Shaking, trembling, heart racing, forehead sweating, a seven year-old boy sits nervously in the front row of a typical first grade classroom alongside twenty-five students, with his head down, hoping to God the teacher will not call on him to answer yet another question - a question that his mind will not allow him to process, let alone answer correctly.
Slowly, he glances to his left, and in the corner of his eye he sees Gus, a short and stocky child with a buzz cut. Gus may not be the most academically capable student in the class, but he definitely has much confidence in his ability to tease and torment the emotionally and physically weak.
The boy then glances to his right and sees Cindy, a popular girl by all accounts, raising her hand high in the air, yet again, to answer another question correctly.
Everyone knows Cindy is smart.
Gus, now sitting with his fists clenched, glares at the boy with an intimidating stare – a stare, by this time, the boy has come to know all too well.
With his heart racing faster, and sweat now streaming down his forehead, the boy looks up in front of him at the large clock on the wall that hangs above the chalkboard. There are only fifteen minutes remaining before the two-thirty afternoon recess, a time the boy has come to dread. For it is at this time when he knows that he will have to endure yet another twenty minutes of physical bullying and verbal teasing from Gus. With his head spinning, fearing what will happen to him both emotionally and physically once he steps foot outside on the playground, the boy hears the teacher call his name.
"What is five plus four" asks the teacher to the boy.
"5 plus four" asks the boy?
"Yes, five plus four...are you paying attention?"
As the boy wipes the sweat from his brow, he glances up ever-so-slowly at the teacher, and with rosy, red cheeks, he shakily utters the words, "I don't know, Ms. Smith.
With a look of utter disappointment, the teacher sternly looks to the boy's right and asks Cindy the very same question, knowing full-well that she will answer the question correctly – as she always does.
"Five plus four equals nine," Cindy replies, with confidence in her voice and a smug, pretentious smile on her face.
Gus, again, turns his head to his left, looks the boy square in the eye, and whispers the words only the boy can hear -
"Dude, you are so dumb."
The boy's heart sinks as the self-fulfilling prophecy has now become a stark reality. With tears dripping from his watery eyes, he mutters these words softly to himself -
"I know I am."
The Self-fulfilling Prophecy Comes to Fruition
I can recall this day so vividly, for it was the first day of a long and arduous road that, at the young, tender age of seven, I was unprepared to endure. My utter lack of confidence in my intellectual ability was evident by my timid body language, which made me vulnerable to teasing and bullying from other students in my class who, for the most part, had the inner confidence that I so badly wished I had possessed, myself.
As a result, I had few friends, and I was perceived by my first grade teacher as being a child who was incapable of ever achieving success in the typical academic setting. It was then when I was given the label, “Specific Learning Disability.” From that day forward, I was looked down by my peers as being "stupid" and "dumb," a feeling that stayed with me for many years to come. The social rejection I experienced made it difficult for me to function both academically and socially, allowing the stigma of my disability to take over nearly every facet of my life.
There is hope
Many others can relate to this "snapshot" of my early school years growing up with a label in the public school system. Many others, without any fault of their own, grew up with the utterly hopeless and empty feeling that they would never amount to anything after having been diagnosed with a life-long label. However, despite this hopeless feeling, there are many others who have overcome their label, proving the world, and all of those who doubted them, wrong in the process.
For parents of children who have been diagnosed with a disability of any kind, it is critical that you not give up hope; you must persevere. Remember that you are the expert on your child. You are his greatest advocate. You are the one that provides him with inspiration, and you are the one that will provide him with the "road map" for success -- as long as you keep the faith, and the belief, that he can overcome any and all obstacles that may appear to be in his way.
Overcoming the Stigma
Despite my label, my parents believed in me from the moment I was labeled until the moment I earned a Master's degree, some thirty years later. And if you do the same for your child, I have every confidence that he will be more successful in life than you could have ever dreamed possible.
Remember this - learning disabilities, and the stigma that is often associated with it, can be overcome. A label might stay with a child for the rest of his life -- but it doesn't have to be a lifelong sentence. Caring parents and teachers, when working together, can truly make the difference for the learning-ABLED child.