When the diagnosis is dyslexia
The author with her daughter at Hamlin Robinson School.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Here’s one thing I know about parenthood: seconds after your kids start sleeping through the night, you start losing sleep over everything that comes next. One thing I never thought to worry about with my firstborn was school. After all, my daughter’s pediatrician called her a “developmental star.”
But I had little twinges that all was not OK when Lucy was in preschool: Why was it harder for her to color in the lines? Why wasn’t she keeping up with the other kids in math? Maybe it was too early for academics, I reasoned.
I was thrilled when my daughter got her teacher assignment at our neighborhood public school. I volunteered in class on Mondays with her baby sister in one arm, helping out with classroom tasks and lice checks with the other.
Out of the corner of my eye, I’d watch Lucy. She wasn’t her usual bright-eyed self in school. And, despite all of our practice at home, she was struggling to read. The teacher did not share my concerns, though. I could see the way she looked at me: like a Tiger Mom unable to come to grips with the fact that my kid wasn’t Marie Curie.
Maybe it was the environment, I thought. We decided to try a small, structured private school instead. Lucy repeated kindergarten because their age cutoff was earlier than Seattle Public Schools’.
Things were better at first. Because of our endless practice, Lucy was reading ahead of many of her peers. By first grade, though, she was falling behind in math. Her handwriting was not good. And one of her teachers gently raised the possibility that Lucy might need extra learning support. That, I said OK to. But I wasn’t willing to have her tested for learning disabilities yet, although I knew such a thing existed.
By the end of second grade, Lucy was still struggling, but not for lack of effort. I agreed to have Lucy tested with the idea that understanding how her brain worked might give us some new techniques to try. I still couldn’t say “learning disabilities.” My own confidence in life had come from the fact that I was good in school. If my daughter didn’t have that, what would become of her?
During the next two years, we worked with the results of that expensive test and with the skills support people at the private school to address her dyslexia and dysgraphia diagnosis. But Lucy didn’t catch up or close the achievement gap.
I took this as a sign that the intervention wasn’t working. My concerns were met with a shrug. I understand it, sort of. They didn’t know my child like I did. But when I saw on one teacher’s Facebook page that another had suggested dysgraphia might go away if a child worked hard enough, I nearly lost my mind.We’d been practicing her handwriting regularly since she was 4 years old. We’d filled stacks of paper with letters. It felt like a teacher saying a visually impaired child could try squinting a little harder to fix everything.
To make matters worse, Lucy was struggling socially. I’ve since learned it’s common for kids with learning disabilities to be ridiculed and ostracized by their peers. When we mentioned these difficulties to the school, they brought someone in to study Lucy’s behavior — as if she were the problem.
If she were the cause, I was willing to help her develop new skills. It puzzled me, though. Everywhere else she went, she was beloved. During her learning disabilities testing, she offered the psychologist a candy bar so she could keep her strength up.
In the midst of the meeting with the school counselor, I had an epiphany: It wasn’t my kid. Rather, she was in an environment that had insufficient empathy for children who struggle to read and write. And my daughter had been suffering with that for five years — more than half her life.
Devastated, I took her out of school. I quit my freelance writing business to homeschool. We were already paying out my whole salary in tuition anyway — something I recognize as a privilege most families don’t have, which is why I consider it my responsibility to be the voice for families like ours.
I wish I could say that love and hard work worked. But they didn’t. I was terrified that this latest failure, trying to educate her on my own, would ruin her life. That spring we applied to private middle schools for her, and she was turned down by every single one.
Over the summer, as I faced the prospect of another year of homeschooling, I learned about a place that hadn’t been on my radar: Hamlin Robinson School, a school for kids with dyslexia and other language challenges. I’d heard about it, but my profound denial about Lucy’s learning disabilities — fear, really — had made me look elsewhere. I thought if she went there, she would forever be separate from the world of real academia. Special ed. Surely my smart, lively, thoughtful kid didn’t need that.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
She attended middle school there and it was a revelation. The most important thing, perhaps, was that she was for the first time with kids who were like her. Instead of being socially isolated, she was surrounded by friends. And she had teachers who viewed her as normal and not lazy or problematic.
And it’s right that they did. Dyslexia is normal. One in five kids has it. One in five adults has it. It is not something that goes away, although it is certainly something that can be understood, accommodated and leveraged into great success.
At Hamlin Robinson, Lucy discovered her skills as an artist and a musician. She discovered a great love of science. She enjoyed reading and writing, too, because she did not feel alone in her struggles. If they offered a high school program, we would have kept her there.
Today, she is a junior at Garfield, taking some advanced placement classes and doing well academically, after a bit of transition. Although she did encounter some of the same peer hostility she encountered in previous schools, she’s also developed resilience and found a trustworthy group of friends, along with the pals from middle school she remains connected to.
And I don’t worry about her, at least not any more than any parent worries. Yes, she has dyslexia — and this learning difference might be the reason she’s a wildly creative thinker and empathetic performer. It makes school harder, but it also makes her life and work richer.
It’s common for kids with dyslexia to go on to become entrepreneurs and inventors. Richard Branson is one. Likewise, Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci.
For now, Lucy’s aspirations are more grounded: She wants to be a teacher.
I’m certain she’ll be a great one. She’s taught me some of the most important lessons I know.