The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Struggling With a Learning Disability

“You know how to spell it,” the teacher yelled. “Sound it out! We just went over this. You’re not trying!”

I felt my face get hot, and my hands start shaking. I knew how to spell “hat,” but it just wouldn’t surface. I didn’t even want to try. Not now, not in front of the whole class. “They won’t want to be my friends,” I thought. “Miss Miller hates me.”

That was a typical scene at my elementary school. I was only in 1st grade, and already I knew I was stupid. Everybody was working on spelling harder words, like “because” and “orange,” and I couldn’t even spell “hat.”

At home my younger sister Liza was the cute and funny one. My brother Benji was the overachiever, and I was the shy and stupid one. Ben used to tease me about being stupid and my father would grab him and shake him. “Don’t ever talk to your sister like that!” he would yell. That was how I knew Ben was telling the truth. Why else would my dad be so mad?

The school told my parents that I had a learning disability and that I was taking up too much of Miss Miller’s time. After 1st grade, I changed schools. Now I was going to a different kind of school in New York City. Central Park East was not a school for children with disabilities, it was just one where teachers had more time. My new school didn’t stress correct spelling as much as learning how to think and using creativity. In this school there were no grades or tests and you called teachers by their first names, and all the classrooms were set up like a kindergarten class.

I loved my new teacher, Lucy. She was patient and warm and was always giving hugs around. I loved my new school, but I was still stupid. I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class, but I tried my hardest not to let anybody know it. I didn’t want any more attention than the other kids were getting.

And I was smooth. In this new kind of classroom there was lots of independent work. I could sit by myself and pretend to read or write, and nobody would want to interrupt all my hard work. When Lucy came over to see how I was doing, I could fake it really well. I would tell her what the book was about from the cover, or show her a math problem that I had copied off the boy next to me when he wasn’t looking.

But soon they caught up with me and that’s when the tutors began. First there was Dr. Bloomingthal. She gave me strange exercises to do like copying pictures, or making up a story about a picture. She would show me a shape with lots of sides and then take it away and ask me to draw it from memory. If I got it right I would get an M&M.

All the time she would write things in her notebook. I knew she wanted to know what was wrong with my head. I knew I was being tested, and I hated it. It is a horrible feeling. It feels like everything you do is giving something away. My mom knew how much I hated going, so sometimes she would take me to the ballet afterwards.

After Dr. Bloomingthal I had another tutor, and then another, and another after that. I had horrible parent-teacher conferences where everybody was nice to me. Sometimes I wished that they would get mad at me. I wanted the reason to be that I was bad, that I wasn’t trying. But it seemed that some people were smart, and some were slow, and I was one of the slow ones. I wanted to be smart so badly. There were two boys in my class, Wally and Ronald, who always had the answers. I wanted to be like them.

In 4th grade I was left back. I was relieved, because I was terrified of 5th grade. That year I made friends with a girl named Sara who was a year younger than I was. Sara was the kid who always did the best on spelling tests, and was always asked to give the book reports. Sara was nice, funny, and smart, and right away I was drawn to her. Sara made me want to try hard to do better, and I did. Pretty soon I was learning.

image by Chris Torres

I was still far behind, but things were getting better. My tutors were showing me how to take my time, how not to tackle a problem all at once, but to do it piece by piece. It was almost as though I just had to decide when to start trying hard.

I got through 6th grade and found myself in junior high school. By the 7th grade I was getting good grades and I had almost forgotten that I was not supposed to be as quick as everybody else. That year I asked my principal if I could skip a grade and go back with people my own age. She said yes. I was so happy that I walked around smiling for weeks.

By 10th grade I had learned how to deal with my disability. Now I was normal. I wanted to go to a competitive college and have lots of intellectually stimulating ideas to amaze people with.

Then the tests started again. I took the PSAT. I knew it would be hard, but this was ridiculous. During the test I got anxious because of the time. The test was asking me to compare different groups of numbers that didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other. There were questions where I knew what they were asking but had no idea how to figure it out. Words were popping up, and I had no clue what they meant. I found myself looking around the room, losing my focus. During the break my friends were talking about different questions, but I couldn’t even remember them. That test rolled right over me, and left me for dead.

I didn’t know what hit me until I got my score. All of a sudden I was stupid again. I got depressed and started to slack off in school. I figured there was no way I could go to college, and now I was scared. My world was falling apart. I let that one test tear away all the confidence that I had spent years building up.

I didn’t tell anybody about my scores. It was too humiliating. Then during the summer I decided to tell my boyfriend. Damian didn’t pity me; he didn’t make me feel like my parents always had. Damian told me not to let these tests get in my way, that if I tried my hardest I could still do well on the SAT. I didn’t want to admit it, but something in what he said got through to me. I held on to those words.

In 11th grade I took it again after taking practice tests over and over. I didn’t do much better. That was when I sat down to talk to my parents about it. My dad told me honestly that even if I did much better, it would not be good enough for the competitive colleges I wanted to go to, like Brown and Wesleyan. He gave me a list of colleges that don’t require SATs but that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to try. I thought that if I could learn how to spell “hat,” I could learn how to do well on this test. My mother had heard that people with learning disabilities could apply to take the test with more time, so that’s what I did.

I had to take a test to find out if my learning disability was strong enough to qualify me for extended time. At the end of the 11th grade I was going through the same sort of evaluation that Dr. Bloomingthal gave me all over again. All the same old feelings came back; it was like being in the 2nd grade again. I would start shaking, and cry on the bus home. It was hard.

Finally, after many sessions, the evaluation was over. I was more sad than happy when I found out that I could take the SAT with extended time. I still had a learning disability. They just don’t go away.

I’m determined to make this test work for me. So I’ve been going to Stanley Kaplan, a school that offers classes to help you improve your SAT scores. According to the practice tests my score has gone up hundreds of points. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work extremely hard but I’m glad I decided to try. Even if those competitive colleges don’t take me, after watching that SAT score go up, I feel like I can do anything.

I’m taking the test in two weeks for the last time and I’m scared out of my mind. But whatever happens, I now know that I don’t have to let any test take my intelligence away from me. That means much more to me than some number.

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