Mrs. Morris was my NILD teacher (National Institute of Learning Disabilities). I had her for six years and even one summer, from the first grade till my “graduation” from the program in sixth. She is unlike any other teacher I have ever, or will ever have. She changed my life, and not in the insincere overreaching statement “changed my life” but in the true and undeniable way she day by day changed me. Changed how I learned, how I thought, and what I thought of myself.
Mrs. Morris always had coffee. Not just in the mornings. Our classroom, which was just like any other, just scaled down for one teacher and one student always smelled like it, even in the later years when she became obsessed with the candle warmers. She would carry it with her when I was younger as she got me from class, standing at the door frame and smiling at my teachers with her coffee carefully balanced. She usually filled it up before she got me and we would walk to the room slowly. Later, about the fourth-grade, I got to leave the class room myself and when I walked into ours, she would have it in her hands and would set it beside her cup of blue and red pens.
Her pens were awesome. I always asked to use them, and once a year, when she would let me be the “therapist” for a day I would get to gently place the cap on top and watch the ink swirl down. I would have used the red and blue at the same time if she would have let me.
I’ll never forget that she loved Birkenstock sandals and the Mary Bee from Tudors. She also loved me. I know she did.
I loved her.
I’ve tried many times to capture what I felt like. What my learning disability felt like, or what it looked like. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer, or really anyone is, for that matter to perfectly describe what it is like to be trapped by a disability in your own mind. I know no one ever made it clear to me as a child. How could I understand I had a neurobiological disorder that had to do with the anatomy of my brain? I couldn’t figure out which was my left or right shoe.
Even before I started school I would try to explain to my mom what I saw. I guess I was, even then, trying to bring someone into to my world.
“What’s this letter Sarah?” Mom asked.
“I can’t tell,” I said.
“Why, you know this…This letter right here, what is it?”
“I know it’s a b or a d but I can’t tell!”
“What do you mean you know but you can’t tell?”
“It won’t stop moving!”
That was the point I would usually start crying. There were so many things that I didn’t understand, but I understood that. That, wasn’t right. I wasn’t right.
“It’s moving?” Mom probably said. I can see her shrinking back and watching my agony. She felt it through me.
“It moves, it won’t stay still.”
What do you say to your child when their letters move? What could I say to my mom about what that felt like? There are plenty of dyslexic “simulators” online. They’ll flip letters and distort words. I’ve never seen one that moves though. There will never be a simulator that shows the broken world view from the eyes of a disabled child.
“Okay class we are going to do a little group reading, just read about a paragraph or so,” Mrs. Terry said as she scooted up on her “reading stool” which had a grandma checked seat cushion and sat just left of the center of the class room.
A paragraph, “or so,” that statement made the whole day bad for me. One sentence, a single breath. Good day gone bad. My hands would start sweating and I would begin franticly looking over the pages searching for the words that might stump me.
“Read arounds” or group reading started in the third grade but really took off in the fourth. Third grade was the year of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but fourth grade was the year of the medieval festival, for the immersion into a new world of history and a continuation of Narnian magic with the book, The Horse and His Boy.
“Or so,” what does “or so” mean? I thought to myself. “Or so” is not a number. In fact, on my math test I get X’s because I can’t have the right answer “or so.”
Or so meant I had to wonder what paragraph I would be on.
Noah started. “When Shasta went through the gate he found a slope of grass and a little heather running up before him to some trees. He had nothing to think about now and no plans to make: he had only to run and that was quite enough.”
Okay, so he is one, she is next then down, down… thirteen… that should leave me somewhere around page 170…
Wherever I thought I might have to read I would begin practicing and reviewing. Grappling over the words that looked especially difficult and pray, just pray that I could make it through this.
I loved listening to The Horse and His Boy, I loved stories, but when we had to read out loud, I was moments away from tears. I also never heard any of the story. I would have mom re- read me the chapter later. This was no time to listen, my entire reputation was on the line.
It wasn’t like they didn’t know though. Everyone knew I had struggles learning and how could they forget, when I went to a different classroom for a few hours every day; when Mrs. Terry would sometimes have me test next to her so she could read me the questions; when we did stupid read arounds like this, and I messed up. How could they forget?
I was sitting next to Brooke and Sam. I remember that because we had assigned seats and I sat by them the entire year.
Victoria was reading now, “Even so, he was going pretty fast. There were no flies now and the air in his face was delicious. He had got his breath back too. And his errand had succeeded.”
She read a paragraph and a half? Who does that! The readers were closer now, three away from Sarah Whit, the last one before Sam. Marley read three paragraphs, jerk, but I had prepared for that fumbled with the large words.
“They had come to a rough kind of road by now and were making very good speed. But Shasta’s horse was still the last of the lot…”
It was my turn.
I loved book reports. If you just watched our class on those days no one could have figured out I was learning disabled. They couldn’t know by looking at me that my mom actually read me all the books; that I think of the Laura Ingles books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Series of Unfortunate Events in my mother’s voice. Book reports at Covenant, my small private school, were written which between my mother and Mrs. Morris I accomplished; however, the best part was the oral presentation. That was when the perfect readers and “Steller Spellers” like Cassey got to sit back and watch me shine.
I could talk about the books I never read. I could talk about them forever. I could talk about Shasta and Aslan with more passion than all the navy-blue shirts in the room.
Mrs. Morris loved those days too. She knew when they were and she would even let me practice in front of her.
“Alright do you have them?” Mrs. Morris asked anxiously reaching for my book report feedback.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got them.” I said proudly handing the papers over.
“And?” she asked.
“And… they’re perfect!”
“I knew it, I knew it! That was the best one yet, you know.”
“Thanks, mom helped a lot.”
Mrs. Morris didn’t have to listen to my book reports, but she always did. She seemed so interested and impressed by my delivery in them. When they were emotional, her eyes watered. When they were funny I had to wait for her to stop laughing. She knew what went on in my class room because she knew what was going on inside of me.
With her, in that class room, I was day by day changing, learning. Learning so much more than how to read.
I didn’t hate everything about school, I loved a lot of it, I just hated me in it. Me having to exist in a classroom where I didn’t belong. In fourth grade our classroom was typical and extraordinary at the same time. We had typical grade school desks that were filled with colorful folders, pencil boxes, and books, but my fourth-grade classroom was extraordinary. It had a castle. That’s right a castle, and it was behind my desk, and I liked to imagine that I was part of it.
How they made it I am not sure, but three gray covered steps lead up to the carpeted platform. Both inside and out there were make-shift walls that were painted to resemble stones, and it was just magical enough to help me forget where I was for a little while. I could walk into the classroom on those days and choose not to see what I couldn’t read, but what I could experience.
The castle was where two students that were randomly picked, were allowed to reside for certain parts of the day like free time, art, and reading. Mrs. Terry had a cup full of our names written on Popsicle sticks and each day two lucky names were placed together to experience a different world. Being inside lifted my world above fourth grade. There is something about being in a castle. It had about a two and a half foot opening so Mrs. Terry could obviously keep an eye on those inside, but the rest was covered, in there I didn’t have to see everyone else, I was free.
I don’t know why I, or anyone else loved it so much though. It was uncomfortable. Just a wooden platform that had durable school carpeting and maybe four bean bags. A desk was better in every practical sense, but nothing about my fourth-grade self was practical. I remember trying to balance my overstuffed folders between my knees while attempting to write notes. I would fidget from side to side, eventually going back and forth between writing on my lap or knees to laying on my stomach with my elbows out trying to write.
It seemed like such a great place to talk and play, but really it was just an uncomfortable desk. I loved it though, maybe because it let anyone be special. You didn’t have to score a certain grade, read perfectly, or even ask it just happened. The best thing was to be in the castle while Mrs. Terry read. Stories already enthralled me, and to hear Mrs. Terry’s soft voice yield the lives of characters I thought were precious from the safety of a castle was magic. Words meant more, letters moved out of my way, and I could just hear the story.
I’ll never forget that I was in the castle the day Mrs. Terry read about Shasta meeting Aslan. It was just so important to me.
“And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
I hated when I had to leave the castle. I especially hated leaving when I thought I shouldn’t have to. It was bound to happen though, but to miss even a second wasn’t fair. The worst thing to hear from the sanctuary of the castle was, “Sarah, it’s time for you to go see Mrs. Morris,” which happened every time. Mrs. Terry never reminded me, she knew I would go. But the others learned my schedule and when they “reminded me” they might have well have said, “Get out of the castle, you don’t belong in it.”
It wasn’t fair. I had to leave and someone would get the castle all to themselves. So even the extraordinary was ruined by something I didn’t understand about myself.
Being learning disabled kind of felt like being Wile E. Coyote to me. Wile E. Coyote is an underrated Looney Tunes character; he is the Tom in Tom and Jerry, the Donald Duck to Mickey, and even the Daffy Duck compared to the ol’ so witty Bugs Bunny. Wile E. Coyote has one major problem, Roadrunner. No matter how well he plans, no matter what he tries he never catches Roadrunner. He comes so close in every episode. The dynamite stacked, the explosions in sync, the trap perfectly calculated, but he never catches Roadrunner. Never.
Wile E. Coyote despite his talents and he does have some (Try walking off a cliff and defying gravity or surviving thousands of explosions) is always close, but always stopped. I was so close for so long. But something was always stopping me. The problem was in my mind. I thought that if I could convince everyone else I knew I was stupid, I knew I learned differently, they wouldn’t be able to see the struggle really going on. But I started to believe it too, which made me hate myself. That’s the part that wasn’t like a cartoon.
It was my turn.
“Shasta…” my eyes moved faster than I read. As I read Shasta I was three words ahead looking at “took” and “amid” while also keeping an eye on the last sentence. Calm down. Calm down.
But I didn’t. I began to mumble hoping that it would cover the mistakes I might make.
“But as the last sound died away and once more…” I read.
Then it would happen. I see these scenes in my head constantly. I am afraid they are something that will never leave. The pause. I still don’t volunteer to read.
The next word would be something like “he” or “that,” something easy but I would be looking beyond, fighting with myself over “amid,” or “troopers,” or “remounted.” So, as I wrestled with “amid” I would forget to keep reading. Then it would happen. In this story, I remember Brooke.
“He,” Brooke said, smiling and pointing to the next word.
“I KNOW IT IS HE,” I would say sharply towards her. Didn’t she know I was looking at “amid”?
I wasn’t just mad at Brooke. I was mad at myself. Mad that I missed the opportunity to act like I could at least read the word “he.” Although I loved Mrs. Terry, I’ll never forget that day. I wasn’t done with my paragraph.
“Brooke,” she said, signaling it was now her turn to read. Everyone’s head stayed down but I could feel their thoughts.
She skipped me…
It’s what I thought I wanted, but it didn’t feel like it.
Brooke began to read, “But at last the sound died away and once more he was alone amid the drip-drip from the trees.”
I can read that… I’m not stupid.
Mrs. Terry looked down at the book too but I could tell she wasn’t following along. She was thinking. Maybe about how I felt, or maybe wondering if she made the right decision. She wasn’t reading though. I knew what a reading eye looked like. You notice that kind of thing when you grow up not being able to read. I would stare in a kind of wonder as people read and their eyes flickered line to line. This time though I didn’t watch her eyes to see if they moved, but to see if maybe they saw me.
Please don’t say it… please…don’t…
“Alright, do it again,” Mrs. Morris said stirring her coffee and glancing at my chart on the table.
I wouldn’t argue with her, but I did take in a breath and push it back out so she would notice the heaviness of the sigh.
This was the worst exercise or “technique” in NILD. Maps. I started doing them in the later years, probably the fourth grade, till my graduation. My learning disability, mainly dyslexia, was especially challenged by directions. Lots of people throw their hands up to double check left and right laughing at the simple reminder, but it wasn’t a joke to me.
Standing before a map of the United States I swung the yard stick I used to point back and forth. In this exercise, I was assigned a state and had to memorize what was north, south, east, and west of it. Then, with my back to the map, I had to report the states names while pointing in the corresponding direction. After that painful part was over I had to flip it and explain the states position, this time saying what it was north, south, east, and west to.
“Iowa,” I said, pausing and hoping she would stop me, “Iowa is south of Minnesota.”
“Point,” Mrs. Morris said, motioning for me to also stop blocking Iowa.
“Iowa is west of Wisconsin and Illinois,” I said flinging the yard stick behind my head.
“No that’s not west,” she said.
“Oh, okay Iowa is west of South Dakota…”
“No, no. You aren’t pointing west,” she said.
“Oh, okay. Iowa is west of Wisconsin and Illinois,” I said, pointing again and praying it was west.
“Iowa… Iowa is north of, well it’s north of…”
This is ridiculous, who even cares where Iowa is and what it is north of?
“IOWA, IS…” I leaned back against the map and retreated my eyes from Mrs. Morris to my shoes. My plain white, private school approved shoes.
“Sarah, come on.” She said, “You’ve done this one already. You’re just flipping it now.”
“This is pointless,” I said, surprised at myself.
“It’s not pointless,” she said coolly.
“Oh yeah? When was the last time you were asked what Iowa was north, south, east, or west of? No one ever asks me that!”
“I am though, right now, so please tell me,” she said.
“No, you know what I mean. No one has ever come up to you and asked what is north, south…”
“That doesn’t matter, I’m asking you,” Mrs. Morris said.
“ Iowa… It’s north of Missouri,” I said pretending to smack myself with the yard stick.
“Point to it.”
I fumbled around the map. I could remember the states surrounding the suddenly significant Iowa, but the challenge of this teaching technique was flipping the directions and having to locate where the states were.
“No, that’s not right.”
Of course it’s not right, I’m never right. “But I am pointing north of Iowa!”
“Yes, you are. But you are telling me what Iowa is north of in relation to.” She said.
Why can’t she just tell me?
“And that means, you can’t point to the same place that is north of Iowa.”
“That makes no sense!” I said finally mad enough to stop caring. “How am I supposed to know where to point?!”
“Think about it.”
What does she think I am doing up here? I am thinking!
“I am thinking! But why don’t we both just admit it, I can’t do this. I can’t. I stand at this map week after week and I don’t get any better.”
“Don’t say you can’t. Think about what you have already told me, and…”
“You think I’m up here not thinking? I am thinking! I can think. I can learn.”
“And I’m not stupid. I’m not,” I said dropping the yard stick and staring at Mrs. Morris with all of my fifth-grade fury. “Everyone thinks I’m stupid, but I’m not. And I do care. They think I don’t care either, but I do.”
She didn’t say anything, and I realized I had been yelling.
“I care that I look like an idiot when I choke on read arounds,” I said. “I care that Brooke knows I only do half the spelling words. I care that they smirk when I check a book out from the library. I care…” but I didn’t say any more. I shut my eyes and felt the water start to slide out through my lashes.
Don’t look at her.
“You think I don’t care? Why do you think we do these things? Why do you think we meet every day?”
Please don’t make me answer any more questions.
“I care. That’s why I don’t let you skip map. That’s why things get harder. That’s why I didn’t let you graduate this year. Because I do care.”
“I know,” I said probably pathetically.
“I know you’re not stupid. I see that every day. I also know you care. But this isn’t easy, and I don’t know why you struggle but right now I’m not asking you to do something you can’t.”
“I just get tired of feeling stupid when I do stuff. And, when I come in here I like to not feel like… well, stupid. I know this should be simple, so I…” I mumbled, trying to reason.
“Sarah, I expect you to come in here and try, not because it’s fair, not because it’s easy, but because you have to. Everyone struggles with something, you have to decide how to respond.”
The silence was interrupted by the patter of feet going by our door. Everyone was heading to lunch; the signal class was over.
“Would I point south?” I asked.
“What?” Mrs. Morris asked reaching back for a tissue.
“Since I’m talking about what Iowa is north of, it would mean the state below was south, right?”
She handed me the tissue, gave me a hug, and probably told me we were starting with maps the next day. I don’t know if the state was really Iowa, but it really happened.
“Please refer to the safety instruction manual in the seat back pocket…”
Here we go again…
“This air craft is equipped with 6 emergency exits which are located…”
I heard this too many times, it’s important to listen but smashed between two strangers, on a somehow even more cramped Allegiant flight I wanted the next two hours to “fly,” pun intended. I am headed to Key Largo, it is mid-January, and I’m going with my mom and dad.
“Sarah,” mom said from the row behind, “do you want a magazine?”
“No, I’ve got my book” I say holding C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.
“But you’ve read that… there are too many good book to…”
I turned around so I could see her above the headrest, “I’ve never read it mom, I’ve only heard it.”
She seems only slightly convinced by my answer, “Besides, I might write about it.”
“Write about it? What are you going to write about it?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I say turning around determined to read this children’s book myself.
Reading the book brought a lot back. I love the section from The Horse and His Boy when Shasta meets Aslan, and Aslan, the mighty lion, the Lord of Narnia revels himself. Even as a child hearing the story I waited the entire book for the orphaned and unlucky Shasta to see every blessing in his life, for Shasta to see that it was Aslan all along. Aslan who gave him and used the struggles in his life to eventually make him a king.
I remember hearing Mrs. Terry read that section and suddenly feeling chilled in the classroom. Shasta foolishly tells Aslan his misfortunes, feeling utterly sorry for himself, “I must be the most unfortunate boy who ever lived.”
Oh, Shasta don’t you get it yet? I think to myself cramped between two strangers.
“I do not call you unfortunate…” Aslan says, and the hair on my arms stood.
I remember this part… I think as I try not to look so emotional with my children’s book in hand.
“I was the Lion… I was the Lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight to receive you.”
I can feel tears collecting in the corners of my eyes. Are you really this emotional decades later from a children’s book? I ask myself. Yes, because that’s you.
I spent years wondering why God would create me, supposedly in his image, only to be learning disabled. I was never allowed to blame something on being learning disabled. It always seemed like a logical reason though. It was why I failed tests, why I cried after school, and why I couldn’t read. That’s what I thought anyway.
But on this cramped plane I admit something I think I’ve known for a long time. I needed to be learning disabled. Gosh, that sounds crazy. But, what’s crazier is I’m glad I was learning disabled.
I, like Shasta, was given a unique blessing. For C. S. Lewis’s fictional character, it meant a life outside of his kingdom, a dangerous journey, and talkative horse before he became king. For me it meant years of questions and countless days with Mrs. Morris.
“He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything. The High King above all kings stooped towards him… He lifted his face and their eyes met.”
A tear drips and I quickly whip it away. Stop it, your makeup will run.
But I can’t stop, because I see me. Through those years my thought process literally changed. I learned how to read, I learned how to write. I learned somehow to make the letters stop moving on the page. And I believe I finally got to see something like Mrs. Morris must have imagined every day we laughed together and every day I cried. I got to see the world through disabled eyes.
Sarah Canterbury’s non-fiction work has been featured in Et. Cetera, and her essay ‘The Books I Never Read’ appeared in the September 2017 issue of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Sarah is a senior majoring in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Marshall University originally from Huntington West Virginia.