A parent I recently met whose child is also struggling with learning told me a line that keeps running through my mind. “It’s like we have a hole to make progress on, but my daughter has stopped digging.”
A hole is to dig. More than three years ago, I feel like I fell into a pit of despair as the depth of my own daughter’s learning disabilities finally became clear to me. Back then, I was hopeless, and I had no shovel, no pick, no spade. Just tears. Luckily, I found people with tools: teachers, tutors, testers, and parents further along similar paths.
Slowly, Annie and I began to dig ourselves out. I didn’t believe we would ever see the light of day. I know that sounds overblown, but when I read the first pages of my memoir-in-progress about this time, this new learning disability seems a death to me, a very real death that I spent a long time grieving.
In the first months, I heard the words describing my daughter as bells of doom. “She is at the bottom of the class. We have our work cut out for us,” her teacher told me.
I couldn’t let go of this sentence. My friend Margaret was astounded that I took these words literally. “It isn’t true, Nancy!” she told me.
It took a lot of thought to understand what she was saying. There is no need to compare apples to oranges. Annie wasn’t stupid. Her aptitude was great, but she couldn’t learn the way most of the other kids around her were learning.
Annie had her own talents. The children reading chapter books back then might not be able to spout words of wisdom the way my Annie could. Perhaps they couldn’t learn a song by heart and sing it in tune after hearing it one time on the car radio. Her skill at tuning out when she was unable to learn — even this was a gift. This shutting down led us to discover the vast extent of her learning disabilities when she was only 5.
I recall a teacher telling us this was a huge piece of luck, uncovering the help she needed while she was in kindergarten. I so didn’t agree then. It stung to be the mom of the girl who repeated kindergarten. I still cry every single time I let myself feel how that felt, hearing that my girl needed to go back and start all over again.
But now, I have the clarity of being three years into the big dig. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, I know, to anyone stuck in a dank, dark, muddy hole with no working tools, but we can finally see the light of day. The sun is so goddamn bright that it’s hard to recall those grief-ridden days three years ago. But I can (I’m good at recalling misery).
When I meet other parents who are standing in that hole now wishing they had an earth mover, my heart breaks for them. I want to buy them a giant bulldozer and hand them the keys. What can I give them, beyond my list of tools that may or may not work for them?
A hole is to dig. Hope is to grow. I have my hope to give them. It’s what Margaret gave me. Your girl is awesome, she told me. Hold on tight to her awesomeness and begin digging. OK, she didn’t say this last sentence, but this is what we did.
I know holding out hope to people sounds silly, but this is what prayers and intentions are made of. Maybe the phone numbers for tutors and testing places seem more helpful (and I will provide those to others who need them, too).
But without that hope people handed to me, I really don’t think this new sunshine that is flooding our lives would feel so bright.
Writer, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of a memoir. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.