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Taking Charge of My Learning Disability
Accepting help put me on the path to success
Anaiss Quiles
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As a kid in Puerto Rico, I had a hard time in school. Sometimes I learned at a slower pace, and at other times I would not understand anything the teacher explained.

When my class studied for a test, I’d copy the answers onto my pencil box so I could peek at them during the test. Most of the time it didn’t help, because the teacher would switch out the answers on exam day.

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My grandmother tried to tutor me, but she wasn’t patient enough. She yelled at me when I got the wrong answer and hit me on the head with a notebook.

It got harder every year. My reading level and math scores fell further and further behind as I went through elementary school.

Then, right after I graduated from 6th grade, my family moved to New York. I was determined to do well in middle school, but I worried about whether I could handle the work—especially in English, a language I didn’t speak very well.

New School, Old Struggles

The day before my first day of school in New York, my pencils were sharp and I couldn’t wait to wear my new uniform that my parents had struggled to buy, a white shirt with a navy blue skirt.

At first, school was bewildering. I knew a little English, but there were many unfamiliar words to learn.

Once I learned the basic routines, school wasn’t so bad. Although I found it difficult to make friends, I was learning more English, and that helped.

It was in social studies class where I started to recognize my old familiar struggles. A few weeks into the semester, I got back a quiz I’d been studying for. “A one out of five?” I thought. I worried about what my parents would say.

As the teacher continued handing out quizzes, tears rushed down my cheeks. The other students felt bad for me. Some of them showed me their exams, so I’d know their grades were less than perfect, too. But I kept on crying. Finally, the teacher noticed. She tried to make me feel better, but everything she said blurred in my ears.

It wasn’t learning a new language that made it hard to learn, it was learning itself. What the teacher was teaching me just didn’t make sense sometimes. I had trouble understanding what I read. Even if I understood something, the next day I would forget it.

Someone I Could Talk To

My first parent-teacher conference in New York was a scary day. All the teachers gave me compliments and encouraged me to keep progressing. They let my parents know how well I behaved in class. They said they wished all the students were like me, quiet and respectful.

But I knew they saw my struggles. I knew they could see how slow I was. The only advice they offered us was that I should participate more in class and be more social. When we got to the social studies teacher, however, my mom found out about me crying over my first quiz.

I hadn’t told my parents about it. Of course my mom was concerned.

“Anaiss, why didn’t you tell me this?” she asked me in a honey-smooth tone.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

Not being able to learn at the pace of other students made me upset and sad. I would sometimes cry when I didn’t understand my homework. Over the course of the school year, my health was affected. I lost a lot of weight. I felt stressed out all the time.

This all worried my parents and other family members. They decided to take me to a therapist. I wasn’t happy about it. I knew I was depressed and stressed, but I didn’t think that talking to a stranger would help.

Soon, though, I started to like telling my therapist about all the changes we had made moving from Puerto Rico to New York, and how they were affecting me.

My therapist and I played games as we spoke about my day. Some days I was happy and some I was sad. Other days I didn’t want to speak at all. I would tell her about my arguments with my sisters. Sometimes she’d have them come to our sessions and she’d encourage us not to fight with each other.

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School was my main topic, though. I would tell my therapist if I made friends or if anybody annoyed me that day. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk to my parents about the things that were bothering me, so I spoke to her. Even though I knew she spoke to my parents about our conversations, it was easier communicating through her.

After a few months, I wasn’t as stressed. That feeling of darkness was gone; it was like stars were being added to a dark sky. My mom was the sun because she was always there for me in the darkest times. She’s the one who got me help.

Finally, Some Answers

I didn’t know it at the time, but the school began testing me to see if I needed to be in special education. All those tests! I had no idea what they were for. I was constantly being pulled out of class to answer questions and do timed activities to see how quickly I could complete them. They also made me read some stories and describe what they were about.

When I discovered I was being tested to pin down my learning problems, I felt like a loser.

But I wasn’t losing, I was gaining. I soon found out about my learning disability. My mom explained that I had a lower reading comprehension level than I was supposed to. This meant I could read, but I didn’t always understand the meaning of what I read at the level I should.

“Instead of having a 7th grade reading level, you have a 3rd grader’s reading level,” my mom explained.

At least now I had some explanations for my problems. That didn’t make me feel capable of improving my learning, though. I realized I was going to have to work harder. I had to be more focused in class. And I would have to learn to ask for help. This wasn’t easy, because sometimes I didn’t understand well enough to even come up with a question.

I was not happy when teachers brought attention to my disability. They constantly asked if I understood what we were doing in class, as if I didn’t know what was going on. It made me feel ashamed. But I know now they were doing their job by making sure I understood.

In some cases, people with my disability are sent to a special school where they get total support. But all my life I was in a regular public school with everyone else, and I was determined to make it there. My mom helped me a lot. She was patient. She worked with me on my school projects.

For the most part I preferred to keep my struggles to myself. Some things I didn’t share with my parents or therapist. I put all my feelings into my diary. By the time I graduated from 8th grade, I had filled six diaries.

In my diaries, I wrote about times when I got upset with my parents and kids who didn’t treat me well. I wrote about how I had trouble making friends because I was quiet and they weren’t welcoming. I didn’t feel I had much in common with them, and I spent most of the year by myself.

Writing about these things helped relieve my stress. When I read over my diaries now, I realize how much I have progressed.

Turning Things Around

In 8th grade I was placed in what’s called 803. At my school, students were divided into three groups. There was 801—those were the students who didn’t need any extra help. The kids in 802 were the students learning English. In 803, students had a slower pace of learning, so there was an extra teacher who provided more support.

Of course I wasn’t happy about it at first. In 7th grade I’d been told by my sister and other kids that 803 students were not as smart. I didn’t want to be called dumb. But over time, my thoughts about students in 803 classes began to change.

I got over the fact that I was in 803 when I started to notice my progress. Everything was clearer, like a dirty pool being cleaned. I wasn’t crying over my homework anymore. I still struggle sometimes, but I improved in many classes, especially English and math.

My teachers moved through lessons more slowly. They did extra activities to help us learn. And when I asked questions, they answered me with words that helped me understand. I also got a learning coach who helped me with vocabulary and other skills.

English became my favorite subject because I began to enjoy reading and learning new words. Books became my favorite thing. Going to Barnes and Noble was like being in a castle full of gold. Libraries were my place and still are.

I still struggle with math, but I now understand much better how to solve the problems, even if it takes me a little longer than others.

Today, as a sophomore in high school, I’ve been on the honor roll multiple times and I’m in the National Honor Society. With the help of my parents, learning coach, teachers, and therapist, I’ve made it to the top.

I never gave up and I won’t now. I will not let a learning disorder bring me down again. We all have our weaknesses and struggles. I decided to do something about mine.

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(NYC-2017-11-16)