I shared over on Instagram that it’s Laurel’s assessment day. Meaning, she has to complete a series of tests highlighting her abilities as well as her disabilities.
It’s pretty stressful.
It requires about four hours of sitting and doing. For a homeschooled student who does not do standardized testing it’s a lot. A whole lot.
I spend the time in the waiting room. It’s not bad, really. They have wifi, I’ve caught up on writing and reading. I don’t hate it.
I also reflect on our road to saying ‘learning disability’ out loud. It took some time, for sure.
When my husband and I were dating I remember teasing him that perhaps he had dyslexia. We were in college and writing papers was tricky for him. He basically wrote eight pages of run on sentences. Punctuation, capitalization, spelling – none of it was there. What was there was content. He was a great writer, and still is, but something wasn’t right. It was as if he didn’t even see what was missing.
He shared one of his most memorable moments from school, which involved not being able to memorize his multiplication tables. His parents and teachers often told him that if he would only try harder his work would improve. It boggles my mind that no one every noticed how his intelligence didn’t match up with his level of work.
Lee was left with the notion that he was lazy, didn’t apply himself, and was probably a little stupid.
That is the story of so many adults who have undiagnosed learning disabilities.
I don’t understand the shame that surrounds learning differences. The first time I asked Lee’s mom if she thought he could be dyslexic she blasted me. She angrily told me that he had a very high IQ, that he had been tested by several people, that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with him.
I quietly replied that dyslexia has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. We never broached the subject again, but the shame card had been laid on me.
When our first child showed signs of struggling to read the first person I called was Lee’s sister. She was a teacher, and I knew that teaching reading was a passion of hers.
Dyslexia is tricky, though, and many teachers are not trained to see its symptoms. Many times the symptoms are seen as stubbornness or an unwillingness to learn. Lee’s sister suggested I call the local school and ask them. It was not a homeschool friendly area, though, so I opted to just figure it out on my own.
Man, was it rough.
I was so young and so new to homeschooling that I was overwhelmed by all of the choices. I tried to stick it out with a reading curriculum that came highly recommended. It was tear stained and tattered within the first three months of using it. Kiley and I both came to hate that book.
We were not like the homeschool families I read about or the ones who were highlighted in the news. I was not raising a future Scripps Spelling Bee Winner or someone who would be ready for college by 6th grade.
Which meant we were failing.
I don’t know why people do this, but when you homeschool friends and family think it’s fun to quiz your kids. Holidays and birthday parties became dreaded events because you never knew who was going to say, “What have you been learning?” or “Come read this book to me.”
Nobody likes that.
My oldest girls were in second grade and kindergarten, and both struggled mightily with reading and spelling. They went to stay with my husband’s family for a weekend. After they’d been home for a couple of hours my oldest one told me they played school with a relative all weekend.
I felt the pit in my stomach and asked her to tell me more.
“We practiced spelling and writing,” Kiley said.
I smiled and asked if she had fun while inside I was fuming.
That’s the day I became an advocate for my children.
Perhaps there had been no malice behind the relative’s actions. When you homeschool there is often a feeling of suspicion behind questions about school, family or not. I’d way rather someone ask me, “How do you know what to teach your children?” than sneak them off and quiz them.
That incident taught me a valuable lesson, though. I learned that my children had no voice. They did not have the vocabulary to say to someone, “I have a learning disability.” or “I don’t want to do that.” “Mom makes me do that stuff every day. Please don’t you do it, too.”
I became their first voice, teaching them to self-advocate.
Up until that point I’d been hesitant to share our struggles in traditional school. I felt like I was scamming people when I said my kids had dyslexia because I didn’t have an ‘official’ diagnosis from a psychologist. I also struggled with how hard to push them. There were times when I allowed outside pressures (real or imagined) to influence our homeschool. I became the enforcer and said horrible things like, “If it’s hard we try harder.” There was a lot of sitting at the table, and a lot of crying.
There were other times that I declared we would only read aloud and do art. I have tried to forgive myself for those early days when I was uncertain of what was going on. I was truly doing my best.
I see that shame had a huge role in my behavior. I was ashamed that I wasn’t a better teacher, that I didn’t homeschool hard enough.
I am so grateful I’m not in that place any more.
After that I decided to become an expert in dyslexia. I read as many books as I could find about dyslexia. Pro-tip: only read the most current material, otherwise you’ll end up even more confused. I told my kids they had dyslexia, and maybe some other issues that we would figure out.
Then I studied how they learned. I paid attention to what gave my girls a spark, what caused them to dive deeper, what made them ask questions. Then I did more of all of those things. Gradually we all began to relax about school.* When number three got to school age I didn’t panic when he began to show the same symptoms.
Also, there was never anymore ‘playing school’ while they were with relatives. If well meaning friends asked if they would read to them I gently informed them that reading wasn’t their thing, that it required a lot of work for them and that they just wanted to relax and have fun.
The only thing that exploded was my shame. It was gone the minute I said ‘dyslexia’ out loud to the first person outside of our family. It gave me permission to ask Sunday school teachers and co-op teachers to skip over my children when reading out lout in class.
The amazing thing that happened was that people began telling me about their children’s struggle with learning, or there own struggles. Me sharing my stuff invited others to share theirs, which led to more exploding shame.
Hooray for exploding shame!!
I am still sitting in the waiting room, which means Laurel is still working. One of the things I hate about the assessment is the feedback. That’s when we sit down with the psychologist and review the test results.
I’m not going to lie. The first time we did this I sat in the car and cried for a good thirty minutes, and that was after crying in the psychologist’s office. It’s one thing to know your child’s struggle. It’s another to see it written down in black and white, to see numbers attached to your child, numbers that cause that shame thing to rise back up.
I will push it down, though, because I have the secret.
I know that my children are more than numbers. I know that those tests cannot calculate their potential, cannot know that they were each handmade for a life only they can live.
Those tests cannot tell us what they were created for.
I know those things, but I also know my girl will be hurting this evening when she reflects on the parts that were especially difficult. I think I’ve heard it compared to asking a person confined to a wheel chair to show someone how hard it is to get up a flight of stairs. Alone. With no help.
These assessments, while necessary for now, are not the whole truth.
I will be content with paper telling us part truth, but my heart will know the whole.
My heart will give the honest assessment to anyone who will listen until my children can.
Be brave, misfits. Be a voice for anyone in your life who needs it.
*Mostly. I think when you have a learning disability ‘school’ automatically conjures up all kinds of weird, uncomfortable feelings. We can talk more later about anxiety and how kids with learning disabilities are more likely to deal with it.