You’re Not Stupid, You’re Just Special

You’re Not Stupid, You’re Just Special

by Erica Ramaekers

I desperately needed answers. In was the summer of 2016, a month before my 21st birthday, I found myself at the Seashore Psychology Clinic. I had spent two and half years in community college and one semester at the University of Iowa, but had not yet gotten my AA degree. There were three classes I needed to take before I could get it, two in Spanish one in Math. No matter what I did I could not pass Spanish. When I took College Algebra for the second time I studied for the weekly quizzes and spent twenty plus hours on homework and still failed almost all of them. It was so upsetting. I couldn’t figure out why I was doing so poorly. I felt like a spoiled brat selfishly wasting my parents’ money and angry at myself for not having it together by now. I was terrified that I’d have to drop out of school.

I knew my performance in school was related to my ongoing struggles with reading, writing, and math. The truth is I was nearly illiterate until I was seventeen years old. I couldn’t read without stammering over every syllable and going over the material numerous times to comprehend it. I had no understanding of how to write a paper. In late high school, I got my parents to put me in tutoring, which I went to for four hours a week. By the end of my senior year I could read without stammering and write a coherent paper. I thought I had finally dealt with my learning difficulties once and for all. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

At Seashore, I was diagnosed with combination ADHD and specific learning disabilities in reading and math–dyslexia (SLD in reading) and dyscalculia (SLD in math). Finally having an answer, I felt overwhelmed with relief. I always believed I struggled in school because I was stupid. I was so glad to learn that this wasn’t true and that I now had the opportunity to understand my brain.

Although initially relieved, I soon became deeply enraged. Why had this gone on for so long? Why wasn’t I identified earlier?  From the very beginning, school was never easy for me.

In the first grade when we were learning about commas, I couldn’t get the hang of it. I kept asking the teacher to help me, but she accused me of not trying hard enough.  In second grade my teacher made it a rule that we had to keep our desks clean and organized. I understood the concept and why it was important, but I didn’t have the skills to apply it. When I’d go about categorizing objects, I could think of twenty different ways and every one of them seemed equally important or urgent. It felt like I was trying to find the one voice amongst a screaming crowd in a football auditorium.

I tried vocalizing my problems to my teachers but they always responded with something unhelpful like “sometimes in life you have to do things you don’t want to do.” They perceived me as a kid dramatizing a mild inconvenience.

Throughout grammar school I struggled with reading, writing, spelling, and basic math.  One day during an assigned spelling exercise, I couldn’t remember If I was supposed to write from right to left or from left to right. I felt too embarrassed to ask the teacher because I knew she would have said, “You should already know how to do this by now.” This would be followed by my peers making fun of me once we were let out for recess. I decided to write in whichever direction I thought was correct. A few days later my parents and I had a conference with my teacher who pulled out my spelling assignment and said, “Nobody told me there was anything wrong with this child.” The entire paper was written from right to left, covered in red check marks.

My parents angrily defended me and this ignited a shouting match with my teacher. I was surprised by their anger. I had heard similar remarks from my teacher on a daily basis in ways that were much worse. Instead of feeling angry. I felt guilty. I thought my parents were wrongfully defending me and that I was causing my teacher to get in trouble. I was a burden and wanted to disappear.

Shortly after this I was placed into special education. When my parents told me I had to go, I was devastated. I remember crying and begging not to. When teachers talk to adults about putting their children in special education they talk about how kids will quietly leave the classroom like it’s no big deal but that’s not true.  Children know it is. It would have been so helpful if a teacher just said, ”You do struggle with reading. You do have a different brain, but that doesn’t mean you are incapable or unintelligent.”

Instead my differences were never acknowledged. Once while doing sight reading my IEP teacher kept telling me to “sound out” the words. I tried to break the words down, but every time I began she would stop me and repeat, “No. I said sound it out.” After many failed attempts, I screamed “I am sounding it out!” which was followed by many tears. What my teacher didn’t understand was that I lack phonemic awareness, a component of dyslexia. If I were to sight read a word like “Honey” I wouldn’t know how to break it down. I would likely say “Ho-ney” instead of “Hon-ey.” When I sight read I look at words as an order of single letters that make a picture (the word) that stand for a sound I have memorized for that picture. I don’t see letters that can be grouped into chunks that will allow me to “sound out” the word I’m supposed to say.

In sixth grade I was diagnosed with ADD, which is a component of my current diagnosis, but I was told nothing about what ADD was or meant. All that was said was “you have trouble paying attention.” I felt just as helpless as I did prior to being diagnosed. My ADD medication didn’t cure all of my learning difficulties or behavioral issues. I often felt like my learning problems weren’t real, that it was just me not trying hard enough to learn.

Later when things started to get really bad at school, I developed a total apathy toward failure. It’s hard to exert yourself as much as humanly possible only to learn from others that your efforts don’t qualify as trying. I would go weeks without handing assignments in on time or at all. I learned it was easier not to try because trying and not trying got me to the same place. I got by doing the bare minimum.

To this day I still have a difficult time seeing the consequences of avoiding my school work often to the point of it greatly impacting my grades. I still have a tremendous amount of anxiety when I’m in a classroom. I am constantly distracted by flashbacks of hurt and shame, and anticipate being publically humiliated in front of my peers. I can’t stop thinking sometimes about different scenarios where I had to defend myself from abusive classmates. I have a hard time getting through basic tasks and homework. At the first sign of a struggle, I think it will be impossible for me to understand. I still have a difficult time asking for help from teachers. When I have to read aloud in class I still feel my muscles tighten and throat choke up despite knowing I can read without stammering.

Today when I say I struggle with dyslexia and ADHD what I really mean is that I struggle with learned helplessness and toxic shame. Childhood is a serious developmental period for our brains; it’s when we learn how to survive and carry ourselves through the world. Even though I intellectually understand that I’m smart, I’m worthy, and that I am surrounded by people who want to help me and want me to succeed, I do not feel that way. Truthfully, I feel lower than others and I am fearful of people thinking I’m mentally deficient. It’s taking me a long time to deprogram my negative self-perception. I internalized the message “Your brain is broken” and believed I was intrinsically worthless. I detached from who I authentically was and I lost my sense of self. Grieving this loss was the hardest part of all. Day by day I am learning to talk back to the negative voices in my head. The path toward building a positive self-concept has not been steady. I trip up, get frustrated, tired and want to quit. However, the farther I move forward, the easier it’s been to pick myself up. Each time I learn more about myself and the strength that I have.


Erica Remarkers is senior majoring in Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and minoring in Social Justice.