Sometimes, when he doesn’t do as well as he should have, Jeff wonders whether he has a learning disability.
I was diagnosed with a learning disability in kindergarten. It was the discrepancy between my verbal and performance IQ that ultimately sealed the deal, one significant enough to raise eyebrows even among the professionals conducting the evaluation—mine was the largest the team had yet encountered. When I think about that diagnosis, about the IQ assigned to me, I am reminded of how crude educators often sound in their attempts to explain a condition as complex as LD.
The cleanest definitions are often the most misleading. I have a visual-perceptual learning disability, that’s often how I start people off. That means I have trouble recognizing, reproducing and manipulating visual patterns. So there are certain puzzles, for instance, that I couldn’t put together to save my life. “That doesn’t sound like such a big deal,” a common response, and why not? The chances of being forced to assemble a puzzle at gunpoint are slim. But there are other things that go along with it.
I also have something called dyscalculia. That means I’m bad with numbers. “Oh yeah, me too.” And I have problems with executive function, in other words, staying organized. At this point in the exposition people often wonder if they too have a learning disability. Then begins the salivation over extended time.
All these designations I find myself running through, the attempts to delineate what a learning-disabled person can and can’t do, ultimately obfuscate the lived reality of being learning disabled. This, in itself, is nothing remarkable. Knowing the pathology of a condition doesn’t begin to capture what living with the condition is like. But as far as learning disabilities are concerned, I think the gap—between what people think they know, and what is actually the case—is especially wide.
When somebody says, “I have dyscalculia,” people don’t wonder if they have difficulty opening a combination locker. The paltriness of the traditional nomenclature is such that I often find myself resorting to an anecdotal account of what it means to be smart and yet inept, helpless at countless things to which most people never give a second thought.
The outline I prepared for this essay is telling. Elementary school is the first heading. Under it I have written some thirty bullet points, each indicating an area of difficulty, things like “copying from the board” for instance. Then comes the next header, high school, twenty bullet points, then college, ten. My story is ultimately one of success, as I suspect it may not have been for those who didn’t get the kind of support I did, or were saddled with a severer disability than my own. But this success was earned through effort, often with help, but more often without it, through sheer force of will.
In elementary school academic success was virtually unknown to me. I couldn’t write, or at least, not legibly. The words crowded together until there was no distinguishing one from the next. My mother would sit beside me as I did my homework chanting, “leave a space Daniel, remember to leave a space,” every damn sentence. Eventually I learned to put two fingers down after each word, writing the next one on the other side.
This was to say nothing of my letters, many of which were utterly unrecognizable. I confused bs for ds, because to me, they looked the same. Fitting everything into the lines was also a challenge. And because writing on the back of the paper was forbidden, more often than not, when I got to the meat of my answer, I was forced into the margins. I would end up breaking single words into three or four lines, bre on the first line of the margin, then aki under that, and finally, ng. The test would return in red: “I can’t read this!”
Script only made matters worse. I knew the letter was supposed to curve in some direction, but I could never tell which. Then came the persistent reminder, “go this way, go this way,” my mother intoned. She bought stencils of each letter, and eventually, the plastic grooves forced my fingers into submission. Hours and hours of those stencils. In middle school, after two years of occupational therapy, script more or less disappeared forever.
When I was copying from the board I copied two, three words at a time. When I looked up to continue I had lost my place, another few seconds to find it, another few words, another few seconds, another few words. Usually the board was erased before I had gotten down anything of value. Sometimes, I was lucky enough to have someone in the classroom who knew something about LD, an LDTC who copied what was on the board and put it on my desk for me to copy in turn. Those times were rare.
Reading presented similar difficulty. I would lose my place in a sentence or a paragraph constantly. Then I would reread and it would start all over. For awhile, I had to cover the line below the one I was reading to make any headway.
Math was easily my worst subject. I had the benefit of supplemental instruction until middle school, but I was often close to failing. There just seemed to be a wall there. I spent much of my time thrashing against it, bored, frustrated and ashamed. When I finally did make some headway everyone else had already moved on. I remember stepping back periodically to observe my glacial progress: every five years or so I had a minor breakthrough.
At first, I couldn’t count. I would point to an object, say a number and then, without moving my finger, say the next number. It wasn’t a matter of counting the same object twice; it was a matter of grasping the one-to-one correspondence between an object and a move on the number line. With this as my point of departure, being able to add two-digit numbers in my head (middle school) or understanding that one quarter meant one of four pieces (high school), really were breakthroughs, even if they only came once every five years.
Then there were the puzzles, the conventional ones I did at home and the ones in school that were puzzles in disguise. At home, the trick was finding the edge pieces so that I could begin with a coherent frame. The problem was, I couldn’t tell the difference between an edge piece and the rest. Even when an edge piece was pointed out to me I couldn’t extrapolate.
My mother bought a “game,” to help, not with puzzles per se but with puzzle-type tasks that cropped up in school. The rubber-band game, as I called it, involved a pegboard over which one could stretch rubber bands to mimic designs in a book. The trick was to count the number of pegs in the design and match them against the number of pegs on the board, something it took me a long time to master. For a time, I did three to four of those puzzles a night.
In history we did different kinds of puzzles: maps, maps of the Fertile Crescent, maps of the United States. Every era was accompanied by a mess of black lines and white spaces. I couldn’t tell which part of the world was being profiled, or even, which part was water and which part was land. Telling time was another puzzle, a mess of black lines and hands that were hard to distinguish. Clocks were everywhere it seemed, and so were adults ready to drill you on where the big and little hands were pointing.
I was chronically disorganized. I discovered tests on the day I was to take them. I called someone every night to find out what the homework was—every night. Then there were the supplies to keep track of: notebooks, folders, pencils. Ms. Stinson wanted a red pen in addition to a black one so you could correct your homework. Ms. Caspe never allowed pen of any kind. I remember borrowing pens constantly. Mine were usually gone two weeks after being replenished. In fact, I lost most of the things that were removable. Mitten clips—those things that keep your mittens dangling from your jacket—I wore those till I was ten.
In high school things got better. I wasn’t better, but I got better at compensating, and the world got better at offering alternatives. Instead of scribbling incoherently into a notebook I began taking notes on a Palm Pilot, three Palm Pilots actually, in startlingly quick succession. In elementary school I would break calculators when, after setting them up on my desk, I lifted the desk’s lid to get at something inside. In high school I broke Palm Pilots.
On a Palm Pilot, my typing could keep pace with the lecture, but I often didn’t know what to take down. When test time came around I found myself scrambling for the neatly written notes from the front row. I spent many of my free periods photocopying them. But even with Ms. Perfect’s notes in hand I managed to screw something up. I couldn’t keep the copies in order, or I’d missed the backside of a page.
Essay writing was now less of a bother; I could backspace instead of erasing. (In the past I had tore up the page rubbing out errors—there were often several a sentence— and after a few pages like this I was in tears.) But I would spend ages on just two or three sentences, agonizing. Two-page essays that should have taken a couple of hours to write required the entire evening. Even in-class essays were like this. I would freeze, obsessing over what should come next, and knowing that the more I did the less it mattered. I always took the full amount of extended time, which, without a better system in place, meant missing class.
In high school I was able to move to the less-advanced classes for math and science while remaining in the more-advanced ones for English and history. This was a mixed blessing. My math and science classes were like something out of a teen comedy; pandemonium reigned. It was the same cohort from year to year so that, by the time we graduated, four of our six teachers had left. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to glean much.
In college I hit my stride. For the first time I was able to take the classes I wanted. I worked harder than I ever had before, for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was my interest in everything being taught. Suddenly I was Ms. Perfect. Of course I still had a learning disability, and college didn’t let me forget it. I read and wrote slower than everyone I knew. I took only one quantitative class and I took it pass/fail.
Juggling a full course load and tending to all of life’s little necessities was also a lot, in a way that it wasn’t for my peers. I was the only one carrying around iCal printouts of where I had to be and when. I set myself alarms constantly: pick up laundry, go shopping, send an e-mail. Things like mechanical assembly were beyond me, so my roommate put together all my furniture. I didn’t start cooking until my senior year. Again, my roommate.
I had to learn to try things my diagnosis suggested I might not be good at, like philosophy, which derives much of its methodology from logic. Or film, which requires a highly sensitive eye, something I feared I would have to do without. After all, the term visual-perceptual learning disability did not bode well.
These days my learning disability is more relevant than it has been for some time. Many of the entry-level jobs I come across are secretarial in nature, demanding precisely the kinds of skills I don’t have: making photocopies, organizing spreadsheets, scheduling appointments. I have been fortunate enough to find a writing position that doesn’t require such things. But that could change.
I started this essay by musing over the impossibility of writing it. And it is written. But it’s not often that I have the luxury of expressing myself in essay form. And it’s even less often that people take the time to listen. Academia could do a lot better for people like me.
When I was in kindergarten an administrator assured my mom that I might still go to college because there were some out there “for people like me.” When I was in high school I was accused of plagiarism because my Spanish teacher didn’t think anyone who wrote poorly in a foreign language could write well in English. Even in college I had a professor refuse to let me take notes on my laptop lest it distract me from lecture. These were all people who had devoted their lives to education, precisely those people who should have known better.
The Seed for This: My Learning Disability- A (Digressive) Essay
– D. Schwartz