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.
High school, fall of freshman year
Our freshman English instructor was a gentleman named Ambrose Short. He was tall, balding and reminded me of the British actor, Alistair Sims. Mr. Short was from the old school. An early requirement for his class was to memorize Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” Mr. Short was a man of expectations, discipline, and standards. He expected the poems to be memorized by a certain date, and failure to do so meant detention. Memorization was not a strong point for me. I had the attention span of a three-year-old in a Kmart and could not focus long enough to sit down and memorize the poems although I had tried.
This was bad. I was on the football team. As a freshman, I was little more than a blocking dummy, but I showed promise. I was having success at something, and I was part of a team. Detention meant missed practice, and missed practice meant I would not play in Saturday’s game. Coach Tattersall was also a man of expectations and standards. I reported to Mr. Short after school to serve my detention in despair. Mr. Short looked up from his papers over his bifocals and said, “Mr. Beattie, you will go to football practice as I do not have the time for you right now.”
I hi-tailed it down to the locker room and was out on the practice field before anyone knew I was missing. I was in the act of getting in a three-point stance when I spotted Mr. Short making his way across the field toward our group. He was dressed for the cold, fedora hat pulled low against the wind. In horror I knew Mr. Short was there for me! The coach confirmed the same, “Beattie, go over there and say your poems for Mr. Short!”
I stood there with Mr. Short off to the side, helmet off cradled in the crook of my arm. “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” I recited the poems cued by Mr. Short as needed. Eventually satisfied with my progress, Mr. Short told me to come by his room the next day at lunch and recite the poems for record. The poems were internalized and I had no trouble reciting them the next day as he ate a sandwich in his room. Certainly the extra attention from Mr. Short helped. The extra (undesirable) attention afforded me by the older football players for reciting poetry during football practice was a motivator in itself.
When a kid is struggling in class, the knee jerk reaction is to yank him from sports or other positive things where he is having some success. Mr. Short realized this and somewhere during the school day struck a deal with Coach Tattersall. Together they practiced an intervention that met the standards of Mr. Short’s class, the expectations of the varsity football team and my need to be good at something.
Now there are those who would maintain that the extra time afforded me by Mr. Short was not fair to the other students in his class. Again, I like Richard Lavoie’s thoughts on the concept of fairness: “Fairness means that everyone gets what he or she needs.” What else did I need? As an auditory learner I could not take notes and listen for one activity cancels out the other. I managed in language arts on my own. I was not particularly setting the world on fire, but I coped. All math required a tutor. Tutors kept me focused and on task. In the end, administrators, teachers, and coaches at Wilmington Friends School ensured that I got what I needed.
Mr. Short died of Hodgkin’s disease before the end of my freshman year. He was sick when he trudged out on the practice field that blustery October day. It was five minutes of his time, and I received what I needed.
Transitioning to adulthood
I struggled through my senior year in high school with the notion that I had grown out of my dyslexia. In fact my parents and I ensured that any mention of a LD was expunged from my record as we felt it might hurt my prospects for college.
I was accepted into a small liberal arts college where I played football, wrestled and, if the mood struck me, went to class. I dropped out after three semesters. I came home, worked in construction, and went to night school, eventually working my way into the full-time program at the local university. While I was no longer playing football or wrestling, my life lacked structure and I was eventually dropped from the university. Again I went back to night school. About this time Coach Tattersall of Wilmington Friends School called and offered me a job as head wrestling coach. I readily accepted the job and learned to translate the structure and discipline that I demanded of my wrestlers into my own life.
I gritted my teeth and compressed three years of undergraduate work into three semesters. I graduated with a BA, last in my class, last in my major, but I graduated. As a young adult I surmised that since I had grown out of my dyslexia (if I ever had it at all) obviously my problems were a character issue. My reality was that I was in fact LD… lazy and dumb.
The Uhwarrie National Forest, North Carolina, the Special Forces qualification course
Since I had entered the military I had wanted to be in Special Forces, a Green Beret.
To be accepted for the training one had to have been in the Army at least four years, be a qualified paratrooper, and pass a battery of physical and mental tests. Once in the course it was an arduous six to twelve months’ worth of tough, dangerous training before you were awarded the Green Beret.
Things weren’t looking good for me in September of 1987. I was in the middle of my re-test for the long-range land navigation final exam. This is a twenty-four hour, 30-kilometer event to test navigation skills, endurance, and ability to work independently in the woods. Failure (you got two chances) meant relief from the course. I was in trouble; I failed at the first attempt. Somewhere in the process of plotting my current position and the position that I was to move to, I reversed a set of numbers within the eight-digit grid coordinate marking a spot on the map. The number reversal put me well out of my way; I could not make up the time lost and failed.
Sympathy was in short supply as I was dropped off in the middle of the woods for my second and final chance. At the first navigation check point the instructor gave me my new set of coordinates and informed me that I was not moving fast enough to successfully complete the course. I was either minutes away from the final spot that I had (hopefully) correctly plotted, or I was minutes from failure. I was dizzy and my legs were rubber, but I was mad. How had I been so stupid as to reverse the numbers during the first attempt to put myself through so much agony? Muttering to myself I stumbled into the last point with minutes to spare. I passed the course and eventually earned the “Green Beret.”
The Instructors at the Special Forces course did not cut me a break nor did I expect them to. A dyslexic moment while operating behind enemy lines could get me and others killed or captured. I became acutely aware of my occasional lack of attention to detail in reversing numbers and letters. Under these circumstances I always have another soldier check my work. I know my limitations.
Coping in the present
I have recently learned that learning disabilities are forever. You don’t “grow out of it.” It appears that dyslexia has, and will continue to be, my constant companion. ATM machines present a challenge as I often forget my PIN number. Actually, I remember the numbers but not the sequence and the machines are inflexible regarding the sequence thing. Once I’ve cracked my own code at the ATM, the next problem is what to do with the five hundred dollars I just withdrew when I’d meant to take out fifty.
Recently, I experienced a great deal of anxiety over enrolling in and attending graduate school. This strikes those who know me as odd. As a Special Forces officer, I have routinely operated in hostile areas under dangerous conditions with little trepidation. The difference? In a hostile, uncertain environment my training, experience and confidence mitigate risk and associated fear. In an academic setting my experience conjures up my demons: frustration, humiliation, shame, and embarrassment.
In spite of it all, some competencies have evolved:
- I am tenacious. I have learned to never give up. Never.
- I am goal-oriented. I always have something to work toward.
- I am a problem solver. I have nontraditional problem solving skills which count when time is at a premium or a unique solution is needed.
- I am a motivator. I know what it takes to get myself and others up the hill.
- I am an effective leader. I know my limitations so I delegate tasks and authority to those who can get the job done.
- I have empathy. I have been odd man out, the bottom of the class, the dumb one.
The bottom line and the simple key to success in coping with a LD is to manage it, recognize it, and accept that it exists. I have learned to embrace the lifelong interventions (I get what I need) and most importantly, I do not to let the notion that I have a LD control my life. Yes, dyslexia has been my constant companion, but it is not what I am.
Thank you, Mr. Short.