The Little Red Table

I am reading the Little House On The Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter. I kept my old copies from childhood, the ones I read in fourth grade. I have kept these books for years because they were the first chapter books I read on my own. When I look at the tattered 1970’s-era covers with shockingly low prices, I remember what it felt like not to be able to read. I am dyslexic and reading did not come easily for me. 

The words swam on the page. I could not understand the powder blue phonics book my cheerful teacher brought to me each afternoon. I could not seem to spell or remember how words came together. When I was asked to read aloud, I stumbled and felt like there was a spotlight on me. The creeping dread of making mistakes and being exposed filled up my face until I was red and flushed and aching. 

I dreaded reading time. By the second grade, I had a problem: I was in the slowest reading group. Each reading group sat at a colored table. These primary colors were like banners announcing each student’s reading level. Blue was for the best readers. Yellow was for mid-level readers. And red was for the slowest readers. Even though the red table received extra attention and devotion from the teacher, I longed to move from the red group to the blue one. To me, the blue table represented a great frontier to be conquered. 

I was determined. I remember my envy of those at the blue table. But like many children with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, I was faced with both reading challenges and focusing difficulties. I often failed to hear instructions or to retain information. Additionally, I frequently drifted off into my own little world, only to tune back in to find the lesson had moved forward. 

My teacher was a lovely woman who spent time with me after school, and she seemed to know that I was paralyzed by reading aloud. She encouraged me to work hard, and over the next two years, I moved from a person who could not read to a person who could read. By third grade, we had individual desks and our reading levels were no longer color-coded. But to this day, I am proud that I was able to escape from the little red table. 

Eventually, my hard work paid off. Once I began to read, I loved it, and I read voraciously. I also learned a powerful lesson: hard work and extra help can pay off. I understand the children I coach because I once was like them.

Madame Ruggles

Kids will have so many different teachers throughout their young academic years – all with different teaching styles, different ways they relate to each child, some in their first years of teaching, some growing close to retirement, some good, and some bad. But we’ve all heard the stories about the one teacher that made a difference, and they may not have even known it.

If you have a kid with learning differences, the teacher can really matter. They can single-handedly change how a kid feels about school. They can give your unique learner a chance to believe in themselves, which will help them build confidence and the drive to keep trying. It’s really just having someone in their court, so to speak, that’s willing to push through the tough times to prove there are brighter days ahead.

Keep in mind, there are years when the teacher may not be a good fit or even may be a disaster. I remember those years too. I remember the teachers who did not get me, but it was the few who did who made all the difference. Here’s a bird-eye view of my journey as I look back.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was in French 5. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. As a dyslexic, I could never remember to put accents in the right place and my spelling was – well pretty bad. This was the 1990’s, and I was told that despite my good grades that if I opted out of foreign languages, I would not get into the college of my choice. How could one French class keep me from my dream school? I thought I was doomed. I may not have been a great speller, but by the time I got to high school, I had learned not to give up! I went to my teacher, Madame Ruggles, and told her – I had to get a B – according to my college counselor.

Without batting an eye, Madame Ruggles began to meet with me every day during school. She knew I was trying so hard, but my results did not turn out the way I had hoped. I still have dreams that I fail every test and do not get that B because it was such an uphill battle.

I had this sense that she was pulling for me. Madame, like so many language teachers, insisted we speak “en Français”. That was all right with me because it was the writing that I found so difficult. So over time, I was able to show what I knew by speaking the answers as opposed to writing them. It was a struggle, but I got my B – and then promptly dropped French in college. I struggled partly to be like everyone else. I think Madame knew I was in fact not like everyone else. And she seemed to convey in a few words that this too would pass and that in life I would be able to use my talents not my weaknesses.

I recently found out that Madame Ruggles passed away. After retirements, she had moved to my town. So all this time, if I had only known, I could have gone to visit her. If I had, I would have said, “Madame, merci”.

Parents are often frustrated by many of the negative academic experiences their child has, and I completely understand. But remember, it is the few teachers who really believe in us – who help the unique learner like me reach our destination, and those are the one that will be remembered forever.


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