Word Blind

I did second grade twice, and wasn’t sure if I was moving on to third.

By Francesca Corinne Carter

I’m eight years old and am smiling in this photograph, even though I am not happy. I am in second grade for the second time because I cannot read. School is like hell. Every day I am there I become so anxious I get hot flashes and my chest tightens. I never think of raising my hand. I daydream and want only to go home.

By summer I still cannot read. Most kids learn to read in kindergarten and especially by second grade. I can memorize any story you read to me, but I cannot read a single word of Good Night Moon, let alone Harry Potter, which is all I wanted to read.

My parents are desperate. My teachers cannot understand how I learn. I have been through seven different programs, none of which have succeeded in teaching me to read. Now I am in yet another.

I am driving home with my dad when we pass a road sign. The sign has two words, each with two letters. The sign is a mystery to me.

At the end of the previous summer, my parents told me that I wouldn’t be moving on to third grade with the rest of my classmates and friends. Already shy, I rapidly sank into a state of constant fear, worried I would say the wrong thing, get the wrong answer and look stupid. I barely acknowledged my friends. I remember feeling so ashamed that I told myself I would never do anything ever again that would make me feel embarrassed. So I became ever more quiet, shy and withdrawn.

The first day of my second time in second grade, my mom walked me to school. Before we left home, she cried. I didn’t cry — I said absolutely nothing. I only knew I was being held back because I had something called “dyslexia.” My parents had explained to me it was just another way of learning. But in my mind I knew it was a diagnosis of stupidity.

Being held back a grade wasn’t the first time I’d stood out as “abnormal” to my classmates and myself. I’d already shuffled through two years of being pulled out of class at random times by random adults forcing me take random tests and asking me a billion random questions — a few of which I actually liked — but most of which just made me feel even more stupid and frustrated.

“What is an island?” one lady asked me.

“An island is an island.” I said.

She asked me to elaborate.

“I don’t know.” I said.

The questions and tests were intended to determine how I learned. They created what is called an IEP — an “Individualized Education Program” — a plan that was suppose to “catch me up” to my peers, to help me “learn.” The IEP allowed me to take tests outside the classroom, to have longer time on assignments and also meant me being pulled out of class several times a week for special ed. Teachers would try to teach me how to read. But in my head, they just labeled me as someone different, someone “stupid.”

Recently my mother came across over 100 pages of my IEP. They contained mostly scores from tests with strange names and transcriptions of observations, analyses, conclusions, and recommendations from teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, audiologists and vision therapists — all based on how I responded to their tests and questions. I feel they would be surprised, if not shocked, if they found out how and what I’m doing today. These people never saw me overcome my reading problems, test out of my IEP or go on to college and graduate school. And for some reason, I imagine that they thought I would never amount to much — or maybe that’s because, at that point in my life, I didn’t believe I would become anything.

Dyslexia is the ultimate shape shifter. It manifests itself in a number of different ways with varying and inconsistent symptoms. After talking with neuroscientists, I realized that they themselves don’t agree on a definition. What they can agree on, however, is that dyslexia can make it painfully difficult for some people to learn to read.

William Graves, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University, who studies the brain and reading, told me that the core problems with dyslexia are not visual or a reflection of a lack of understanding, but rather are actually a problem with associating letters to sound — speech to sound.

At the end of my second year of second grade, I had made little progress in terms of my reading. I had gone through speech therapy, vision therapy and even more tests — my teachers, the psychologists, and my special ed specialists were all struggling to understand how my brain worked. During an IEP meeting with the school, my mom, having lost patience, angrily said, “You still don’t know how my daughter learns.”

Up until this point in my life, school was a constant struggle. And it didn’t stop when the bell rang at the end of the day. When I came home my mom would make me a snack and an hour later I would pull out my homework. My dad would sit with me and together we would tackle what should have been a 30-minute worksheet, but which would inevitably turn into four to five hours of torture. My dad tried every which way to get me to understand and finish my homework. I would try for the first hour or so and then eventually I would start to cry. I would throw myself off my chair, and scream, “I’m stupid. I can’t do this!”

My dad would patiently calm me down, tell me that I was smart, and that we just hadn’t figured out how I learned. And then for the 30th time that evening he would re-explain my homework in a new way, hoping I would finally understand the math word problem and the science questions.

This happened every day, and every day he didn’t give up on me. He would tell me over and over again, “Francesca, one night you’ll be in bed reading your favorite book under your covers with a flashlight long after bedtime, and I’ll have to come in and yell at you to turn off the flashlight and go to sleep.” I would always shake my head, never believing him.

My dad started tutoring kids as a freshman in college, when he volunteered to tutor 4th graders in a Latino neighborhood of San Francisco. Nearly 20 years later, after an injury ended his career as a firefighter/paramedic, he began working at a tutoring center that focused on kids with learning disabilities. And a few years after I was born he got his teaching credential and became a middle school science teacher. He only lasted seven weeks. As my dad always says, “I could handle a five-car pileup with major injuries on the freeway, but I had no clue how to manage 35 middle schoolers at a time. I’m just better at teaching one-on-one.”

He eventually did do one-on-one tutoring again; but his only client was me.

But no matter how much my dad worked with me after school, or how much I was pulled out of my classroom, I wasn’t learning how to read. And when my mom confronted my IEP specialists, they finally acknowledged they had no clue how I learned.

So my parents decided to do something extreme: send me to a tutoring center for three months at a cost of $11,000. It was called Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes.

Lindamood-Bell isn’t exactly a tutoring center. It’s a place where kids like me go to learn to read. The program was created by a reading specialist and a speech pathologist. They do an intense three -and four -hour tests of each child to determine a specialized program they will put the child through for the summer (or for some, during the school year).

I remember going five days a week for four hours a day. I hated it. I begged my parents not to make me go. I was tired at that point, and had given up on ever being able to read. A week before I started at Lindamood-Bell my dad bribed me: he told me that every day I attended I would get a roll of quarters. I didn’t comprehend at the time the amount of money that actually was. All I knew is that it allowed me to “buy” those plastic rings from those gum-ball machines at the supermarket. Of course after I had “bought” fifty rings I got bored and started saving my money to buy Harry Potter paraphernalia.

On top of the roll of quarters, during my 15-minute breaks my mom or dad would bring me an Einstein chocolate chip bagel with cream cheese, the highlight of my day.

I don’t remember a lot from Lindamood-Bell, but what I do remember is someone holding a mirror in front of my mouth and telling me to go through the vowel sounds — over and over again. They told me that until I could differentiate the vowel sounds, I wouldn’t be able to sound out words while I was trying to read.

Recently, I wanted to know more about the Lindamood-Bell processes and what my memory with the mirror was about. I spoke with Cara Nemchek, the director of their New York City center. She told me that what I did with the mirror was part of their LiPs Program. She explained that it was about “articulatory feedback: what does it feel like in your mouth to make certain sounds?”

She also reminded me of another program I went through called Seeing Stars. I would write words in the air with my finger — either given to me verbally or with a flashcard. Some of them were real words, some of them were “nonsense words.” But they helped me learn to picture words in my mind’s eye.

Still, by midway through that summer, I had made very little progress. My parents worried that they had spent all that money on yet another dead end. I was also miserable; I wanted to be playing with my friends, not stuck inside trying to learn. I didn’t know until years later that my parents had decided that if I didn’t show any improvement in another week they were going to pull me from the program.

And so it was that one-day my dad was driving me home one day from Lindamood-Bell. I was in the back seat of our van, staring up at the road signs as they passed, doing what I usually did: hoping a miracle would happen and I could read one of them.

We neared the exit to our house, and I saw the sign

“Del Mar Heights”

I started to say what I had read.

“Delllll. Maaarrrr…mm-a-rrrr….”

Then, “Heigghhhtttsss…”

Even now, 17 years later, I do not recall exactly what I shouted to my father in my excitement. What I do remember is that, a month later, I was no longer staring at road signs, menus, books, and worksheets and praying/dreaming/hoping I would somehow be able to read them; I was reading Harry Potter.

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