The Phone Booth

I sat in a huge office overlooking Harvard Square and listened while the Psychologist explained my results. After 2 full days of curious questions, funny inkblots, tenuous reading, awkward writing, and the math I had dismissed completely, the prognosis was in. He prefaced the findings with lots of administrative jumble, droning on with uninspired garble. He finally captured my attention with something relevant. “Your (bla bla bla) test indicates you are most like; a music teacher, a musician and an artist”. This was pleasing news and I smiled. The test was accurate on that account. I was artistic and felt momentarily flattered that my true calling was stated in the results before him. Enjoying the experience only briefly, the Doctor continued in his lackluster tone that based on the findings,”It’s interesting that you made it through high school at all”! Listening attentively, I straightened up in my chair. Of course, I knew I wasn’t a good student, but this was different. He actually went on to say I was incapable of learning academics.

I felt a sudden burning of my cheeks and my ears began to ring. He then went further and told me attending college would be a waste of money and I would fail, should there be the unlikely chance any school would accept me. I sat stunned. “The problem”, he announced “was both reading and comprehension”. “You are hardly able to read at all and when you do complete a sentence, you don’t retain the information or understand what you have read”.

DUHHHHHH I thought to myself. I already knew I couldn’t read very well, but not that I was incapable of it. He was saying I was incapable of reading and comprehending. These tests said I had a real identifiable learning problem. Somewhere in this meeting he even mentioned a name for my problem, but everything I heard from his mouth sounded foreign to me.

Suddenly all my years of failure seemed so very obvious. If I couldn’t read or comprehend, no wonder I failed. And why was I just learning this now, at 19?

I had internalized the agony and humiliation of illiteracy my whole young academic life, beginning when it was decided I would repeat Kindergarten. Though I was very young, it did not go unnoticed that my peers went on to 1st grade and I did not.

It made sense. I had long detested words and reading them. The written word was my enemy. Staring at letters on a page, and reading assignments in the classroom made my heart race with fear. I waited, head down, practically in tears anticipating the embarrassment I would feel when it was my turn. When the teacher would call my name and all the kids in class would stare at me. While I am stuttering, and sounding stupid. Though inside my head I didn’t feel like a stupid person I had no way to prove otherwise.

And then I would hear “Irene” called out loud. Often I did not even know where we were in the book. I had started on the assigned page, but not able to follow like the others, I got lost quickly. The teacher would have to redirect me to the page, and I succumbed to the torture. My lips quivered as I dragged along each letter slowly. I had small personal victories, like knowing the sound of the “s”, or the “o”. But I didn’t grasp what one letter from another was supposed to do . The letters were round and angled and important, but I could not make sense out of them. As I struggled at my seat with all the eyes of the class on me, I was crumbling inside. T-Th—-e—d—oo—r—OO—ppp—Oop—e—nnnn–  ed. What did I say? Am I reading? And after an unbearably long turn, finally the teacher would tell me to stop and would ask someone else to begin. As the next young voice picked up from my place, I sat humiliated, flushed and exposed. I wanted to run away and get out of that classroom as fast as I could, but I couldn’t.


Now, inside me, the earth shifted

Racing out of the building, I was boiling. Whatever had happened in that office, whatever he said, made my adrenaline pump and I wanted to scream. I was caught midway between rage and liberation.

Year after year, my teachers told me I was not trying hard enough or working up to my ability, when in fact, I couldn’t read. I had to assume my difficulties in school were based on my “lack of effort”. I didn’t study enough, maybe I wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care, etc. etc.” So, I blamed me from the time I began to stumble over words in second grade. And I blamed me in 3rd grade when Ms. Emery told me I couldn’t be moved up into Mr. Guiliami’s 4th grade class the following year, knowing full well it was because I was too slow to keep up with his pace. I grew up angrily blaming myself for all my endless failings. Were it not for the little voice in my head that defiantly felt intelligent, I’d of had no choice but to accept that I was just stupid because stupid kids failed tests and took home papers and report cards with some C’s, but mostly D’s and F’s. I never imagined that I was actually right about myself. That I was smart. Or that my poor showing in school could be due to a learning disability with a name.

As the Doctor went on, I just sat there. I wasn’t listening anymore. My mind was blasting “red alert, red alert”, as the anger, embarrassment, and humiliation of all my demoralizing and defeated years of school, collided with this realization.

When I left the building I made a beeline to the phone booth and dialed my family’s number. My heart was pounding.  As soon as my mother picked up at the other end, my tone was antagonistic and hostile for a lifetime of reasons.

“I can’t read”, I said.  “I have something wrong with me, a long weird name, like dys-something”. Trying to repeat the term felt like trying to be proficient with chopsticks, for the first time.

“He said I was most like, a music teacher, a musician and an artist, and that I could never go to college because I would fail.”

I was angry and frustrated and didn’t like all the news, but in repeating the story, I suddenly felt a weight lift off from my shoulders. What was true was that I had understood myself better than anyone.  No more ignorance, no more labels. No, I still couldn’t read, but I was freed from the overbearing weight of illiteracy.

  • lgb3888

    Irene, This story is so soul-deep and so you. It is also beautifully written so we are with you all the way. Many will benefit from this story. I recommend you get it published in an educational journal. You are a truly creative reinventionist! Seems spiritual to me.

  • Irene

    Thank you Lyn. I know its time and i will

  • bwelcher

    This was wonderful. At least 3 of my 5 children suffered from undiagnosed learning disabilities until their middle school years. Theirs was ADD and ADHD. What struck me was the psychologist’s evaluation of my youngest son. It was so cold and dispassionate. She stated that we evaluated our son’s intelligence as above average, but the truth was he was in the very low normal range and we were simply expecting too much from his capabilities. She doubted he would ever be able to go further than public high school and should stick with a very basic curriculum. However, once he was given the proper medication and the school was told of his issues, he is living up to our expectations very easily and his academics have totally reversed. His self-esteem and self-confidence are improving regularly as time goes by. He now plans to attend college and be a teacher. The other two have shown the same academic success since their ADHD has been diagnosed and they have been treated for it. God bless them, and God bless you for this post.

    • irene

      Hi Bill,
      It has always been my hope that the challenges I have faced and lessons I have learned uncovering a true understanding of myself could bring hope, courage and determination to someone else who has been misled and misread.
      Your reply has fulfilled that hope.
      Thank you so much sharing your story with me and your kind and generous words.

  • Irene Buchine

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with me, as well as your kind words.
    I have always hoped the challenges I faced as a child and lessons I have learned in my struggles as a non reader would bring support and comfort to others who struggle to be more than a label. I am very grateful for your comments.
    Your children are very fortunate to have you by there side.