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What the Teachers Who Called Me 'Incapable of Learning' Didn't See

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This is for the teachers and professors who told me I was “incapable of learning,” called me “defiant,” told me to “try harder” or just acted impatient when I asked for help. Who told me I probably wouldn’t be able to attend a “normal” school, and that college was pretty much laughable, let alone graduate school.

You didn’t see me spending pretty much every day of my life being tutored after school in elementary through high school, and almost every day during the summers. I was tutored by regular tutors at school, and on top of that, I would leave during the day to be tutored at special facilities catering to people with severe learning disabilities. In the summers I would spend around four hours a day in tutoring. In high school and college, in addition to being tutored, I would leave to take classes one-on-one at special schools because I couldn’t learn the material the way everyone else could.

You didn’t see my tears of frustration at spending hours and hours on homework that should have only taken a few minutes because I had to completely relearn the material after each question because my brain can’t retain information. You didn’t see the tears I held back in classes after receiving failing grades on tests I had spent weeks studying for by myself and with tutors. You didn’t see the resignation and acceptance as I realized no matter how hard I worked or how much I studied for a test, it would always be like I had never seen the material. You didn’t see that I never gave up and spent countless hours studying and trying to find ways to cope with having a brain that doesn’t work quite right and literally cannot retain information; you just saw the grade.

You didn’t see me watching other people around me having fun and forming relationships while I struggled to remember what class I was supposed to be in next, where the classroom was located, or relearned something for the millionth time. You didn’t see me when I was missing out on parties in high school and college (I went to a grand total of two house parties in college) because I was studying or being tutored. You didn’t see me when I spent more time with teachers and tutors than with people my own age. You also didn’t see me have to figure out how to manage all the sensory issues that also come along with my disability.

You just didn’t see me.

I am one of the lucky few who had teachers and professors who cared in addition to the ones who didn’t. Without the teachers and professors who spent hours with me, going above and beyond their job description, I wouldn’t have been able to attend regular schools or go to college or graduate school. I would have slipped through the cracks. They taught me that advocating for myself is OK, and that while I’m terrible in some areas of academia I’m very good in others. They saw my strengths when I didn’t think I had any, and they taught me to use them.

If you’re a teacher or professor, please remember you don’t know what a student is going through, whether they have a learning disability, a difficult home life, or both. Don’t assume they’re not trying, don’t get impatient if they ask for help or need something explained a few times. Be happy they’re asking. If a student is struggling and they’re not asking, maybe they’ve had too many bad experiences like mine and are afraid to ask because they think they’ll get shut down. Maybe they just need someone to take the time to help them, advocate for them, and show them it’s OK to need help and they don’t need to struggle alone. As frustrated as you may be, think of how that student probably feels.

I succeeded because I had people around me to help, and I learned to advocate for myself. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have the support of good teachers, professors, parents and friends, I can’t imagine where I’d be. I certainly wouldn’t have two graduate degrees, and I may not have even gotten through high school. So to the teachers who would have let me slip through the cracks, I succeeded in spite of you, and to everyone else who gave me extra support, and to those who still do, you’ll never know how grateful I am.

Rebecca Carpenter, MS, EdS

Getty image by Tim Allen.

Originally published: February 5, 2020
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