My daughter, Natalia struggled when her mother and I split up. She didn’t talk about it but her grades suffered badly. When I offered both my kids a chance to attend a therapy group for children of divorcing parents, she joined it for a while.
Her 2nd grade teacher was concerned about her. Eventually, Natalia was held back and put in remedial classes. Then, on top of feeling ‘stupid for flunking the second grade,’ the powers that be wanted to test her for learning disabilities.
I always described her as a ‘force of nature’ which Natalia was none too sure was a good thing. But she really didn’t feel like one when it came to her academics.
Her remedial teacher Ms. Reed, became her mentor. Ms. Reed told me she could not detect a disability in Natalia. The problem was a mystery. Natalia would skip over words when reading aloud, but her comprehension was better than most. Natalia would help other students with their work. Anxiety from the divorce was never considered as a factor.
And yet they wanted to test her. I feared Natalia was being considered for this designation, less for any actual disability than for the additional funds she would bring to the school, bolstering the ranks of LD (learning disabled) students. Labels are powerful things and this one would follow Natalia through her education and life.
I wasn’t yet familiar with the concept of ‘learned helplessness’ but it stands to reason that a decade of being told by experts that you are incapable of doing something would take its toll. That “soft bigotry of lowered expectations” generates anger that will be expressed. Research reveals that authorities treat individuals and groups in a manner consistent with their predetermined expectations. Groups and individuals respond in kind.
Natalia’s mother and I were informed when her IEP committee would meet to discuss the results of her assessment tests. They were the experts and so we parents were only there to observe. No input was desired from us. The committee members patiently responded to our questions.
Near the end of the meeting, Natalia’s case manager was analyzing the test results for us. She sympathetically described how she “helped” Natalia to navigate the difficult test by telling her that if she “got stuck, she could just guess.”
All eyes were on me as I burst into laughter. Incredulous, I asked for confirmation that Natalia was actually told to guess her way through the test. The case manager said she told Natalia “only to guess if she got stuck.” I laughed again and an explanation was demanded for my rude behavior.
I told them when Natalia was about four years old, and hadn’t yet had any instructions in reading, I had installed a program on my computer for her older brother to ‘jump start’ his reading skills. One day Natalia proudly presented me with a certificate of completion from that program, featuring her name and a score of 100%.
I congratulated her, but questioned how she could get this since I hadn’t helped her and she couldn’t read. She said she did it without her brother’s help either. Natalia then explained she went through the program, guessing her way through each test question until she got them all right. She then, all by herself, figured out how to print the certificate.
I looked at the committee members, each armed with multiple degrees in education and psychology. I asked them if they seriously expected me to believe Natalia had learning disabilities after hearing this story, and with the results of the test being skewed by permitting her to guess?
At that point there was some uncomfortable fidgeting and shuffling of papers. The test results came out to be 50/50 right and wrong, exactly the statistically predicted results if one were to randomly answer without reading the questions at all.
The topic of Natalia’s projected learning disabilities never arose again.
Natalia’s home life stabilized. She thrived throughout her schooling and easily made tons of friends. She was elected Student Council President in high school, and ran the debate club. She also has an impressive resume for someone so young. As her graduation from college approaches, she is selecting a grad school to attend.