Today my husband and I received a priceless gift. We were able to experience to some degree what having dyslexia is like for our sons. The Rocky Mountain Branch of the International Dyslexia Association staged a learning seminar for parents and educators, and for an hour we were put in situations designed to recreate the frustrations dyslexics experience in the classroom. One of the greatest difficulties in parenting a child with learning disabilities when you do not have them yourself is the inability to understand exactly where they’re coming from. This disconnect has caused innumerable negative interactions with our sons over the years. When you have a bright, articulate child who shows great understanding about the world and can recite for you entire passages from a variety of Star Wars films but who can’t write a simple, grammatically correct sentence at age 11 or who can read the word phenomenal but consistently confuses the words that and what at age 10, it makes you want to tear your hair out. Things that are for you quite simple seem an insurmountable challenge to them. You just don’t get it.
Today’s event provided six opportunities to experience how difficult those simple tasks are when you have dyslexia. There were two stations for writing, two for reading and comprehension, and two for listening skills. The stations were all led by an instructor who served as our classroom teacher. She facilitated the activity, providing constant feedback (mostly in the form of well-meaning, but potentially disheartening, critiques) as we did our work. In our first station, we were given a timed test. We were only allowed to write with the hand we don’t normally use. None of us could complete the tasks in the allotted time, and our handwriting was abysmal. At the next station we wore headphones and listened to a dictated spelling test. The list was read at an average speed, but the volume was varied and the amount of background noise on the recording and in the room in general made it virtually impossible to understand the words. The “teacher” made us correct each others’ papers. For the eight of us in the group, all but one of us missed every single word out of the first six. At that point the teacher told us that we had all failed and would need to do extra work during recess. The next activity was a learn-to-read activity where the words appeared in symbolic code. We were each asked to read aloud words that had no direct correlation to anything we understood. While we struggled, the teacher constantly reminded us that our reading needed to be fluid, embarrassing us with her guidance. Next was another listening activity where we heard four teachers speaking at one time, as if we were on a field trip. We had to correctly copy down what our specific teacher was telling us, filtering out the speech of the others. Most of us missed entire sections on the worksheet. In the fifth activity, we were allowed to use our dominant hand to write but we could not look directly at our paper. Instead, we used a mirror as a guide to write words and trace lines on our paper. I could not get my hand to form the letters and numbers. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I could not make it work. I giggled uncomfortably to myself as I worked and ended with a page was full of scribbles despite my best efforts to be successful. The final activity was another read-aloud session. The text was in an unusual font and far too light, the words were written backwards, and we were asked to read from right to left. After correctly naming our alphabet prior to reading the text (the only success many of us had all hour), we all screwed up our letters while reading, reversing b and d and p and q. Afterward, we were asked to answer comprehension questions. How on earth are you supposed to answer questions about content when you spent 10-15 seconds simply trying to decode one word?
When we’d rotated through all the stations, I began taking notes on the experience. Quite a few times during the discussion after each activity, participants would tear up while explaining how frustrating it had been. We found ourselves behaving much like our children. We checked out and gave up when it got overwhelming, refusing to complete activities. Our stress took over and we became emotional, either making jokes to deflect our frustration or berating ourselves for not being better at the activity. Our hands became tired and our penmanship got worse, and we were annoyed when our teachers told us our work was sloppy and we’d have to do it again. We used strategies to compensate for our difficulties, including looking at other students’ papers to try to figure out what number we were on or what we were supposed to be doing. The entire hour was a continuous light bulb moment. I thought about my boys and some of the destructive arguments we’ve had over homework (one just this last week with Joe over paragraph writing, as a matter of fact), and my heart sank as I understood how much my words and attitude have contributed to their struggles. I felt like crap.
When we got home, we talked with our boys about our experience. We told them that we finally at least partially understood how hard things have been and continue to be for them. We told them what we had done at the seminar and how dang hard it was for us. Joe, especially, seemed thrilled to feel some true understanding from us. I know hindsight is 20/20, and you can’t go back and undo the past, but I wish I would have had this experience about five years ago. It would have saved me and my sons from some insane tantrums (mostly mine) and tears (mostly theirs).
Tonight, seeking some solace from self-loathing regarding how long I’ve been adding to my boys’ frustration about school, I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book:
When a bunny finds light, it does not matter how long he has been in the darkness.
I can’t go back and undo the unwitting damage caused by my naive assumptions and over reactions, but I can go forward with a more compassionate heart for both myself and my boys. Beating myself up over things I did not understand will help no one. I will never look at their issues the same way again. I’ve walked a mile in their large, fluffy bunny feet and, in doing so, I’ve stepped out of the darkness. We’re making progress, my boys and I. I’m excited that going forward we’ll be hopping along together in much better light.