Betsy Caruso's Learning Story


My most significant educational experience came years after I’d left my formal schooling. It wasn’t until my own children were school aged that I learned the most significant fact about my own career as a student: I was a ‘learning disabled’ kid.As an early reader and an articulate child, my parents expected that school would be no trouble for me. And, for the first few years, things went smoothly. My grades were good and, except for math, I had no real difficulties. I made up for social awkwardness by seeking out the company of adults, who were impressed by my vocabulary and more disposed to adjust to my quirks than were my peers.In middle school, however, I began to have difficulty staying organized and managing my time. My desk was a mess, prompting one teacher to dump it on the floor in front of the class as an object lesson. My handwriting was atrocious and my performance was uneven. Math got worse and worse with every year.My teachers bemoaned my unmet potential and my parents despaired of my lack of academic discipline. They all made it seem like a simple matter of applying myself and ‘getting on with it.’ Throughout my elementary and secondary years, not one adult ever mentioned having had a similar experience. No doctor or psychologist proposed a theory or suggested my difficulties could be beyond my power to reconcile.By high school I was earning only two marks: As and Fs. I sailed through the courses I liked; English, music, home economics and some sciences. Math and social studies, or anything abstract were mysteries to me. Numbers were a magical alphabet I couldn’t parse. Chemistry was a drudgery of rote memorization that didn’t sustain my wandering attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Even with a private tutor, I failed algebra twice in a row. At the same time, I accompanied the choir, acted in plays and wrote long papers about subjects that interested me. Everyone assumed I was just a slacker. By my senior year, I proved them right. Having taken AP English in grade 11, I skipped English class to practice piano in the auditorium rather than attend a lower level class just to meet the state requirements. This garnered me no sympathy at all from a frustrated school establishment and I failed to graduate with my class.I tap-danced my way into a state college with a non-traditional application, after completing another freshman English course at the local university in the fall after my senior year. Convinced I wasn’t able to pursue anything academic, I majored in theater. I did reasonably well at college, but wasn’t able to organize myself or grind through uninteresting material. I was so overwhelmed after three semesters that I quit. As clever people with learning disabilities do, I figured out strategies for getting ahead. I talked a good game. I learned by doing, connecting new concepts with physical or musical processes and structures I’d internalized. Little by little, I learned to take on difficult concepts by breaking tasks and ideas down to the tiniest component I could concentrate on and understand. From there, I built up new skills, just the way I practiced a new piece of music. Measure by measure, first one, then two at a time until I could play a phrase, and then the next one, bit by bit.It was a tremendous chore to focus my mind on one idea at a time and mechanically deconstruct, then reconstruct, each element. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me at the time that it took tremendous discipline to do it.I made a success out of my work and moved up in my positions with various non-profit organizations and arts groups. I married and we had two children, both of whom talked early and seemed bright and capable. Our daughter had some difficulties in school, and we took advantage of the testing that had become available since my own childhood. The tests revealed some mild difficulties with certain areas, which we successfully addressed. Our son was a different matter. He couldn’t read or write, or make sense of numbers. Early testing revealed no causes for his lack of progress, but lack there was and he was not invited back to his school after second grade. More specific testing showed learning difficulties that were assessed as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, dyslexia, and depression, depending upon the interpreter of the test results.After diligent research on our part and lots of advocating at the district office, we managed to get our son assigned to a small class for bright learning-disabled students at a Boston public school. Over two highly structured years in that little room, he learned to read, to write, and to do the math that was expected of kids in his grade. In fact, he kept right on going past the grade level work, becoming an avid reader and writer of poems and short stories. No trace of hyperactivity, depression or dyslexia remained. A complete neuropsychological workup showed a very smart little boy with some narrowly defined learning issues. He was referred to a school for gifted children, where he spent fifth grade. After one high-pressure year there, he transferred to a boarding school that specializes in boys who have not thrived in a regular school setting. Since that time, he has been more academically successful in school than anyone in our family. Although his learning style was the most complicated and vexing, he has had the best results. Luckily, tools now exist to assess the clinical and psychological underpinnings of the way the brain works. Perhaps more importantly, we now recognize a variety of types of intelligence.The education I received during the years we struggled to understand and address our son’s learning style has been more valuable than anything I learned in a classroom. My husband and I have gained a world of insight into our own school failures. I have revisited my attitude toward my capacity for learning certain kinds of material. In the past few years, I’ve taken on new challenges, armed with the knowledge that there are several ways to approach almost any subject. In 2005, I tutored algebra to middle school students with learning disabilities! One of the most important messages I try to pass on to them is that intelligence doesn’t have to equate with comprehending things the way the next person does. We look beyond the material, crafting ways to address attention issues, cultural stereotypes, flagging energy, organizational challenges and plain old-fashioned fear. Every smile of accomplishment or sigh of released tension from one of my students helps heal the wounds I accumulated during my first time in school. Every success of theirs shows me more about my own capacity for learning.I returned to college, and completed my degree, this time in an academic field. My informal education has prepared me well for the next step in my formal one, although the cost of tuition was steep.