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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Letters to My Younger Self

    Having learned to thrive with a learning difference, here's what I wish I could tell the younger me.

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      Last fall, I walked into a 2nd grade classroom for the first time since I was a 2nd grader. Although I was entering as an adult and assistant to the teacher, suddenly I was back in my small body, panicking about my handwriting, spelling, and (worst of all) my performance on timed math calculations. Second grade was the year I was classified as learning disabled.
      While working at this elementary school, I found myself remembering how my elementary school years felt. From my perspective as a successful student, it's odd now to recall what sort of student I used to be. I'm beginning my senior year at Drew University, and I have maintained a 3.8 grade point average. I no longer use any accommodations. If you had told my 2nd grade self that this was her future, she never would have believed you, and she probably would have begun to cry thinking about what a beautiful imagination you had.
      On my first day as an assistant in the classroom, sure enough, the 2nd graders were taking their "mad minute" math tests. I was nervous, so I hung back, observing. When they finished, the teacher asked me to go around and help students check their work and mark down their scores. One little girl was twisting her braids, a devastated look on her face. She had finished 10 problems of 30, and of those only 5 were correct. "I'm just bad at math," she said softly.
      I thought of all those times I had said exactly that. I thought about how long it took me to get past the math anxiety I developed during my elementary school years. I told her that in 2nd grade, I never passed a single timed math test. That surprised her. I then gave her some news that truly shocked her. I told her that after elementary school, she would never have to do such computations so quickly and that after 8th grade, she might never have to use them at all. After this, math was going to be completely different. Instead of rote memorization, it would be about problem solving.
      I don't know whether this information will help that girl through her next few years. But as I said it to her, I suddenly felt as if I were telling it to myself, to little Emily who had suffered routine failure and declared herself "stupid" over and over throughout elementary school.
      Back then, my 2nd grade teacher had put a paper racetrack up on a bulletin board. Every student had a little race car with his or her name on it that would travel along the racetrack each time that student passed the next level of timed tests. Suffice it to say, mine never moved. Just weeks into the year, I was so far behind everyone else that other students were noticing. My parents came in to talk about how this racetrack was affecting me—how I was, by that point, so sure of failure that I was learning it hurt more to try and fail than to not even try.
      My teacher's solution was to take my race car down. I hated myself for that. The worst part was that I knew that even if I still had a race car, it would be sitting at the edge of the board. I felt cemented in place; I did not know how to succeed or even how to learn. For a long time, I felt that I had failed that little car.
      Thinking through my 2nd grade memories, I wrote these five letters to myself. May they help caring teachers know what to say to all their struggling students.Dear Emily,You are never going to be good at calculating math problems in your head. This, however, does not mean that you aren't going to be fine in mathematics. In fact, in college (I know that sounds like an eternity from now), you will get an A in a math class. So what should you do during these tests? You should flip over the paper and draw. That way, instead of starting off school each morning feeling bad, you'll start off happy. Stop worrying about the math tests.Dear Emily,I know that it's very hard to write neatly. Unfortunately, you'll never have beautiful, flowery handwriting. It's OK to cry about this. But let me tell you something: You have a gift for writing. I know that at the moment that sounds ridiculous, but let me explain. Starting in middle school, your teachers will talk about the content of your writing, that is, the stories you tell and how well you put sentences together. I don't have to tell you to start practicing this because you tell stories all the time. Right now, all it does is amuse your little sisters, but soon it will be your favorite subject in school. Teachers will call your parents to tell them how gifted you are. And, darling, just wait until you discover poetry!Dear Emily,I want you to write down on a piece of paper "I, Emily Shafto, have a learning disability." Now I want you to tear that paper into as many pieces as you can.You are now cured. You are no longer "learning disabled." From now on, you have a "learning difference." Right now, it feels like a disability. But your "difference" comes with many gifts. Think about how much you read and how difficult the books you read are. Think about how shocked your 2nd grade teacher looked when you told her you read The Secret Garden. She was shocked because only gifted kids could read that.You might want to think of it as a trade-off: Your brain might only be good at certain things. Although you can't do math calculations quickly, you're going to be very good at algebra. You have bad handwriting, but you are a terrific writer—you will publish poems in your high school and college literary magazines. You're not very good at spelling, but you are an excellent reader. You are going to read books that are far more complicated than your current teacher has ever read, and you're going to love them.Dear Emily,I want you to be your own advocate. This is going to become your motto later in life, so you might as well learn it now. You have to set up the world so that you can learn the way you learn. This means you have to go to your teacher and talk about your strengths and weaknesses as a student. Tell your teacher that you need to sit in the front of the room to keep up. Ask if you may have a little extra time to pack up your bag at the end of the day so you don't have to rush. It's the rushing that makes you forget to bring home worksheets.I know how scary this sounds, but you are definitely brave enough. As nice as it would be for the teacher to figure it out on her own, you are responsible for your learning. If the teacher says no, then at least you know that it's the teacher who is holding you back, not you.Dear Emily,You are beautiful. You are special. You are loved. And, Emily, you are brilliant.These coming years will be a struggle. You will have to work twice as hard as everyone else to do as well as they do. I know it isn't fair. I know how bad you feel right now, but I promise that all of these bumps will only make you happier when you finally succeed. You will know what it is to really work, to push yourself through subject matter too difficult for you.Because of that, you will be a stronger person. But most important, you will know what has to change in the way schools treat children like you—and what teachers need to say to help struggling children. And that is my final promise. I promise you that I'll do everything in my power—and fight with whomever I need to—to prevent what happened to you from happening to any child again.Love,EmilieP.S. I changed the spelling of our name so that we don't have to write the letter y anymore. It was always the hardest part of our name to write, and it didn't ever look pretty in our handwriting. Doesn't it look nice with ie at the end?P.P.S. Don't skip your 8th grade dance.

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