Learning Disabled- Weathering The Storm Within

On this mid-April evening, menacing clouds loom in the distance. They send forth a heavy wind that carries the smell of rain and blows dried winter debris across my yard. Its damp, still air is the calm before a storm.

The calm ends when the storm’s gray veil covers the neighbourhood. Its thunder crackles and rain cascades down my roof, erasing the salt-stained snow that has too long dotted my yard. Lightning streaks across the sky, its pure white electrical charge an incandescent splash on the black canvas of this night’s sky.

The smells, crackles and cascades of this stormy night awaken my passions and emotions. Reminding me that storms rage deep within the human soul. Internal tempests that are as disorienting and overwhelming as the storm that rattles the windows of my house. Black clouds that descend inward. Poking sensitivities; rumbling loose human frailties.

I think about how internal storms cleanse and clarify my life. Unleashing pent-up anger, frustration and anxieties buried deep within. Blowing away the debris that clutter my soul. Enabling me to look deep within myself. Moving me forward on my journey of self-acceptance. Helping me accept who and what I am. Such clarity comes after the storm subsides. While it rages and beats down upon us, blessings are hard to see.

Tucked inside my home, beyond the view of neighbours, dislodged by the thunderstorm, a storm rages inside my 15-year-old son. Tomorrow is his 16th birthday. A written G1 driving test awaits him. Tonight, doubts about the future crackle and rumble in his mind. The learning disability he carries fuel the winds of anxiety, shame and self-doubt. Through his tears, I learn of his anxiety about the impending driving test. His feeling that every written test he takes, he fails. The shame he carries for his handwriting. The storm cloud of realization that should he pass the G1 test, the resulting licence will require his signature. Something he does not have. The droplets of anxiety and doubt of these realities cause a thundercloud to burst within him.

Despite years of occupational therapy and fine motor practice, my son’s visual motor skills and visual memory remain challenged. On this night, at this moment as storms rage outside and in, the depth and breadth of his learning disability is painfully obvious. As he sits with the sheet of paper trying to perfect the sweeping motions of a proposed signature, his brain and hand cannot connect with the paper. Intent, motivation and effort are not enough for the necessary series of loops to come forth. A destination he must all-to-often visit.

A cascade of thoughts fills the moment. Doubts about future pursuits. Anger, regret, sadness, confusion and fatigue from the never-ending struggle. Older brothers with countless post-secondary options. What is next for me? What are my strengths? Why did God deal me this hand of cards to play?

My own pain becomes incandescent when he says, “You do not understand. You are not me.” I think about the many times over the years that I have responded, “I do understand. My background is in Special Education. I teach students with learning disabilities. I have walked this journey with you.”

But on this night, as tears rush down his cheeks, I finally realize that he is right. I do not understand. How could I know what it is like to drown in a print-rich culture? One in which ease with the traditional form of reading and writing is expected and taken for granted.  I can not know what it is like to be ashamed of my printing. To be unable to access things I have written. I cannot know what it is like to be focused on the first set of instructions, since I know I cannot manage the whole. To feel ten steps behind the rest of the class, embarrassed to ask questions and to feel like I am constantly sinking.  No way can I know what is like to hear, “Failure is a gift…mistakes help you learn.” To have faced so much failure that I cannot see past my own.

As I listen to my son, I understand that leaving school at the end of the day means escaping. Ironic, since the first thing he tell me each evening is how much he loves his school, and the students and teachers there. As I think about the many times he says, “Mom, everyone is nice here.” I am ripped apart know that he wants to escape this place that he loves. Indeed,  cannot understand what it is like to be thought of as lazy, unmotivated and careless. To wish people understood how much I really do care and how very tired I am.

Learning disabilities are an invisible exceptionality. Unlike many other exceptionalities with more physical manifestations, the needs of these students are often neglected and misunderstood.  In the busy classroom setting, these students blend-in, yet sometimes struggle in silence. As a result, there are many misconceptions as to the breadth and scope of the implications for students. 

The storm within my son–like the storms within most students with learning disabilities–does not manifest at school. Rather, it is hidden and shoved down to the seldom touched place where shame resides. Headaches and stomach issues are the physical toll of suppressing the anxiety and frustration. The emotions compact until that space, like those dark clouds in my sky, becomes entrenched and must find release.

“Mom, I am so ashamed,” he says. A gut wrenching irony, since my advocacy and writing focuses on supplanting shame with success. Eliminating shame is what I do. It is what drives me.

Now, as I sit with my son, I hold back my own tears.  It is not the time for me to guide or provide advice. Nor is it the time to tell him how kind, empathetic and helpful he is.  How I wish our system valued character more than academics. That I am certain he will find his way. 

Now is not the time. This is not the place. He is not ready to hear such words. This is my time to listen. To honour his journey and let his storm rage. To accept that, even though I want to walk this journey with him, I cannot walk in his shoes. He needs to feel understood.

My son’s journey, is similar to the journey of many students with LD. They and their families live in Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief. Disoriented by denial, anger, bargaining and depression, they are caught in an ever-evolving storm within. Pursuing self-acceptance. Learning to own who they are. Seeking resources. Finding strategies that enable success. Coming to an understanding that they will be ok. Where they are and exactly as God created them.

I am reminded of Aesop’s Fable, The Oak Tree and the Reed. In it, during a storm the massive oak tree is broken and thrown into the river. The slender reeds, considered light and weak, survive by flexing in the wind. The story speaks to the important role flexibility plays in helping us overcome adversity and adapt to changing environments.

Flexibility is an essential aspect in understanding all learners, most importantly, exceptional ones.  Students must be flexible and resilient, and I as their teacher must be willing to adapt, learn and indeed, to relearn in an effort to support all my students. I must pay close attention to what the research tells me about exceptional learners. Moreover, I must be flexible in my methods. Not make assumptions about students. I must forgo outdated strategies and be open to universal methods that open learning to all students.

As his storm subsides, my son realizes that he is a reed. Bent, not broken.  He wrote his driving test, passing with a perfect score. A better score than the ones of his older brothers. His name neatly printed on the signature line, driver`s licence tucked carefully in his wallet. His difficulty with cursive writing is forgotten. He is successful. Did overcome adversity. Is exactly how God created him.

As educators, we are the reeds that every student will need one time or another. We must view their learning and the issues it involves with the warning that is on the rearview mirror of most cars that says, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Anxiety and frustration can be writhing and stirring just below the surface. Raw emotions may be closer than they appear. In order to be that reed, we must walk beside our students knowing this.

As I reflect upon our journey down this pathway,  I am grateful for his reed-like teachers who are flexible enough to adapt their teaching to suit my son. While he is weary at the end of the day from the struggle, each morning, he happily walks up the driveway to begin anew. To every educator who understands the internal struggles of their students and flex to help them weather their storms, I  extend a heartfelt thank-you. I proudly stand with you to ensure that all students bend, but do not break.