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“It’s okay! Just breathe!” I said to myself in an attempt to suppress my unfaltering anxiety. I restlessly skimmed the pictures in a Clifford the Big Red Dog book, typical of me during independent reading. All the while I kept my head down, focused on the words, and paced myself to the rhythm of page turning set by my classmates, who could actually read, in case anyone was watching. To my seven year-old self, nothing was more foreboding than this “silent reading time”. As I sat with fearful anticipation, tears flooded my eyes, blurring my vision until Clifford the big red dog became a big red smudge. Choking my tears back, I looked up to find her in the doorway. The embarrassment I felt was unnerving as heads turned to watch my special educator lead me out of class.
Just weeks before, I had been escorted out of my classroom for the first time to be tested for dyslexia. Soon I began to leave class regularly to learn the fundamentals that seemed to come so quickly to everyone else. I wanted to believe I was no different from my peers, but I knew why I had to leave. My fear was that my class knew too. I pleaded with my parents and teachers, but it was no use. The truth is, I was a lousy reader. If I couldn’t avoid special education, how was I going to stop my classmates from wondering where I went everyday or worse, prevent them from coming to the conclusion there was something wrong with me? The only thing that seemed to be within my reach was to never let on or tell anyone I had dyslexia. It was going to be my secret.
My story begins ten years ago. It’s safe to say I have changed significantly. I kept my condition top-secret by laying low throughout elementary and middle school. No way could I face the humiliation! The beauty of becoming a high schooler was that Special Education did not make assumptions and place me in lower level classes. I seized the opportunity to succeed on my own. I even convinced my teachers to let me take an honors class as a freshman. However, I still kept my secret hidden from my classmates under heaps of hard work I did behind the scenes.
Many struggle in some way to accept a part of who they are, whether it’s disability, mental illness, or sexuality. I never wanted my learning disability to become a part of my identity. I was too ashamed and afraid of judgment. But, as I prepare for the next chapter of my life, it has never been more important to stand out from the crowd. How could I let my secret, the one thing that consistently makes me feel different, remain unheard? I know I am no exception, as one in five students faces a learning disability, but I do know I am unique because of the drive and self awareness I have gained. If it wasn’t for my dyslexia, I don’t know if I would have developed the determination to overcome challenges. I might not have become a strong problem solver without having to invent my own learning strategies. I may not have become a persistent self advocate without the practice of explaining the way I see things. Maybe I wouldn’t carry my distinct sense of empathy if I had not felt ostracized. Without my achievements, perhaps I wouldn’t have the confidence to speak up in class. With this self-confidence, I know that the risks I take are more important than what my peers think of me.
Ten years later, I still tell myself, “It’s okay! Just Breathe!” but I do so with the understanding that I don’t have to a hide a part of me. I know that my “secret identity” is a formative part of who I am.
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