Dyslexia Awareness Month: Dyslexia from a Teen POV, a guest post by teen blogger Lauren
For today’s Sunday Reflections and Dyslexia Awareness Month post I thought I would turn it over to a teen who has graciously agreed to share with us what it’s like to be a teen with dyslexia.
I’ve had a formal dyslexia diagnosis since I was eight years old, and, in the almost a decade since, I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to live in a world where your brain doesn’t work in exactly the same way as most people. Though I was diagnosed fairly early into elementary school, it was only the start of a long road of dealing with schools and trying to help me work around my learning disability. Today, my dyslexia isn’t as huge of a part of my life as it was when I was younger thanks to a lot of support from tutors and my mother who fought fiercely to get me the help I needed. I’m lucky that I had the support I did because many people in my position don’t.
I have a weird relationship with dyslexia because I’ve always been a prolific reader. Though I always preferred listening to my mom read to me over doing it myself, I always had a book in my hand. English was where I excelled until it came to putting words on paper. When I was in second grade, I couldn’t spell to save my life. I still have the occasional nightmare about taking my paper up to the teacher and her telling me that I was lazy and rushing because of all the spelling mistakes. I would take the paper back to my desk and stare at it on the verge of tears because I could not find anything wrong with the way I spelled the words. There was nothing I hated more than disappointing my teacher, and she made me feel like a complete failure. The worst part was, I could never get the teacher to look at the paper long enough to see past the spelling mistakes to what I’d written.
When my mom went to my teacher with concerns about how I could ace spelling tests every week but write a paper where I spelled “beautiful” four different ways without realizing it, she was brushed off. The teacher assured her I was smart, and, if I paid more attention, I’d figure it out.
For the first semester of third grade, I was treated as a careless kid who didn’t care enough to spell or space properly. It wasn’t until our 50 States test that my teacher started to realize there might be something bigger at play. We had to spell every state and every capital properly to get credit. By that time, I knew I was bad at spelling and that I couldn’t get over it no matter how long I studied. I froze. I panicked. I refused to write anything for hours even though I knew all the answers. It would crush me to fail over spelling errors. When she broke down and told me to forget about spelling, I wrote them all out in less than fifteen minutes. Between that episode and getting back my standardized test scores, I finally got a teacher to recognize that there might be more going on than a behavioral issue.
That was the year I got tested. After the diagnosis, I worked with a woman who specialized in teaching phonetics to dyslexic kids. The goal, I guess, was that if I studied the rules enough, I’d become a phonetic speller. After two painful years of dead ends with that method of therapy, my mom took me to her friend who tutored kids. She was the one who finally cracked the code on the wiring of my brain. I’m able to read so well out loud and so fast in my head because every word I know, I have memorized by sight. I was shocked to learn that most people didn’t just know the principals of phonetics but used them every day to figure out words by sounding them out. I could memorize these ideas enough to pass a test, but I could never harness their full power.
It was this woman who suggested we try a method that would play off of how the pieces of my brain came together. She had me start typing everything, which was a completely novel concept at that time, in elementary school. When I started, the entire page was filled with red squiggly lines, most of which didn’t have suggestions for how to fix the words. We worked together to brainstorm ways to get the word close enough that the computer would understand. Between working with Holly and putting in time with my mom every day during the summers, I got the squiggles down to only a few words.
Having access to a computer changed my life. It made me so much more confident. It put aside all the unimportant details and presented my ideas in a perfectly spaced, perfectly spelled, perfectly bland font. The few assignments I got to turn in typed allowed my teachers to see what I was really capable of. It also helped me learn how to spell by reinforcing the correct spelling day in and day out instead of leaving me to aimlessly flounder in my mistakes. I would have had an entirely different outlook on school had this technology been available to me.
Sadly, the private school I went to elementary school at refused to allow me to bring a computer or have any other kind of accommodation beyond extra time. All the time in the world wouldn’t help me find my spelling errors, and, at a school where a point was counted off for every spelling error, my struggles paralyzed me. Even though by the time I was ten I knew it wasn’t my fault, it didn’t make me feel any less incompetent.
My mom moved me to public school under the impression that they would have to offer me more accommodations, but, after taking their testing, I was denied any accommodations. With my disability, I scoured average on the spelling section, and, even though this represented a huge drop compared to my other scores, they shrugged me off with policy loopholes. That’s one of the hardest realizations that you come to with schools. Lots of administrations are happy to leave children at okay or good enough instead of working to make slight tweaks that could help unlock student’s potentials.
Some teachers were more understanding than others, but, as everyone who has dyslexia or has parented someone dealing with it knows, there were a lot more people who didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand.
I finished high school online, free to use my computer for all my assignments, and it felt like a million pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. It’s still not a perfect system, but having the computer gets me a lot farther than I was. It’s helped me learn to spell, it catches my mistakes, and, if I can’t find the right order for the letters, I can ask Siri to spell it for me. Technology has changed my life, but I still feel a flood of panic every time I have to hand write an essay. On my AP exam, I felt like I was starting ten steps behind as spelling is considered in your final score. There was no way to tell them I was simply doing the best I could. My handwriting is leaps and bounds better, but I limit the vocabulary when I write people notes based on what I think I can spell. My spacing still looks weird sometimes. I flip numbers in my head. My dyslexia and the feeling of needing to prove myself I gained from being frowned upon all those years is still with me. It always will be. I’ve learned to adapt and live with it every day.
What this experience has taught me, though, is that all I can do is my best, and that’s all most people are doing. I try not to judge on superficial things, and keeping an open mind about people’s abilities is so important to me I wish that spelling wasn’t looked at as some marker of intelligence or proof that you care. I wish that more technology was available at a younger age to kids to help them get their work seen for what it is, and I hope that we’re moving closer to a more empathetic world where small tweaks can be made for kids that need them instead of being frowned upon as taking short cuts or “cheating” like I was told when I asked for help.
And I want kids that struggle with dyslexia, no matter what way it impacts them, to know that they don’t have to limit themselves to what they think they can safely do or to keeping people’s expectations. One of the things I’m most grateful for is that when I was younger, my mom never let me quit writing with big words even if I could barely spell them. Se refused to let me compromise on what I wanted. I also realized I loved telling stories, and, even when no one would look past the surface to read them, I kept working. Today, I’m a book blogger and a writer, two things that definitely don’t seem typical of someone with dyslexia. Do what you love even if it feels impossible at first because, even on the hard days, it’ll make you love the things your brain can do.
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Lauren is a writer and YA book blogger at www.readingwritingandme.com. When she’s not working on college applications, she’s working at her local bookstore or playing music. Lauren is also a mental health awareness advocate and host of the podcast, The Empathy Factor, where she’s always asking “What if that was me?”.
Filed under: Dyslexia
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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