I often say that third grade was the worst year of my life. I basically left it with incredibly low self-esteem and even suicidal thoughts. Can you imagine a little miniature version of myself at nine having suicidal thoughts?! Most of the credit for all of this goes to my third grade teacher Ms. D. (I would love to use her real name but you know—it feels weird and maybe she has redeemed herself in the years that have passed). Ms. D. did only one good thing that year. She took at workshop on Learning Disabilities at Raskob Learning Institution. Raskob was a school (full time and offered educational therapy) for children with Learning and Attentional Disabilities. Super awesome place in the Oakland hills. If you meet anyone my age or old in the Bay Area who were diagnosed with LD in childhood—the magic happened there. After the workshop Ms. D. talked to my parents about the possibility of me having a Learning Disability. I was tested and to Ms D.’s disappointment I stayed at the school and she had to accommodate me. You see I went to a Catholic school in the 1980s. Throughout my 7 and a half years in Catholic school, my parents were told, “we just can’t serve children who need extra help.” Because that is frickin’ Christ like! Now when I train Catholic school teachers, on the topic of accommodating children, I tell them “WWJD: what could Jesus do—and I am pretty sure he would accommodate!”
Getting diagnosed with my language based Learning Disability in the third grade makes perfect sense and is common to many people’s experience, especially those raised in the 1980’s. Third grade is the year where academics is refocused. In first and second grade children are learning how to read and the academic curriculum is less dependent on children reading independent and learning from what they read. These are also the years when read is not automatic. For everyone it is more work because the neurons that will eventually do this function don’t have the grease that they will eventually get. Around third grade most children start to read automatically. The changes for these behaviors is reflected in the brain. The steps that the brain takes to read are minimized because it is not an automatic experience. According to researchers like Sally Shaywitz, this process is not the same for children and adults with dyslexia. Because there is a brain impairment in the area of the brain where we understand the words that are perceived our brain reads in more laborious ways. It actually takes more brain power for us to read. This does not change for us dyslexics as we get older.
In third grade the demands on me were more significant. I remember, the first night of third grade we had three hours of homework! That was absurd! It was complete drill and kill kind of work, dittos (OMG! dittos smelled so good!), practicing the same thing over and over, etc… I remember a group of parents talking about the amount of homework. One of my friend’s Nancyjane’s dad spoke to Ms. D. about the amount of work. Ms. D. told him that “I want the children in my class to be ready for the Alamo.” He replied, “I just want them to be ready for fourth grade.” I didn’t know what the Alamo was, but it sounded pretty shitty. Even now all I really know about the Alamo is that it doesn’t have a basement, but what I learned from Pee Wee Herman has no relevance to this story.
After I was assessed at Raskob my parents met with Ms. D.. They shared the report with her and the accommodations and other recommendations from the assessment. This would be the first of dozens of meetings my parents would have with teachers about the special needs I required and about my problems learning.
Initially, Ms. D. agreed to give me accommodations. I remember my first accommodation like it was yesterday. It was on a Geography test. We had to identify where different things were on a blank map of California. Previously, I would know the answers but would be marked down (to like a D or F) because I did not spell the different elements of the map correctly (like not even close).
At the beginning of the test Ms. D. called me up to her desk. She had a blank map and asked me to point out the different places we had learned about. I indicated where Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other state landmarks were. She wrote them down as if I was giving dictation. I was not graded on spelling since this was geography and spelling. I completed the test. I was actually the first one done. This was the first time that this ever happened. I ended up getting an A on that test and it was one of the highest grades in the class. I vaguely remember other kids, upon seeing the maps hanging up on the bulletin board, coming up to me saying “wow, you got the highest grade.” I thought to myself, “Dang! This accommodation thing might just work!” There was a glimmer of an intelligent person in my mind. I knew that I could be successful but needed to go about it in a different way. If this is any indication of what I could do, then I might be successful.
Then the bottom dropped from under me. I am not sure why, but Ms. D. stopped the accommodations. It felt like having a buffet, like a good one from a high class hotel on the Las Vegas Strip and then being fed saltines and vegetable broth (which I had the other day as a soup and it was horrible!). I am not sure why she stopped giving me the accommodations. Was it because it was too much work for her? I don’t think so because it didn’t take her anytime at all. Was it because she resented having me in the class because I challenged to her work harder to accommodate a learning style that she saw as inferior? Or was it because she just hated me? I am not exactly sure but I sensed a bit of each of these. Receiving that first accommodation was very bitter sweet. I got to see what it was like to have accommodations. I was never a kid who was ashamed of my accommodations. I suppose I appreciated the opportunity to show what I knew.
My initial goal of writing my experiences was that I would tell a story and then offer a moral of some sort. This-shitty-thing-happened-but- now-I-am-a-better-person-for-it kind of message. Luckily with the ADA I don’t need this kind of message. We have civil rights in this country because people don’t necessarily get them automatically. Of course, this does not mean that the ADA or Rehabilitation Act isn’t violated everyday! Experiences like these is the reason why parents, guardians and kids with disabilities learn advocacy skills to get their accommodations. I eventually learned these skills but being a bit more happier in third grade would have been preferred.