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Learning the Rules of the Game

special-needs-stories-college-learn-keyboardAt my college graduation last June, my mom made a comment that surprised me. As I stood smiling after an awards ceremony, she stared at my final GPA; “It seems like at every school you’ve been to, from elementary school to now, you’ve finished stronger than you started,” she said. I answered her before thinking: “Of course I have. I’m good at learning the rules of the game.”

My mom’s comment couldn’t have been more true. I had struggled from kindergarten through third grade, but I had shined in fourth and fifth grade. Sixth and seventh grade were extremely stressful, but eighth grade was great. In high school I got off to a slow start but finished at the top of my class, and in college my transcript showed the exact same pattern. Poor spelling and a slow reading speed have plagued me since the beginning of my school days, but I graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College.

I attribute much of my success, especially in high school and college, to learning how the systems of individual schools and classes work. My first term at Dartmouth felt like swimming through Jello. I couldn’t seem to get my feet under me, and no matter how much I worked, I always felt behind. My friends seemed to work half as hard as I did and do twice as well. I passed all of my classes that term, but I was not proud of my performance, and I was seriously questioning whether I would succeed in my chosen fields of study.

I knew what the problem was; the reading load was so large that, without enough time to properly finish my reading, I was skimming, and I wasn’t retaining anything because of it. My skimming skills have always been terrible. Difficulties with orthography (remembering how words look) make skimming an impractical strategy for me. I knew this already, but faced with too much reading, I had fallen back on what was, for me, an ever‐failing strategy. My friends all seemed to be succeeding by skimming, and it took me a while to remember that I don’t learn like all of my friends.

I did eventually learn Dartmouth’s rules of the game and my rules for success: Always spell check emails to professors until you know them well, especially English professors; if a professor points out your poor spelling on a handwritten test, be upfront about your learning disability; never skim; if you can’t finish the reading, carefully read the abstract, first couple of paragraphs and last couple of paragraphs instead of skimming; never procrastinate, even if your friends do it all the time; seek help as soon as you need it.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that first rough term, but coming back to my own rules always saved me. When I considered dropping out of intro Spanish just two weeks in (there were so many new spellings to learn so fast!), I instead sought out the professor (and found a great ally to my learning in the process). While everyone else in my neuroscience classes skimmed whole research articles, I carefully read the abstracts, introductions, and conclusions. And I learned to ask for help from the right people; I wrote a 100‐page undergraduate research thesis, but I only got through it by teaming up with a professor who understood my learning needs and didn’t mind proofreading for me.

On graduation day, I didn’t think much about my mom’s comment or my response, but as I began my first “real” job as a first grade teacher, the conversation came back to me. What were the rules of the game as a teacher? I sat in my classroom the day before the first day of school panicked. Would colleagues judge me for occasional misspellings in emails? What about in handwritten notes? What if I misspelled something on the board and my principal saw it? Worse yet, what if a child learned to spell a word wrong because of me? Had I made a mistake in not disclosing my learning disability sooner?

I felt at a loss. I knew I was capable of teaching first graders to read. I was so excited to be a part of preventing the stress of reading failure, but if parents and colleagues knew about my disability, would they doubt my aptitude? Lucky for me, the school year began so quickly that I didn’t have much time to worry about when I would learn the rules of the game.

Now I’m halfway through my first year teaching first grade. I still look up all tricky words that I might need to write on the board, and I still spell check emails that go to colleagues I don’t know well. However, there are some colleagues that I know don’t mind my poor spelling, and my teacher’s aide is happy to spell words for me mid‐lesson.

I have 12 six‐year‐olds as motivation for learning the rules of the game this time. Early reading was painful for me. I now have the chance to prevent that pain for the students in my first grade class. I love nothing more than celebrating their success, and I am sensitive to their struggles. If I have it my way, they’ll all learn this year that they are smart, and that when they struggle, they just need to take the time to find ways to learn that work for them. From reading and basic addition to college‐level neuroscience, it’s all about learning the rules of the game, both for the subject, and for the way your brain works.


Emily interned with NCLD in the winter of 2009. She graduated from Dartmouth in the spring of 2010. She is now busy teaching first grade in rural Vermont.