Marian wasn’t looking for help for her daughter.
She’d given up hope.
Christy had arrived in this world the same year my debut novel was published, and Marian and I often joked about the two of us having given birth at the same time. Christy was a lovely child, with a good heart, sharp intelligence, and–unfortunately—a troublesome learning disability.
Some disabilities have a name, and that name gives you power. You can ask a school to accommodate it. You can hire a tutor who specializes in it. But Christy had one of those vague disabilities that defies categorization, making it difficult to address. It affected her sense of direction, some organizational skills, and her ability to learn mathematics. She was a top student in every other subject, but math was always a struggle for her, and she barely made it through her required courses in high school. No one could ever explain to Marian how all those problems were connected, but she sensed, with a mother’s certain instinct, that they were.
Christy’s dream was to become a teacher, to work with special-needs children. She was a compassionate young woman, the kind who could make a difference in the lives of troubled children. And she did well in her education classes and thrived as a student teacher. Soon, all that was left was to pass the state certification exam, which tested basic knowledge of high school subjects.
How she struggled to pass that test! The other sections were no problem for her, but no matter how many times she took the math section, no matter how hard she studied for it, she could not achieve a passing grade. Her parents hired tutors for her, but none were able to help. The more they tried to explain mathematical concepts to her, the less she seemed able to grasp them. It did not help that she was becoming more and more anxious about the exam, and for good reason. The career she had spent years training for—which would never, ever require knowledge of algebra—was slipping through her fingers, and there seemed to be nothing she or her mother could to do stop it.
The day that Marian told me about this, I could hear despair in her voice. The pain of a mother who cannot help her child is agonizing. I heard a good bit of anger there, too. Why did a teacher who was going to teach K-2 need to be adept in algebra? The unfairness of the requirement made the situation doubly painful.
I gave her time to vent her anger, and then said, very gently, “You do remember that I tutor algebra, right?”
She sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know that. But we’ve hired tutors for her. Her uncle is a professional math tutor, and he spent months working with her. None of it helped.”
“Well, they’re not me. I specialize in helping people who can’t grasp mathematical concepts. Let me give it a shot.”
They were dubious, but what did they have to lose? Christy became my student.
Sometimes a learning disability is like a puzzle. Somewhere deep inside the brain a vital circuit isn’t functioning properly, and if you can figure out what it is, you can try to find a way to work around it. Christy had already done that in her daily life, compensating for other aspects of her disability. Now we had to do the same thing with math.
We started by reviewing the basics. As she re-learned how to solve basic equations, and I was able to see precisely where she was struggling, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. She could not visualize abstract concepts. Previous tutors had addressed that by explaining those concepts at greater length, but that only confused her more. She needed an approach that would circumvent the faulty circuits in her brain altogether. She needed a new way to learn.
Over the course of six months, we figured out how to do that. Mostly it involved writing everything down, and drawing pictures for every conceptual problem, so that she was never processing anything in her head. Then she could figure out the steps needed to solve problems, memorizing the processes needed. The more we learned about the circuit in her brain that was malfunctioning, the more we were able to come up with ways to work around it.
Earlier this summer, she took the certification test again, and tonight she called me to tell me she had passed. She was out with her family when the news came, and told me she broke down crying in the restaurant. I felt like crying myself. Passing that test will not just impact her career, but every aspect of her life--family, marriage, friendships—because when you live with soul-crushing anxiety for so long, it affects all those things. And now she will be in a position to help young children with emotional and cognitive disabilities, and maybe rescue some of them from despair, passing on the wisdom she has gained from her own struggles.
Maybe some of them will even become teachers themselves.
There is a pond out in back of my house. I sit by it sometimes after the end of a stressful day, and cast pebbles into the water. As each one strikes, it sets ripples in motion. Tiny waves at first, they expand into larger and larger circles, until finally they reach the water’s edge. With the casting of one pebble, an entire pond can be stirred into motion.
That is why I love my job.