When a Teaching Assistant Said I Did Well 'for a Dyslexic Person'

It has taken me a long time to accept my learning disability. Having dyscalculia in a math-heavy degree program has often left me feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and all around lesser than. Although I may still experience some instances where these feelings occur, they are generally just uncomfortable for a short period of time before passing. Except for one recent experience, when they once again became unbearable.

I was studying for an upcoming final in an advanced flight dynamics and controls class. Going over a past midterm, I did not recognize what I did wrong on a previous problem. I decided taking action to move closer towards understanding was better than staring at a blank page in frustration, and tracked down the teaching assistant (TA) for additional guidance.

After the TA spent some time with the problem, we went over the solution together. My fatal mistake came down to not simplifying a fraction before moving forward. To answer the TA’s question of why that was, I stated I thought I would have a better chance proceeding than trying to simplify the fraction. I told him I would probably have reduced it incorrectly as I am dyslexic (I often use this term in place of dyscalculic as it saves time in explanation) and instead decided to press on in solving the problem.

His initial reaction of stating he had thought I was dyslexic did not phase me. I probably mentioned it to him before. I don’t hide it too much anymore, especially from professors and TAs. I have grown relatively comfortable with my dyscalculia. I recognize I am able to adapt, a quality I value highly in myself. I respect that there are a lot of things I can do because of my dyscalculia in addition to the small list of things I cannot do because of it. What followed from the TA, however, had a different effect on me.

In an attempt to comfort me, he continued to tell me not to be too hard on myself. He said he thought I was underestimating my ability in understanding the class material. He told me I “do very well, for a dyslexic person.”

I scoffed and felt my face reflect a stunned look to match how I was feeling. This man had been my friend during the past semester. I felt a conflict of emotions, angry at his words but at the same time holding my tongue as I did not want to hurt him. But he did hurt me. Instead I tried to brush it off. I responded with a sarcastic comment that I would like to do well in the class just as a “normal” person, hoping he would get the hint. He didn’t.

I soon realized my mistake in not being more forward with my reaction when he continued with something along the lines of, “But you did really well on that midterm; a lot of the smart students in the class didn’t even have time to finish and you did. You should feel good about your performance.”

At this point, in my mind anyway, I am a mediocre student but a good dyslexic student and definitely not a smart person. These were not the words I needed to hear to comfort me in my learning, and especially not during finals week. I quickly left his office, still not confronting what he said head-on. I tried to go back to studying, but I could not focus on anything but his words to me.

I felt lesser as a student and as a person. I struggled with feelings of not belonging in the department for the first time in years, thinking of myself as an aerospace engineer as a punchline in a joke. Was me being in these classes some kind of an experiment to see how far I, as a dyslexic person, could go? Was I so far beneath my classmates that it warranted a “for a dyslexic person” when discussing my work?

Realizing I was too shaken up to continue preparing for finals, I visited a professor and mentor. I told him what happened, tears eventually finding their way down my face, and asked him the questions that surfaced in my mind. I was glad to have him there to help me listen to reason. Sometimes it is better to hear affirmation from an outside source than to attempt to console yourself. He was able to get me to a better place, to help me stand firm in my abilities again before returning to my books.

A day or two after the incident, things returned to normal. Instead of feeling hatred towards my TA, I felt bad for him. He was trying to comfort me before the final. He was in all seriousness trying to be encouraging and approachable, things a TA should be. However, he went about it all wrong. Continued actions like this will only further alienate the next student and harm the TA’s ability to be an effective teacher.

At one point, I entertained the thought that perhaps I should have said something. Maybe I should have taken the time to bring to his attention that his language was hurtful and offensive. Looking back though, I do not think that would have been an option. Considering how hurt I was, I was really only capable of removing myself from the situation. I also believe the responsibility of training TAs should not fall on the students, especially just one student who could never speak for every student with a disability.

Circumstances such as these are hard for me. I am a person who continuously tries to find a solution when a problem arises. Although I am unable to find a resolution that would prevent this from happening in the future, I know this problem must be solved.

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