Words Without Meaning ~ What Dyslexia Feels Like

The air was dry and hot as it usually is in California on a sunny October day. Recess was over and the third-grade classroom was full of sweaty bodies. The sound of squeaky desks slamming and children laughing echoed throughout the room. I never really felt a part of it, though.

I don't know why they waited to tell me, perhaps they were afraid. How does a parent break it to a nine-year-old child that she has dyslexia? I know now that they didn't tell me because they didn't know. I remember being taken to specialist after specialist. I remember having my eyes checked and my deep wish that a simple pair of glasses would fix it all.

I'm not upset with my parents for the way they did tell me, for it was kind and full of love. I do wish, however, that there could have been some way they could of helped me to understand. We waited a year to know of my learning disability; because of this I spent a year of not understanding myself in a time when differences were not easily excepted.

Mrs. Spencer and I on the last day of school.
"Bring your spelling books to the rug, class," Mrs. Spencer announced over the commotion. Mrs. Spencer was a tall woman with a kind smile, and was always singing or humming. She seemed to have a constant spring in her step. I liked the teacher, but I hated third-grade.  I always felt sick to my stomach. The very thought of school made me ill. When my mother would wake me each morning for school, I would wake up crying. I was afraid. I was different. I was made fun of.

I'll never forget that day the students went to the rug, because it was the first time I was truly classified as different. Mrs. Spencer came to me and told me that I didn't have to go because I didn't have the same spelling work. I had my reading and writing lessons at the Resource Lab in the mornings. The lab was in a trailer at the end of the kindergarten playground. Through the large windows of our third-grade room we could see the edge of the trailer and a good half of the small lawn. The specialist would come in the back door of the classroom and and walk with me to the lab.

As we would walk along the edge of the lawn, past the class windows, I could feel all my classmate's eyes following us. The side of the building was lined with rocks that crunched under our feet.  I looked down at them so I would not have to see the children's faces. That was the first time I decided to be invisible.

Back in the classroom, my desk was on the very end of a cluster of desks, and I was careful to keep the pencil drawings on it as black as I could. It was always upsetting when I was forced to wash the desk; hours of work down the drain. Now I stared long and hard at these drawings as the class passed me on the way to the rug with their treasured spelling books. I thought, or hoped that if I concentrated hard enough I really would be invisible. But they did see me, and they new why I wasn't getting a spelling book out of my desk. It was as if they could see straight through the rust painted metal of my lone desk. They knew I didn't even have a speller.

Could they see me struggling that first day we had them? Could they see the words in my brain shattering like glass until I could no longer tell they had meaning at all? Could they see the shards cutting my fingertips as I tried to follow along? Did they know I couldn't read?

Now could my classmates see the wall I was building with their words as they passed me on the way to the rug? "Lucky," they whispered. "Why?" they asked. "Stupid," they teased, but worst of all, and the one that still calls out to me like the cries of a wolf pack circling their pray in the night, "Retarded!" So there I sat alone in my desk building my walls, as I drew.

I didn't know words then. I didn't know one book or poem or play.  I lived in a silent world. I could speak like anyone else, but as I sat at my desk and looked at that spelling book on that first day they were handed out, all I could see was defeat. The words meant something, but what? What was I supposed to do? It bored me. My head hurt to try; to make sense out of it. And so I drew.

My classmates read on and on as pages flew by. It was as thought it were easy. I looked back at the page. Surly I missed something. Maybe I'll see it this time. A picture, a sign, some kind of clue. What was I doing? Nothing, just words.

Mrs. Spencer sat at her desk. I turned and looked at her. She looked up. I turned back around. "How much longer must I sit here?" She must have felt my pain, because just as quickly as I had found that red and yellow book on my drawing pencils, it was gone. "Kristen, you don't need to do this, we'll find something else for you to do," she apologized. It was almost like she had made a mistake by giving me the book. She seemed to have forgotten something.

What does she mean? Why don't I get the spelling book? What was in it? What made me so different? Then all of a sudden that dreadful book that I hated to think about became a desired book and without it I was a stranger. I was different!

My parents didn't tell me about my learning disability until the following May. After a long year of testing. The next school year I changed schools and started a new life. With the knowledge that I needed a new learning strategy, I blossomed. Things were finally starting to be explained in a way that made since. Although it wasn't until I was a sophomore in college and I had a tutor who really helped reading click. I don't know if it was my age, or the simple instruction that I had never had before.

But even now, when I here children make fun, or someone implies, that malicious word calls back to me soft and cold from a nine-year-old's mouth, "Retarded."


  1. I love you Kris, you are amazing!

  2. Thanks for writing this Kristen- we had a son with the same problem and more, and teachers ere not often kind. your skill with writing and this blog is amazing.

    1. Thanks Viola! Coming from you, that is a complement. But I do think it runs in the family.

  3. Powerfully written and very moving - I'm sure many will be touched if not identify with your story. Wouldn't be nice if life could provide us with just a little hindsight up front?

  4. Wow Kristen, thanks so much for writing this! As a Special Education teacher it was really fascinating to hear from your perspective. And as a classmate of yours from elementary school, I just wanted to tell you I had little or no awareness of what assignments you were or were not doing; I thought of you as funny, outgoing, artistic and kind! Love you :) --Liz

    1. Thanks Liz,
      I know now, as an adult, that my fear of my peers was mostly self inflicted. My own lack of confidence and shyness was getting the better of me. I did always have a wonderful support team behind me in my family and friends, and you were one of them. Thanks!


  5. I am a special education teacher and I think it is amazing that you shared this. More people need to be made aware. Albert Einstein had dyslexia as did George Washington! Also the "r" word is just hateful and a word that should be banned permanently. Thank you for sharing. I think it helpful to others.

    1. Thank you for sharing. I hope this can reach more teachers. I know though my own kids, that sometimes the teachers are the last to know when bullying is going on. Both of my parents were teachers and I think that made it even harder for them, not being able to reach me.

  6. Hi Kristen, I’m Anne from Life on the Funny Farm (http://annesfunnyfarm.blogspot.com), and I’m visiting from the SITS Saturday Sharefest.

    Very well written. Powerful story. I've worked in tutoring reading to kids, and some of them were dyslexic. So hard for the kids to live with.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. If you’ve never visited yet, I hope you can pop by my blog sometime to say hi…


Thanks, Y'all for sharing your thoughts! I'm love'n hear'n from ya!