When my first child, Tom, started to show signs that he had a learning difference at the age of 18 months, I jumped very quickly on it and did everything in my power to get him help. I did this not out of any special skill or talent but because I remembered very clearly what it felt like to be totally lost in a classroom.
In 1971 I was in the first grade and miserable. I was accustomed to getting very positive attention from the adults around me. My teacher, Mrs. Lee, was the first adult I encountered that didn’t seem to care for me at all. She was an older woman who had no patience with my being slower than the other kids at cutting, drawing, and packing up my bag. I was also usually the last one to zip my coat and needed help tying my shoes.
The fact that I could express myself easily with a vocabulary more suited to an adult than a five-year-old did nothing to charm her. She had no problem scolding me in front of the class, which I’m sure did nothing to help me move or learn faster. I was a quirky kid, and I was used to feeling different. But I had never felt stupid before.
Each night when I said my prayers, I asked God to help me.
Then one day I was sitting in class and the principal came in and told me and another kid to get our things because we were being moved to another classroom. I think class size was the reason we were given.
Wow, my Sunday school teacher was right. God really does listen to our prayers. This was great!
I was moved to Mrs. Hawk’s class. She was a younger teacher who never got mad at me when I didn’t understand something, she would just explain it again. My reading improved and I was able to finish my work in a more timely manner. I was happy once again. Life was good.
Years later I learned the story behind what happened. During a conference Mrs. Lee used the “R” word to describe me to my parents and went through a laundry list of things that were wrong with me. It was her feeling that I didn’t belong in the first grade and should be tested to see if a district education was even appropriate for me.
My parents were shocked. They spoke with my pediatrician and my kindergarten teacher, who both reassured them that I was a bright and creative child. They both chalked up some of my issues to the fact that I had a late October birthday and was one of the younger kids in the class. My parents had the school test me. They were told that I had a high IQ and reassured them that I was in the right grade. It was assumed that my teacher was just not right for me, and that if I was in a different environment, I would do much better. Once I was in Mrs. Hawk’s class, everything improved.
Yet that feeling of being stupid never really left me.
Through the years, school continued to be a problem for me. It seemed no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t always see the results of my efforts. When I was 14 it was finally discovered that I was dyslexic.
Mrs. Lee’s diagnosis of me wasn’t correct. But she wasn’t entirely wrong either. She did see something wrong with my development. She just didn’t have the knowledge or skill to really help me.
More than 25 years after that first-grade experience, I had Tom. Throughout the years whenever a professional or teacher has told me something about him that was hard to hear or didn’t ring true, I have remembered Mrs. Lee. Yes, she drew the wrong conclusion. But she did see a problem that nobody else had identified.
When I’m dealing with the professionals and experts for my kids, I have to have enough sense and humility to respect their training and how it might help my children. It’s also my responsibility as a parent to recognize when one of the pros may have tried to reach beyond their level of expertise and failed to grasp what makes my child so special. This has turned out to be one of the best lessons I could have ever learned, and for that I will always be grateful to Mrs. Lee.
A version of this essay was first published on The Mom of the Year under the title, The Lessons You Never Forget, 2/3/16