By: Kirsten Robb-McGrath
Often we hear the phrase “I must be dyslexic today,” when individuals spell words wrong or flip numbers around even if they may not actually have dyslexia. I am dyslexic, but not just for one day alone or occasionally, each and every day I am dyslexic.
Let’s start from the beginning, when my family found out I had dyslexia.
This portion of my story is told to me since I do not recall my kindergarten years very well now. My mom tells me that my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Brazeal noticed that I was having trouble with reading and letter recognition. Like most kids my age I reversed my b’s for d’s, which later worked itself out and I am no longer Kirsten Rodd-McGrath but properly Kirsten Robb-McGrath. However, a few slips ups of d’s for b’s would not cause such concern from my kindergarten teacher, there was more to it than that.
With guarded warnings that I may not be able to keep up with the pace of first grade, I entered and the concerns escalated. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Zarchen did not feel I was ready to be in her class. At this point my parents felt that it was time for me to be tested. Some of this period I actually do remember.
There can be a lot of negative stigmatism put around the idea of testing. It can also be overwhelming, terrifying, and just plain boring. I am not one to say that testing isn’t any of those things; it can be one or all of them at the same time. However, in my family’s case, testing meant that I could then work towards finding different learning styles that would work best for me. To begin, I saw two different types of doctors, a Developmental Pediatrician and a Children’s Psychologist. The Developmental Pediatrician tested my verbal abilities by showing me flash cards and asking me to identify the objects. The child Psychologist tested my IQ. After testing was completed both doctors agreed that I had dyslexia. My teachers believed I had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) so for a little while we experimented with medications for that. However, that turned out to be a mistake. The medicine was ineffective and I suffered through some pretty bad side effects. So, when the drugs did not work we decided that it would be good to try alternative methods to help develop my skill-sets further.
At the beginning of second grade we found a tutoring service that worked with students with dyslexia in Columbia, Maryland. They used the Orton-Gillingham method to teach reading. For two hours every day I would go to this center and work with my five senses to learn to read. While there I wrote in the sand and whipped cream, listened to the alphabet and would repeat it in a mirror, I would write out letters using the color marker that matched the first letter, we would use smelly markers to do the same method.
At this time, my parents registered me for piano lessons, which were recommended by the teachers in Columbia. It involved the sense of touch, hearing, and sight. It was believed that involving numerous senses and reading musical notes from left to right would help with reading aspects in general. I loved both the tutoring program and the piano lessons.
After a year at the Columbia site my skills really began to improve. We sought out a tutor closer to home. I worked with Mrs. Yannes once a week on my reading and writing skills. I was instructed to read part of a book and then I would answer questions the following week. I was able to work on my homework with Mrs. Yannes as well. This helped me fine-tune my skills. I worked with Mrs. Yannes through fifth grade.
Tutors, however, were not my only accommodation through school. In elementary and middle school I had a 504 plan, some of you may be wondering what that is, so let me explain a little.
A 504 plan is similar to an Individual Education Plan, in that it provides supports through the school system to help individuals with disabilities receive and achieve academic success. Some of my supports included having instructions read to me, dictating into a recorded and having others transcribe my answers, and being allotted extra time for testing. Sometimes my accommodations were met with resistance. My support staff and teachers would sometimes ignore my accommodations or try to change my answers based off of what they thought was more appropriate. I was always a creative thinker and just wanted that aspect of myself to be seen in my work. After much determination and hard work I excelled through my classes and no longer needed my 504 plan in high school.
From an educational viewpoint we had learned that I had dyslexia, and we worked through it to strengthen my skills, but it affected me socially as well. Early on I was embarrassed to read aloud in class, I hated any writing assignment, and I occasionally felt inferior to my peers. I have two very vivid memories that I’d like to share that are both painful and uplifting all in the same breath.
The first memory I’d like to involves a pool party with family and friends. Myself and some other kids were playing in the pool and talking about school, I had mentioned that I had dyslexia. One of the kids turned to me laughed and said, “haha so you can’t read.” I stared him down and said, “I can read, and I can probably even read better than you.” My sisters chimed in at this point and said they agreed with me that I probably could. In this moment, it is sad that people misunderstand and judge right away and even laughed. But I found my voice through my disability and stood up to this young man.
The other memory pertains to school and writing. I was in Advanced Placement (AP) English and we were assigned to write parts of our paper and post them around the room to be critiqued by the class. I wrote my opening paragraph and posted it on the wall. My teacher then read the paragraphs out loud. Then, we were given critiques from both the teacher and the class. After reading my paragraph, the students gave constructive criticism, but when my teacher shared his opinion, he ripped me apart. He said that it was garbage and whoever had written it probably should not have been in AP English. He then passed the paper back to me in front of the whole class. I was devastated. I came home from school so upset I could barely talk.
My mom and I set up a parent teacher conference. We explained my struggles with writing and how as a teacher I should be receiving constructive criticism, instead of feeling like I no longer belonged in that class and that my writing was “garbage.” The teacher felt horrible for what he did and apologized. My confidence that I had worked so hard to build up had been ripped down by one comment. Needless to say the rest of that year and still to this day, I struggle with confidence in my writing. Despite this, it hasn’t stopped me from trying.
I am dyslexic today and every day. It is a part of me that I will always work on. I do this by, finding ways to help my spelling, re-reading my papers numerous times to make sure it says what I want it to say, and reading books, magazines and articles to keep my skills sharp. I was lucky to have such supportive parents to help me work through these struggles and who taught me never to look at or use my disability as a crutch. So yes I have dyslexia and it does define me, but I think it defines me in a good way.