"there was a kid, with a head full of doubt..."

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

@ by: The Avett Brothers

In second grade, when I was seven years old, I remember keeping my head down and praying the teacher would not call on me to read aloud in front of my classmates. I would sit there in a silent panic, worrying that if she made me read, I would skip words, mispronounce them, or worse, freeze and say nothing. It wasn't that I didn't want to read; it's that I couldn't read.

My mom was an avid reader growing up, and she would try to read with me at home, but I would refuse, not knowing why. No one realized I struggled with reading in school because I had a learning disability. After all, I could recognize and read individual words and had 20/20 vision. However, nothing on the written page made sense to me. I couldn't even answer questions I knew my teacher would ask. What is this story about? Who is the Author? What is the main idea?

Pictures books in elementary school were manageable because I could look at the illustrations and figure out my assignments’ answers. As picture books disappeared from the curriculum, fonts got smaller, and vocabulary became more challenging, I faced total confusion when reading. The ever-present confusion at school deeply affected my overall learning. I began to think of myself as stupid, a belief I have lived with most of my life. I never wanted to speak or join a class discussion because I worried that I couldn't keep up with the conversation. Once again, I learned to stay silent and stay small so people wouldn't make fun of me when I didn't understand a conversation or a joke. I simply could not process the dialogue fast enough in my head. I would listen to conversations like I would read a book, one or two words at a time. I couldn't grasp an entire sentence, paragraph, or page of a book, so it seemed like this is how conversations should go, too. When I would speak, I was always concerned that I sounded stupid. I would pretend to laugh or nod when people would talk about books, geography, history, sports, or what was going on in the world.

No one knew how I felt inside. I often would receive compliments from others that I was pretty, but instead of feeling grateful or flattered, I felt worse about myself. I longed to hear someone say that I was smart. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to read books and learn about everything. I wanted to sit at the front of the class and raise my hand proudly with the answer. I wanted to be on the debate team. I wanted to dance or play sports. In my world, these types of activities were terrifying. It looked like the balls were always about to hit my face with sports, especially on my left side. My eye-hand coordination did not work well. I would get my right and left mixed up all the time, and I was clumsy. Everything I wanted to do became more difficult as I got older. I put all my effort into learning, which became more time consuming, and didn't allow any room for learning new activities, except for gymnastics and swimming. Why these two? Because there was no ball, and I didn't have to worry about eye-hand coordination.

In high school, things only got worse. Did they get worse because of my depression or because I had an undiagnosed learning disability or both? Did one make the other worse? I'm sure it did. I only continued to feel worse about myself, especially when it came to spelling, handwriting, and math. Math was so hard for me. I had a tutor after school and had to take summer school. I had to start taking standardized tests in high school, and I failed all of them. People wondered how I made decent grades, and I don't know the answer to that. I studied harder and longer than anyone I knew. It would take my friends one day to complete a reading assignment that would take me two to three days. My study habits looked something like this.

  1. I would read one line of a book over and over to understand nothing, searching to find that one thing in the book to help me answer the question.

  2. I would work hard at learning the material for weeks for a test to know nothing the night before and study all night to memorize as much as I could to make a decent grade, and then forget everything.

  3. I would lose concentration all the time in class but tried so hard not to.

  4. I would lose my place in the book at school when I had to look at the chalkboard and go back down to the book.

  5. I would lose my place again if I had to go from book to paper and back to the book.

  6. I would have to start back at square one anytime someone would make a noise.

The only class I excelled in was writing. I was put in a gifted and talented high school writing class by accident. I tried to get the course changed, sure that I would fail, but I couldn't. Surprisingly, this ended up being a blessing. The writing teacher saw something that I didn't see in myself. She pushed me, and the class was challenging, but I loved it! I had never had a teacher believe in me until that junior year. This fantastic teacher noticed me and recognized something I didn't know existed in me.

That writing class gave me hope for college. I had heard that college classes contained more writing assignments, but not usually in the first two years. This common wisdom turned out to be true. It ended up being three years to reach the hoped-for courses with mostly written assignments because I miserably failed my freshman year. I was devastated by my poor academic performance, reminding me of how I had felt in high school. Once again, I studied longer than my friends, went to class when many students would miss, and sought help from professors when I had problems. Nothing helped. I failed, and other kids who studied the same or less didn't, which only made things worse that freshman year. My already low self-esteem became almost non-existent.

I had to retake all my classes to get off of academic probation. I did whatever I could to study differently and make good grades. I eventually made B's and A's, which helped me stay in school for a second year, but I had to retake every class. I desperately wanted to graduate from college, so working even harder than before was what I had to do. Eventually, I did graduate and with a decent GPA.

The GPA mattered a lot to me back then. It was a hard copy of evidence that I was smart, not stupid. Looking back now, as I write this part of my story, I can see the significant role that determination and perseverance played in my being able to earn a college degree. However, nagging questions remained with me. Why had school always been so incredibly challenging for me? Why could some students put in half the effort I did and graduate with a similar GPA? Why were they able to have fun or skip a class when I had to study all the time? Although I felt successful, even happy about my accomplishment, I did not give up on the hope of finding an answer to the fundamental question, “Why is it so hard for Julie to read?”

Some of my readers may see themselves in this story about struggling in school. Perhaps you have a child who is having difficulty in school right now. I want you to know that I eventually found answers, and I will share them with you in my next blog, ...A Head Full of Doubt, Part 2.

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