Dyslexia + Me = An Awkward Situation
I am an accomplished author. School was a nightmare for me. This is my story.
There was something wrong with me.
That was the lesson I learned in first grade, on the first day of school. I was six years old and living in upstate New York near the finger lakes in a town called Canandaigua.
When the morning school bell rang, I was swinging on the monkey bars. I was wearing a T-shirt with a colorful unicorn on it, a pair of blue pants, and shiny white patent-leather shoes with silver buckles. When the bell finished ringing, I let go of the monkey bar and landed on my feet like a gymnast. Reluctantly, I left the playground. I walked into the school with kids I knew from kindergarten and discovered I wasn’t in any of their classes this year.
Outside my new first-grade class, room 14, I thought there would be a teacher welcoming students, and a long line of kids waiting for the second bell to ring. That’s when the teacher opens the classroom door and lets you go inside.
When the second bell rang, I looked down the long hallway and watched the students follow their teachers into their new classrooms.
Now the hallway was empty, and I was alone. I looked at the slip of paper in my hand that had my name and classroom number on it. “14, ” I said slowly. Then I looked up at the number on the door in front of me. “14. It’s the same number,” I muttered.
Not sure what to do, I opened the door just enough to peek inside. What the? I gasped, seeing five students who were in wheelchairs, and a teacher with yellow curly hair. The room was big and tan with two long tables and plenty of empty space for the student’s wheelchairs to get around. I quickly closed the door, thinking there was a mix-up. I didn’t belong in that class. I wasn’t handicapped. I could run, skip, and jump faster than anyone that I knew.
I looked down the long, empty hallway wondering which first-grade class I was supposed to be in. Butterflies were in my stomach. Everything was going wrong. I took a deep breath and opened the door of room 15 and walked in.
The teacher was busy writing on the chalkboard. The students turned their heads and stared at me. I saw an empty chair across the room next to a girl with pink ribbons in her hair.
That's where I belong, I thought.
“You’re late,” the teacher said, in a flat tone. “What’s your name?”
“Your name?” asked the teacher again. Her face pulled into a scowl.
My stomach began to hurt. And a marble-sized knot formed in my throat, making it hard to speak. After a long moment, I managed to force out my name.
Shaking her head, while checking the attendance list, the teacher said, “No. You’re not in my class.”
“I… I don’t know what class I am supposed to be in,” I said, shifting on my feet and looking down. My eyes locked on my shiny white shoes, and I wished I could click them together and magically be at home, like Dorthy in the wizard of OZ.
“Angela,” The teacher said, “go to the office. Someone there will tell you what class you are in.”
I spun around, walked to the door, pulled it open, stepped out into the hallway, and ran. The floor was clean and shiny. My leather-soled shoes clicked and tapped all the way down the hall.
In front of the office, I skidded to a stop. Through a glass panel in the office door, I saw a woman sitting at a big, brown desk. The woman’s hair was pulled back, twisted into a big donut bun on top of her head. She tilted her head and stared at me as if I were a peculiar creature. Then she forced a smile and waved me in.
After opening the door, I slowly walked in and stood in front of her desk.
The woman said, “What are you doing here? You should be in class.”
“Um… I think…. Um… There’s a mix-up,” I said.
“A mix-up?” The woman repeated.
In a whisper, I said, “I don’t need a wheelchair.”
“What? Speak up. I can’t hear you,” the woman said.
"I… Um… I am not. I mean, something is wrong. I need to be in another class.” I handed her the slip of paper with my name and my assigned classroom on it. “The… Um… The—”
The woman interrupted me. “I see. I’ll have a look.” She moved to a filing cabinet and pulled out a folder. After looking through the paperwork, she walked into the principle’s office that was a few feet away and shut the door behind her.
I wanted to put my ear against the door and listen in, and find out why I was assigned to that class. But I stayed put.
When the woman came out, she said, “I’ll take you to your class, Angela.”
I followed her out of the office, relived.
She stopped outside room 14 and said, “Here we are.”
“No,” I said, “ This isn’t… I am not supposed to be in this class.”
The women paid me no attention. She just opened the door and said, “Go on, now.”
I didn’t move.
The teacher, with the yellow curly hair, looked up at the woman.
The woman pointing at me and said, “This is your student, Angela. She’s late because she couldn’t find your classroom.”
I shook my head, no; but I didn’t say anything.
The teacher nodded and said, “Come in, Angela. She walked to a long table and put her hand on a blue chair. “You can sit here. We've already started. I’ll get you the math worksheet.” Next to the blue chair was a boy in a wheelchair. He looked at me as if I was an alien from Jupiter.
While I walked to my seat, I glanced around the room. All of the students were staring at me. The expressions on their faces seemed to say, “You don’t belong here.”
As I sat, I sneaked a peek at the boy next to me. He was halfway finished with his worksheet. I didn’t like math. I always reversed numbers. Letters were tricky for me too, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.
The teacher came back with a pencil and a math worksheet. She put them in front of me and went over what I was supposed to do. “Do you understand?” she asked. I nodded. Then she said, “Good. Get started, and I’ll check back with you in a little bit.”
Instead of starting on the worksheet, I looked around the room. I stared for a while at the four students across the room from me. I felt sorry for them, stuck in those wheelchairs for life. Running and dancing were my favorite things to do. I didn’t like sitting for too long. It made me feel uneasy and antsy.
At that moment, I imagined that all the student’s wheelchairs transformed into mini-battery powered bumper cars with rubber bumpers all around. The controls they began using to drive their bumper cars were a small steering wheel with a green accelerator button and a red break button for slowing down or stopping. In no time, the students were racing around the room, bumping into each other, and having a great time. Wanting them to have even more fun, I imagined the recess bell ringing. Quickly, I opened the door, and the students drove their bumper cars out into the hallway. And I ran beside them, cheering them on.
Out on the playground, a swarm of kids chased after us. We headed for a big bumper car field with lots of bumper cars that non-handicapped kids could use. The students of room 14 were the best bumper car divers. No one could drive faster, bump harder, or beat them. They were the undefeated champions of the school.
Over the cheering, I heard a voice. “Angela... Angela. Why haven’t you started your math?” The voice sounded like a ghost hunting my daydream. “Angela,” the voice got louder. “Angela.” I was back, pulled out of my fun fantasy. The teacher was standing in front of me. I didn’t know how much time had slipped by, but I knew it was enough to get her irritated with me. “What have you been daydreaming about this whole time?” She asked.
“Um… I don’t know,” I said, thinking I would get in trouble if I told her I was daydreaming about wheelchair bumper cars. I got in trouble a lot for daydreaming in kindergarten. Sitting still seemed to bring the dreams on. And since sitting in class was what you did, I daydreamed all the time.
The teacher told me if I wanted to go to recess, I needed to finish the math worksheet.
When she walked away, the boy next to me stopped writing and looked at me. He had light brown hair and blue eyes. He put down his pencil and gave me a half-smile. Then he whispered, “This class is for kids who are handicapped,” At the same time, he tapped the metal frame of his wheelchair.
“Yeah. I can see that,” I said.
“So, why are you here?” He asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know." My eyes shifted to a window that overlooked the playground, and I wished that I was out there. Slowly, I looked back at the boy. "What's your name?” I asked.
“I'm Dan,” he said. “If you want to copy my math, you can.” Then he moved his worksheet toward me.
I smiled and said, “OK.”
I copied the first few numbers, no problem. After that, Dan noticed that I made a few mistakes. I wrote 21 when I should have written 12. If Dan hadn’t shown me I reversed those numbers, I wouldn’t have seen it. I made a few more mistakes like that, and that’s when Dan started whispering the answers to me. I was cheating, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go to recess and run. I had a lot of anxious energy that I needed to get out of me.
When I finished the worksheet, I thanked Dan. He was still puzzled about why I was in his class. “Maybe the first-grade classrooms were all full, and that's why you were put in this class,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said, even though I knew that wasn’t true. There was an empty seat in room 15. Right then, a random thought popped into my head, and I blurted it out, “Maybe I have a rare disease, and by the end of the month, I’ll be unable to walk. I’ll be in a wheelchair like you.”
Dan’s eyes snapped wide open, and he shook his head. “I hope not. You’ll hate being in a wheelchair.”
The teacher walked over and took Dan’s worksheet. “Good job, Dan.” Then she took mine. “Good job, Angela,” she said, while placing spelling worksheets in front of us. Dan got busy. I just stared at the worksheet.
So many questions were boiling in my mind. Why am I in this class? What's wrong with me? Did I have a rare disease? Would I be in a wheelchair by the end of the month? I didn’t know. But I got scared and started to panic, my hands clenched and I was breathing rapidly.
“What’s wrong?” Dan asked.
“I need to go,” I said.
“To the bathroom?” he asked.
I nodded, even though I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. I wanted to run and dance while I still had the chance. So, when the teacher wasn’t looking, I snuck out of the room.