When you look at me, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. You’d think I was a well-adjusted adult with a good job as an aerospace engineer, who has not one, but two degrees in ‘rocket science’. I don’t throw those degrees around lightly, as a joke, or even to try and say I’m smarter or better than anyone else because I’m not. I mention it because I have a secret. I struggled every single step of the way and not just because becoming an engineer with two degrees is hard. I have learning disabilities. In college I was diagnosed with ADD and a reading comprehension disorder.
That diagnosis came as a bit of a shock. But when I looked back at my schooling and how I approached it, everything made sense. That diagnosis was long overdue but it came so late in my school career because I hid it so well. I’d learned how to cope in secret until things got so complex my coping mechanisms didn’t work anymore. If you go back to my early report cards the signs were there, glaringly obvious in fact. My second grade teacher wrote “Jamie is a very bright student but when I’m teaching or reading to the class, she is playing with things in her desk or on my bookshelf. I had to move her desk away from some of the distractions.” Now to me that screams ADD but at the time, if you weren’t acting out, disrupting class, or completely failing out, no one saw any issue with it. The problem is (and not to over generalize), girls tend to show signs of ADD in much different ways then boys. They are more quiet about it, and it’s less disruptive to the outside world. But it is disruptive to the individual. So disruptive in fact, that you tune out the world and often miss important instructions. I mention the ADD because it filters into the reading comprehension problem. Getting distracted often directly affected my ability to comprehend what I read. But there is much more to my reading comprehension problem than just the ADD. At a time when reading should be fun to explore, I found it painful and frustrating. Downright tear inducing at times. I could read, really well in fact, but I didn’t understand it.
My second grade teacher did do one amazing thing for me though. She got me to read. No, not just read, read tons and tons and tons. She had a solar system on her wall and each student had a rocket ship. When you read a certain amount of minutes, you got to move your rocket ship to the next planet. When you reached the sun you got a sticker on your rocket, a prize, and then you started the adventure again. For a giant nerd like me who loved space, this was motivation enough to get my nose in a book. By the end of the year I had the most stickers on my rocket by far. The problem is, I didn’t comprehend and therefore remember, ninety percent of what I’d read. But this system worked well for me because it was based on time spent reading not number of pages read.
After second grade I stopped reading most books unless they were assigned for class. Even then, I often didn’t read them. The reason being, when I read a sentence, I often didn’t understand it. Somewhere between my eyes seeing the words and my brain, the phrase disappeared into the ether. I’d read sentences upwards of 20 times and still it was like I hadn’t even seen the words on the page. Assignments that should take me thirty minutes or maybe an hour took three or more because I’d have to read and reread things over and over again. It was infuriating. So after a while I stopped trying. I gave up and found another way to deal with the problem.
Despite all signs, no one recognized the issue because I quickly found a way to cope. From grade school through high school and some of college, I never read textbooks. Not a one. It took too long and I’d still be doing my 10th grade history homework at the age of 31 if I had actually attempted to read my textbooks. In order to complete homework assignments, I scoured my notes from class, which the teachers often pulled directly from the book. If I couldn’t find the answers in my notes, I skimmed for a header in the textbook. When I found the most logical one, I looked for keywords until I found the answer. This worked about ninety percent of the time. When it didn’t, I went to Mom for help. She unfortunately didn’t do me any favors. She must have known I hadn’t read the book because within five minutes of reading, she usually found the answer for me. This technique got me through science, history, and a few other classes. Math was never a problem, though. Numbers were awesome. I could see a problem and immediately know what to do, no reading required. Word problems though, were my nemesis. I actually had to read, so I sucked at them.
But there were times when coping failed me. I also didn’t read instructions on assignments. Well, until 5th grade when I got an assignment that was all about reading instructions. Instructions took too long to read and I never understood them so why bother? On this particular assignment I got a page full of math problems that was a color by number, so figuring I knew what to do I went to town. I answered all the problems and colored the whole thing in. Meanwhile wondering why half the class had finished so fast. Turns out I failed the assignment. The instructions were a giant paragraph that basically boiled down to, do not complete this worksheet, write your name on the paper and turn it in. The way I had coped, had failed me. From that point on, I at least read instructions even if it was painful and time consuming.
Of all my classes though, English was a nightmare! When a teacher assigned a short story or a book, I was sunk. There was no way to fake reading a novel. So a thirty page reading assignment was hell. That was easily one to two hours of reading for me, sometimes more. And reading quizzes, forget about it! I’d sit down to take the quiz and it was like I was on a totally different planet. Literally! I’d read a question and think to myself, that was in the book? That happened? I had no recollection. None. And then I’d fail the quiz. I frequently got between two and five out of ten on my reading quizzes.
But this wasn’t a memory problem. In fact, my memory is superb. When I sat down and finally got tested, the doctor would give me sequences of numbers to repeat back to him. We went up to 15 numbers in a row. I could repeat them back immediately without even batting an eye. In fact, I could even repeat them back in reverse order, which amazed the doctor. He’d never had a patient complete all the number sequences forwards and backwards. And yet when I read, words just didn’t sink in. Something was wrong. I couldn’t explain to someone what I’d just read because there was a blank hole where the words should have been.
And yet I coped, exceedingly well. I graduated middle school with a 4.0 and high school with a 3.9 GPA, without reading a single textbook. This didn’t work in college. By sophomore year the material was so in depth. The teachers actually expected you to read the textbooks because they taught more complex theory in class. They didn’t regurgitate what was in the book, they taught supplementary material. BLASPHEMY! Even worse the grade weighting had shifted significantly. Homework went from 70-80% of your grade to about 30%. It was all about how you tested. I was screwed! I was in engineering which was mostly math, but engineering is also word problems. FREAKING WORD PROBLEMS! I went to war with my exams and I lost. Miserably. Epically bad. Now engineering exams are notorious for having averages of 30-50%. But I would get well below the average. Meaning I maybe did 20-30% of the exam right. And believe me I wasn’t average. Not even close. I was an A student. I got some B’s don’t get me wrong and I failed reading quizzes but I DID NOT get D’s and F’s on exams. And yet I had, multiple times.
Something was glaringly wrong, and it wasn’t that I was misunderstanding the material. In fact, my biggest clue was that I had a two part class with the same teacher. In the first semester I got a nearly perfect grade in the class. I aced the first exam. But in the continuation of the material I was flunking. I don’t flunk. So I pulled out the exam I aced and the exam from the semester I failed. Same teacher, similar material, and yet I’d failed. Then I pulled out an exam from another class that I’d also failed. I started to see a correlation. On the exam I aced, the word problems were a maximum of two lines. The exams I failed, paragraphs of words. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the material, I’d failed to comprehend what was being asked of me. It had gotten lost in that black hole between my eyeballs and my brain.
So I got tested. Sure enough I had a significant deficiency in reading comprehension and ADD. And once I had a diagnosis, I found new and more effective ways to cope with the problem. Including getting extra time on tests so I could clarify with teachers that I understood what was being asked of me. But now that I’m an adult, this issue hasn’t just magically disappeared. It’s still there. Whether I sit down to read a long email at work, or I’m just reading for pleasure. Often times things just disappear into the ether. I have to take a step back and go wait, what did I just read? Did I really understand that? But I push on. Despite all the issues, I love to read. I wish I’d learned to cope with reading at an early age. I’m deeply saddened when I think about all the books I missed out on as a kid. Nothing interested me enough to make me fight through the time it took to read, so I quit doing it.
But in the end I chose to tell this whole story to make a point. Just because you have a learning disability does not mean you are stupid. It just means you deal with things in your world differently. Smart people have disabilities too. They often hide them, exceedingly well. Like most with disabilities, they cope. When that doesn’t work, they step back re-evaluate and find another way. Just because they aren’t failing out of school and life, doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem or that they aren’t struggling. Imagine if you had to go through life not understanding what you read. You’d be sunk. Unless you learned how to work around it like I did. My methods aren’t always perfect. They still sometimes fail me. But I keep pushing on day after day. One thing is for certain though, I will never let it keep me from enjoying books again.