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Letter From a Struggling Reader: Olivia's Story

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

Dear [Teachers, Principals and School Board Members,]

I started school in our town when I was in kindergarten. I always loved to learn. I loved books and to hear them read to me. I really liked writing stories. I remember being so excited to start school. As a matter of fact, our family put a brick at [our school] with the message “To always love learning” I wish I could say that this excitement would always have stayed for me.

By the end of kindergarten I was having some problems with reading, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. I was sad that I couldn’t read as well as the other kids. I figured if I worked really hard at it I would get better. After all, my twin brother was reading and writing just fine.

I clearly remember in first grade having feelings that I was different. I was very sad and frustrated every day. I would try to make myself excited for school, but once the day started I found myself sad again. I would explain to my teacher that I couldn’t do the work. She would try to work with me but her level of frustration with me was very clear. This only made me more anxious. It was as if I was doing this on purpose in her mind. There were times when I would get so upset and frustrated that she would open her classroom door and send me to the counselors office where I would have to discuss how to handle my frustration better.

Second grade was not much better. The teacher really treated me like I was just being lazy. I wanted so badly to do well and it just wasn’t happening. At this point I was sad, depressed, and just felt stupid. I had no confidence. I tried hard to be a good student and friend while I was at school. I was telling teachers that something wasn’t right but no one was listening.

I did extra help in school. I did tutoring during the week and even in the summers! Each year I would tell myself that this year was my year. Mom and Dad would tell me the same. I even remember one health class they were discussing Dyslexia. I came home and told my mom that it made sense to me. I think I had this thing! My mom said that she had spoken with the school about getting me tested [for dyslexia] and they tested and said I didn’t have it. So I just continued to work hard.

By 3rd grade  my anxiety got so bad that I was going to therapy two times a week. I was covered in hives from head to toe for three years and they wouldn’t go away. I would get so sick with joint pains and fever that I couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes the illness lasted for days. When other kids were out playing or doing sports I was home because I needed to rest.

Now to 6th grade. My anxiety was so bad I couldn’t function. I was depressed. I was overwhelmed. I had no confidence.  My past 5 years of school I remember crying every day, but this was so much worse than before. I couldn’t even get into school most days because the anxiety was so bad. Sometimes my mom would drive me back and forth to school for 3 hours so I could build the confidence to walk in. “Leave her” the school would say, but I would cling to her in panic. I knew her leaving me would make the panic so much worse.

My mom took me to my therapist again. This therapist was having me read out loud to her. Within minutes she asked to leave the room to talk to my mom. She asked my mom if I had been checked for dyslexia. My mom told her yes, [I was tested] by the school who said I didn’t have it.

This was the moment that changed everything for me

After a neuropsychologist test I was diagnosed with dyslexia and math dyslexia. And pretty severely too. Reading at a 1st grade level when I was in 6th grade? I was told that i was very very far behind and it would take years for me to catch up

It was very scary BUT it was also a relief. I had told my teachers for years that I saw letters flying off the pages, that I wasn’t being bad but I really couldn’t do the work. My 1st grade teacher had written that I wrote letters backwards, had difficulty reading but that I was a resistant learner. That label followed me and it was very crushing to my feelings.

I was angry. I said “They ruined me”. I felt like years were robbed from me of being a kid because I was always doing school work and was always sick. I found out the hives and the illness had become what they were due to stress I had at school and anything to do with learning.

I had a talk with my mom and dad. We always say to take the bad and make it positive. Maybe something good can come of it. I entered a PTA photo contest where I sent a picture of a bridge that I had taken and wrote that it demonstrated me overcoming my struggles with Dyslexia.I won the first round in the contest.  I also realized that I really understood what it felt like to have dyslexia and have good communication skills so maybe I could be a voice for other kids. I can pick out a kid with dyslexia pretty quick now. Me, mom and dad discussed me talking to [my first grade teacher] to tell her about my recent diagnosis and give a voice to other kids by explaining how it felt. I wanted to start with her because it was in the 1st grade that I really started to know something was wrong.

School was over and it was the end of the day. We asked the office if we could go speak with her. Me and my mom and brother went to her class to talk to her. I explained my dyslexia and how it felt. I agreed with her when she said she tried to help me. I just said I wanted to give a voice to other kids who may be struggling. My last thing to her was “ if you see another kid like me they may have dyslexia.” We said our thank you and left. I could not believe what happened next. After saying hello to [another teacher] we passed by we saw [my first grade teacher] run past us looking upset. Then [the principal] came to us red in the face and yelled at us for blaming [my teacher] for my dyslexia. I couldn’t believe it! He was so angry with me. My mom explained that that was not what happened. He walked away. I went home crying and thought I was going to throw up. I was shocked and disappointed and so sad.

[My school] may have been good to me in ways like having lunch with the principal, but where it mattered they were not good. No one listened. They always acted like it was my fault and I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.  I felt like they gave up on me. I didn’t get the help or support that I truly needed.

I am not going to let this experience get in my way. I still hope to be able to speak for kids that don’t know how to explain dyslexia for themselves. I want to let kids who struggle with reading to know it is not their fault and that they could have dyslexia like me.

I always said I wanted to grow up to be a writer. Before I didn’t think it was possible. I am now at a place where I am getting “intense remediation”. I have Wilson [reading instruction] and special math every day. I am working hard to get on track. I want to learn. I want to read. I still want to be a writer.

The most important thing is that my confidence is up. I feel smart because I can learn. I may be different but I don’t see it as a bad thing anymore.

On my picture that I did for the PTA contest I put a quote from my favorite author Roald Dahl “Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” I believe this.

Olivia Hansen Age 13, 7th grade

(Olivia is a student in the Philadelphia suburban area. Everyone Reads T/E is grateful to Olivia and her parents, Holli & John Hansen, for sharing her story about the emotional toll she (and her teachers) faced because her teachers did not have training in the science of how reading skills are acquired. Her parents would like to say that if any part of Olivia's Story rings true, please trust your instinct and seek further independent evaluation. They would like to see all kids benefit from this knowledge so that more children don't suffer the emotional consequences Olivia did. Her mom, Holli, opines that they put too much trust in an antiquated system with teachers lacking the knowledge of the science of how the brain learns to read. Today, Olivia is in a private school that empowers its teachers with this knowledge.)

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