I can still remember when I was not able to read simple words like “the” and “and.” I never thought I would be able to read. Now I love reading and can read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter!
Telling the story about my journey started out as a bad feeling, because I couldn’t read. But I started to write, and the more I wrote, the better I felt. When I was done writing each chapter, I felt better about my reading and writing skills.
Looking ahead to middle school
As the days pass by, the more I think about going on to middle school next year. I think about the positives and negatives. I’m kind of scared about going to middle school, and I hope all the rumors I’ve heard are not true. I also hope I get good teachers. I wonder about my friends and the people I will meet. My goal for going to middle school is to do the best that I can and to try as hard as I can. I have about a thousand questions like “Why are the sixth-graders separated from the eighth-graders?” and “Will we be using the same resources as in fourth and fifth grade?”
So I am moving on to sixth grade. Before I leave elementary school, I want to give special thanks to my fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Mr. DeNault, my Resource Teacher, Mr. Garvey, my principal, Mr. Bachicha, and of course Barbara Whittenton, my tutor. If it weren’t for all of these people (especially Barbara and my parents), I wouldn’t have made it this far.
Sixth grade: Getting used to middle school
When my mom asked me what the most challenging thing about middle school is, I said, “Everything — until you get use to it.” It’s hard to have several teachers, keep track of your homework for six different classes, and deal with bullies!
One thing that helps me keep track of my stuff is having a planner (at my school we call it an agenda). This helps because we are supposed to write down our assignments every day, but the trick is remembering to do it. What’s really frustrating is that sometimes my grades were bad not because I didn’t understand the work, but because I wasn’t turning in my homework. When that happened it made me feel bad, and when my grades go down my parents put restrictions on the things I like to do.
Now I write down my assignments, have my teachers double-check them, and turn in my homework. I am more prepared so I am doing much better. Several of my teachers have been really nice and helpful. When I tell them about problems I’m having, they often have good ideas.
“We are very proud of Andrew and his dedication to hard work. We are grateful to all the adults who have helped our son find his way in a perplexing world of written words.” — Andrew’s father
After having an IEP (Individualized Education Program) in fourth and fifth grades, my parents and I decided to switch me to a Section 504 Plan for sixth grade. But by January, I was really struggling in my classes — even math, which has always been my strong subject. So we knew the 504 Plan wasn’t doing enough. We reinstated my IEP, which reduced my workload just enough that I could succeed again. At first, I felt self-conscious about having an IEP, but then I found out that a lot of the popular kids have them too.
A few kids who were my friends all through elementary school dumped me in sixth grade so they could hang out with the “cool” eighth-graders. That was really hurtful, especially when my former friends told the older kids about my dyslexia and I got teased. But I managed to make some new friends and renew some old friendships too.
There are a lot of bullies at my school, but I guess that goes for other schools too. Bullies do unkind and stupid things like hitting and teasing people. They find out what your weaknesses are and tease you about them. They are easy to spot, but they aren’t easy to stay away from because, once they know who you are, they will come and find you. I think the reason bullies act like they do is because they probably have a lot of their own problems that they don’t know how to handle. I think that deep down many bullies may want to be friendly, but they have forgotten how.
All in all, sixth grade has been pretty good. Once I stopped blaming other people for my actions and started taking responsibility for myself, things got better. Learning my way around middle school was like going on a trip somewhere for the first time. The outbound trip seems to take longer because you have to learn the landscape and markers along the way. Sometimes you take a wrong turn. But the trip back home seems easier because you’re familiar with the territory. I think seventh grade will be easier because now I understand the system.
Seventh grade: New school, new diagnosis
I have said before that every school year gets easier for me. Well that wasn’t the case for the first half of seventh grade. I started the school year at a big school where fights happened every day and students didn’t try hard in their classes. In the middle of the year I switched to a smaller magnet school in a nearby town. To get into my new school, you need to have high test scores or a high IQ. My IQ was my ticket in, but I had to hold onto my ticket to stay! The classes are smaller at the new school, so I get lots more attention from my teachers. Also, the academic standards are higher, and teaching moves at a faster pace. Even so, I did better than at my old school. You may be wondering how that happened. Let me tell you how!
- First, I found out that I have ADD (which came as no surprise to me). Almost instantaneously after starting on medication, I improved by a long shot.
- Second, I got a laptop computer because my handwriting was unreadable. I could type all my stuff during class on my laptop, then (thanks to my IEP) I was allowed to have another day to turn my assignments in. That way I could take the laptop home, review my work, correct my spelling, and print it out before handing it in.
- Third, the work is more challenging in an “interesting” kind of way than it was at my old school.
There are some problems (side effects) with the medicine I take for ADD. My appetite has decreased, and it’s very hard for me to fall asleep at night no matter what time I go to bed. But during the day the pills help to keep me up and running (and not so mad or cranky). The medicine helps a whole lot for paying attention. When I started taking medicine for ADD, I wasn’t wild about the side effects, but now I notice the difference if there is ever a day that I forget to take my medicine. I am at the point that when my doctor who prescribes the medicine ever suggests that we take a break or lower the dosage I will say, “No way!”
I’ve made friends at my new school. I think one reason I have an easier time making friends now is because I started taking medication, which makes me easier to be around and less hyper, so I get along with people better. Now I’m not afraid to say I have ADD. As it turns out, some of my new acquaintances have ADD too. I don’t know how it happens, but when I meet other people who have ADD we usually relate and get along very well.
Andrew’s advice to parents
If you even have a little hunch that your child has ADD or ADHD just have him tested because in the end his life could be a whole lot better. I also recommend that if your child is dyslexic like I am that you should also have him tested for ADD and ADHD because a fairly high percentage of kids with dyslexia also have ADD or ADHD.
The first half of my seventh grade school year was like walking up Mount Everest, but the second half was all downhill (with a couple of small bumps on the way). I look forward to writing about my journey next year.
Switching to a new middle school
Transferring to a different middle school was a really good move. At my new school, everyone was accepted equally. Even though the work was harder, my work and my grades improved. All I needed was to be more challenged. My confidence shot up, and I was ready for the world and felt I could do anything.
Last summer, I wrote about some problems I had with side effects from the medication I take to manage my ADHD. Well, I have good news: This school year I started taking a different medication (which is not a stimulant), and one dose of a (short-acting) stimulant in the morning and another one in the afternoon to help me during the day. I’ve stopped losing weight, and I have no trouble falling asleep at night. The combination works for me!
Soon after I transferred to my new middle school, I made some new friends. About the same time that I entered the school, so did another student — a boy whose problems were much worse than mine. I now realize that the reason I was accepted so quickly was because people noticed his problems instead of mine.
All the [negative] things that student did, I remembered doing at least once. He reminded me of how I used to act. But I never stood up to defend him because I was afraid people would find out about my problems.
And it turns out all he needed was a little acceptance and he would do the rest. He has changed and is doing much better. I learned to accept him like everybody else did, but now I wish I had accepted him sooner. This is my way of saying to him, “I’m sorry. Now I know who you really are.”
Heading off to high school
My parents and I did a lot of research to find the best high school for me. We decided on a private high school that has a good academic program and an understanding of kids with learning and attention problems like mine. (Trust me, my parents made sure the school doesn’t just pay lip service to this; they deliver!)
Because my high school is private, not public, I won’t have an IEP or a 504 Plan. But the entire faculty has been trained to understand kids with learning disabilities. They will work with me to figure out what accommodations I need to succeed. It’s really cool that they offer summer school for kids in their RSP (Resource Specialist Program), which I’m attending this summer. I’m already meeting other kids who will start high school with me in the fall.
I look forward to playing high school sports (like baseball and football), meeting new people, and learning new things. I’m a little worried about paying attention during the class periods — which are 80 minutes long! But I’ll deal with it.
The only thing my high school doesn’t offer that I’d like is auto shop, because I love hands-on mechanical work. I’m in luck, though, because my neighbor, Pete, has his own machine shop and has been teaching me how to use the equipment. I guess you could say he’s like a mentor.
Freshman year: Lessons learned
My freshman year of high school was rough at times, but, all in all, it ended on a good note. The school lived up to its promise of providing a good education and understanding kids with learning and attention problems. They also have high standards but are willing to work with kids who are struggling academically. But I learned the hard way that it’s up to me to accept — and use — the help they offer!
First, the good news: Heading into high school, I worried that the class periods, which are 80 minutes long, might be too intense (or boring). As it turns out, I did just fine with the longer class period, because it gives you more time to get engaged with the subject and the work.
I made lots of friends right away, even though my school is far from where I live. (It helped that I’d met a few kids at RSP summer school last year.)
I did well in math this year, but my favorite class was P.E. My hope of making the football team came true. I also earned a place on the track team.
Now for the not-so-good news: My grades really tanked for the first half of the school year. My GPA was so low that I wasn’t allowed to play football. I was on academic probation. My behavior (fooling around and joking) in certain classes didn’t earn me any points, either. My parents were NOT happy.
I finally realized that it was up to me to buckle down, to go to the RSP club offered after school, and accept the help that was available. Once I took that attitude, my GPA improved and my academic probation was lifted. If I hadn’t “made the cut,” I wouldn’t have been allowed back at my (private) school next year. I was eligible to compete on the track team in the spring, but I decided not to, because I didn’t want to be distracted from the hard work I had to do to keep my grades up. All of our coaches are supportive of us kids who need to go to RSP club. In fact, one of our coaches is the RSP teacher!
My advice to other teenagers starting high school: No matter how much your parents and teachers try to help you succeed in school, it’s up to you to do the work and have the right attitude. My advice:
- Start strong, and apply yourself.
- Develop good study habits.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
My meds: A change for the better
Halfway through my freshman year, I changed medications to manage my ADHD. I started taking Focalin®, which works better for me. When I take Focalin, I don’t feel as hyper and my appetite is better, so I’ve grown a lot this year. I can really see a difference when I don’t take it.
Andrew’s dad told us about some of his son’s hobbies, which demonstrate his mechanical ability. (Andrew was too modest to mention this himself.) Andrew recently collected several Mac laptop computers that people were giving away. After disassembling the laptops, he reassembled the working parts to create an operational computer for himself. He also rebuilds and modifies the motors on Goped motor scooters, consulting with other “motorheads” via the Internet.
Sophomore year: Smooth sailing
Throughout this school year — from beginning to end — I had a much better time than freshman year, both in school and with my outside activities and hobbies. I was able to keep my grades up all year and ended with a passing grade. I didn’t get to play any sports because I tried to focus on my grades, and I managed to keep my parents satisfied with reports from teachers.
I was able to stay out of trouble a lot more than my freshman year, and I felt more like I was truly a member of the school. I also made more true friends at school.
In the classroom
As usual, I did well in math, but I skimmed under the radar in English. I admit that sometimes I daydreamed during class, but overall I put a lot more effort into this year — and it showed. I took American Sign Language (ASL) instead of a foreign language this year, since ASL is a good substitute for those of us who have dyslexia. It’s cool because I have a deaf friend outside of school and I can communicate with him by signing.
One thing that irritates me is when teachers tell my parents I’m very involved in class discussions and am a positive influence, yet I still seem to be struggling in the class because of the structure of the homework or the organizing of journals (which we turn in every two months). I’ve improved in some ways but still struggle with many of the same issues I’ve been working with from the very beginning.
Andrew’s advice for high school students:
- Make alliances with your teachers. This can really save you when you’re in trouble.
- Start the school year strong and give yourself something to fall back on later. You don’t want to start the semester slacking and then have to try to pull your grades up later.
A profitable pastime: Go-Ped scooters
This year I took Go-Ped scooter-racing and engine-building to a whole new level. I spend most of my free time repairing and selling Go-Ped engines. People have driven 50 miles to have me fix their engines! I seem to have an instinctive talent for knowing how to assemble and repair engines and other parts, but I also do a lot of research and exchange information with other people in the Go-Ped community. It’s a lot of fun but also a lot of work. My parents have cleared out a big section of our garage so I could set up shop out there.
Anyway I’m excited and ready to start my junior year and to be an upperclassman!
Junior year: A juggling act
When Andrew joined his school’s soccer team his junior year, he not only added hours of practice to his weekly schedule but he also needed to maintain his GPA to stay on the team. “I had to strike a balance between academics and extracurricular activities,” he explains. “I took advantage of the RSP services at school, doing homework at lunchtime or after school when I needed support.”
“We practiced and competed year-round,” Andrew says. He enjoyed the sport, his team, and his coach, but juggling school, soccer, and his budding business (Go-Ped scooters) led to increased anxiety as well as some sleepless nights. (Because Andrew is a problem-solver by nature — and he holds a lot of information in his mind — he sometimes has trouble turning down the “mental chatter” when it’s time to sleep.) With help from his parents and doctor, he’ll focus on managing his time and prioritizing his activities during his senior year.
A young entrepreneur
An outgoing young man with many friends, Andrew is open about having dyslexia and ADHD. “I want others to understand that people who have these disorders struggle but can also have well-rounded lives,” he says. His candid attitude inspired a brilliant bit of marketing for his Go-Ped repair business.
Sitting in his Go-Ped workshop in his family’s garage, Andrew shows me how he repairs or modifies scooters exhaust units to make them more powerful. “Motorheads” from all over the country send him their units for repair. Proudly, he holds up his racing shirt — a black T-shirt with “ADHD” emblazoned across the chest.
“This year I spent less time racing my own scooters and more time building and repairing units for my customers,” he says. “ I heard about two Go-Ped racers in Southern California, and I decided to sponsor them by fixing their scooters for free.” The racers, in turn, wear Andrew’s trademark T-shirt when they compete.
This summer, Andrew took an auto mechanics class at the local community college, but found that he already knew “a lot of the basics” — a testament to his mechanical ability. As a young entrepreneur, he’s also learned that running a business requires budgeting, planning, and time management — skills he’ll want to develop in the coming years. His marketing techniques, though, are clever and effective!
Next up: Senior year!
What does he anticipate for his senior year? “Senior year will be a mix of heavy academic classes along with some fun. Writing-based classes, like English and history, are still hard for me, but math comes naturally.” He wants to take statistics or calculus. And, of course, he’ll continue to tap into the RSP services as needed.
Playing varsity soccer is also on Andrew’s wish list for senior year. The good news is that the varsity team plays only in the fall, which will lighten his load for spring semester.
Life beyond high school
Since it’s been such a challenge for Andrew to tackle all the required high school reading, class work, projects, homework, and testing week after week, he and his parents agree that attending a four-year university next year isn’t a sensible goal. As he matures, traditional college may become more attractive. But for now, with his hands-on learning style and innate knack for mechanics and math, he’d likely blossom in a community college or vocational training setting.
Andrew’s parents aim to “guide but not direct” him as he begins to plan for his future. They understand and respect Andrew for who he is and won’t force him into a future that doesn’t fit. In many ways, Andrew is remarkably mature and insightful. Yet he and his parents also know that he (like many teens with dyslexia and/or ADHD) has much to learn about daily living skills before being ready to leave home.
Juggling a life of academics, athletics, and business may present its challenges. But given all he’s accomplished so far, Andrew seems to have a bright future ahead.