Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

Divergents Lifestyle Editor, Alethia Smith describes the incredible effort required to hide her dyslexia from her peers.

by Althea Smith

Growing up with dyslexia, you learn fairly quickly to blend in. You learn to make yourself smaller. Quieter. You learn to suppress your big personality, to act shy, to be introverted. All in the hope that you will not be singled out.

I had hiding down to a science as I divvied out everyone’s respective roles. For instance, in the case of my parents, I instructed them about to whom they could and could not divulge my secret. It was okay to tell my Sunday School teacher, but not my friends’ parents. In my young mind, I knew, instinctively, that in order to avoid being called on to read in front of the other children, the teacher would need to know and be prepared beforehand. My parents would always end the encounter with “Alethia would not like this shared with anyone else.” I didn’t want my friend’s parents to know because I didn’t trust that they would keep my secret from their children.

With a lot of trial and error, I devised a plan to conduct myself in uncomfortable situations. The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could lie or I could stay quiet. My grandmother advised me to stay quiet. She would quote Abraham Lincoln: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”. I know this may seem harsh, but my grandmother was born in the 1920’s as an African-American woman in America, who struggled with reading herself. Her accumulation of 70 years of life in this country had led to her expressing this – her tried and true advice. It was given in love and has served me well through the years. But so has lying. For instance: “I’m so sorry I can’t read today. I forgot my reading glasses at home.” Or I’d excuse myself to go to the restroom, when it was getting close to my turn to read.

My siblings played their assigned roles, as well. Anything I was asked to do in front of others, that they knew I could not do, they automatically took over the task to save me from any embarrassment. My dyslexia became a secret we guarded at all costs.

Eventually, I had “Do not call on Alethia unless she volunteers participation” placed in my IEP as an accommodation. But over the years, I still had teachers who would try and test my resolve. For instance, my biology teacher insisted that I read out loud one day in class. When she called my name, I was startled because it was totally unexpected. I had been in class, for half a semester, by this point and she had never called on me before. She had read my IEP and I had discussed it with her at the beginning of the school year. All I could think was, “Why is she doing this?” I regained my composure and replied, “No, thank you.” She then said, “Alethia, you have such a beautiful voice; we would all like to hear it.”

 I replied for the second time, “No, thank you.” As my peers begin to whisper around me.

“Just read”, my teacher said, “Participation is 90% of your grade, right?”

By this time, I was annoyed. “I’m aware.” I replied.

“Alethia please see me after class” She would not let it go.

One of my good friends leaned in and said, “I don’t understand why didn’t you just read?”

“I didn’t feel like it.”

Then another boy sitting behind me said “You can read. Can’t you?”

“Of course I can read.” I said, “I just don’t feel like it.”

After the class ended I slowly walked up to the front of the classroom where my teacher was sitting grading papers at her desk, as she looked up to address me.

“Alethia, as I mentioned before, participation is 90% of your grade. And you will not be able to pass my class without participating. You have a beautiful voice and I would like to hear it.”

I told her, “I don’t mind participating. I just don’t feel comfortable reading aloud.”

She replied, “Part of your participation grade is reading aloud.” She was forcing my hand and I did not have anyone to support me, at that moment. So I became my own advocate. “

“Miss Brown,” I replied. “I have an IEP that says I do not have to read aloud. And if you keep insisting that I read aloud, I will have to tell my parents. “ She looked at me with an expression of betrayal.

“I’m sorry, Miss Brown,” I blurted. “I have to go. I don’t want to miss my next class.” Then, I left. And from that day she never asked me to read again.

As I grew older and learned to master my environment. I was able to be more myself. I let my personality flourish and became the social butterfly I always was. The key to my transformation was freedom in the knowledge that no one could make me do anything I didn’t want to do, including reading out loud. I also found that the more I appeared “normal,” no one questioned my abilities. So I began to study and emulate other successful people in my circle, as an observational learning tool. I would take all of the best qualities I admired in a person and ask myself why I was drawn to this style, belief, or personality. 

I was careful to hold my core beliefs close. But, I became a mirror giving back to people the best version of myself. By the time I entered high school, I made friends quickly. I knew that to make friends, you had to show how friendly you were. So I talked to everyone and excluded no one. I would join all of the social clubs I was interested in. My objective was to be seen on campus as much as possible. I knew this was important because I had mostly Special Education courses with only three mainstream classes. And I also knew that if I was not seen in the general common areas, classmates would begin to question me about my classes and which teachers I had for what subjects, so they could link up with me during the day.

There were two Special Education classrooms in the school basement, as well as Driver’s Ed, and Woodshop. So it was easy to cover my tracks when I was spotted in or leaving the basement. If asked what class I had I would always say Drivers Ed. When I could no longer use Driver’s Ed as an alibi because I had my license and was driving to school by my 16th birthday, I would then say that I had woodshop or I was vesting a friend in another class. I would say anything to hide my secret. I would even sit away from the doors that lead into the special ed classroom because it had little small square windows through which you could peer inside the room. 

By the end of high school, I was in three school plays, choir, gospel choir, and was the manager of show choir. I threw myself into the activities, like the Ladies of Elegance Cotillion, where I won the title of Queen of the Ball. I was active on the prom committee and homecoming committee and was voted “most friendly” out of a graduating class of almost 400. Also I invited everyone to a slew of social events – my parties were legendary – all while keeping my secret.

I didn’t know it then but high school was the testing ground of how I conduct my life. Always leading with my strengths. Always hiding in plain sight.  

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3 min read
Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable Accommodation

by Ben Mitchell 2019 This piece is the narrative intro for a scholarly article, "The Bigotry of Normal" currently under review by the Harvard Educational Review.

I shift awkwardly at the front desk, filling out a name tag and ignoring the parade of teenagers coming and going through the large glass doors to my right. There is a certain lethargic restlessness to a rural high school, young people energetically waiting for life to begin and graying public servants passively marking time until retirement. The friendly woman keeping gate, behind the glass buzzes the large metal door.

“You can go down to the conference room now. They are waiting for you.” She says.

“Thank you.” I bleat stepping carefully through the entry, down the dimly lit corridor lined with yellow tile and vaguely optimistic posters, featuring attractive young people encouraging everyone to “make good choices.” For those of us with diagnosed learning disabilities, large institutional school buildings are deeply disturbing places, but I am a professional.

It is 2017.  I have been hired to run a transition program for high school students with learning disabilities, preparing for life in the real world.  Drawing students from several regional New Hampshire high schools , my job is to provide pre-employment training for IEP students -- resume writing, cover letter writing, explicit instruction in soft skills, even a weekly internship for the students to gain on-the-job experience. Being a starkly funded Department of Education partnership with a private non-profit, I recruit the students, teach the classes, collect the reporting paperwork, even drive the bus. I’ve been working with “at-risk” students since I was still an undergrad, so it all seems fairly straightforward. As a person diagnosed with Dyslexia and ADHD, I have spent the past thirty years working around the field of Special Education, hoping to make a difference in the lives of as many students as possible.

Part of the job is to visit the sending high schools and meet with Special Ed departments to recruit appropriate students.  On this particular day, I am meeting with a “Tutor” -- an uncertified para-professional assigned to preside over a room full of neurodivergent students and help them complete their assignments.

 I emerge into the windowless conference room, an oblong table surrounded by metal folding chairs, and I am greeted by the Vocational Rehabilitation Case Manager and the Tutor.  She is young and energetic, gaining confidence after a few years in the trenches, and we are to discuss the transition program to see if any of her students might be a good fit. We exchanged banal pleasantries and then get around to the subject at hand - an 18 year old dyslexic student, at risk of flunking his senior year because of his homework and attendance records.  I present the program as an opportunity for him to earn some Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) credits and even find a new focus -- working for money. The discussion seems to be going well, but then the Tutor expresses her frank concern.

“He just doesn’t accept reality.” She says. “He seems to live in his own magical reality with no idea what is waiting for him in the real world.” Now part of my role is to evaluate prospective students’ readiness for the program, so I probe a bit deeper.

“Can you give me an example” I query, hoping to better understand this ‘magical world.’”

“Ok.” She exhales. “Last spring he tried to take an EMT course so that he could qualify for some summer job at the YMCA camp.” She confides recalling the details as she speaks. “But then when it came to the written exam to complete the program, he came to me looking to get extra time on the test.” Many students with diagnosed learning disabilities are entitled to extra time under federal law, and he was hoping she would help him advocate for this accommodation.

She explains, “He said he could read the test and knew the answers, but he just needed more time.” Then she pauses looking at us incredulously. “Well, I told him that in the real world, he wasn’t going to have me following him around everywhere to do his homework and help him get around the requirements.” She frowns, “I told him that at some point he was going to have to get real.” She smiles proudly at us before going on. “I told him, that if he was an EMT and out on an emergency call, no one was going to give him extra time.” She went on, “I don’t want people working in emergency services who can't even read a multiple choice test.”  She beams proudly, marveling over her powerful personal boundaries.

Now, when I was a younger man, I would have been indignant and started reciting from the ADA, regaling her with tales of friends in the emergency services who read slowly. I would have talked about how many dyslexic people are actually amazing Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officers even Emergency Room Doctors, but I have learned not to rock the boat. I have learned that if I reacted to every insulting statement or ignorant insinuation, I would have lost my mind long ago.   I have learned to choose my battles wisely and to focus on the job at hand.

“Well good,” I chirp. “That is just what we do; we help the students create a realistic plan for after they graduate.” Nevertheless, the student in question is not permitted to join the program, because it will interfere with his credit recovery plan.

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2 min read
ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

By Zoë Kessler, Author of ADHD According to Zoe

ADHD and Procrastination: A Lesson from the Land

I accidentally spent the whole day gardening and landscaping today.

As I worked, I thought about ADHD and procrastination. Am I procrastinating? I thought, knowing I had many other projects lined up, none of which had to do with spending the day in the dirt.

Then I realized some things can’t wait. Like Mother Nature.

If I wait to pull out weeds, the things I want to live, will die; the things I want to die, will live.

Did our ancestors procrastinate?

As I worked the land, I thought about our ancestors. Our pioneering forefathers and foremothers spent their days in hard physical labour just to survive.


Can you imagine Clem telling Martha, “Sorry honey, I don’t feel like planting the crops today”?

Maybe that’s why the simple but demanding farm life is so good for people with ADHD. It’s do or die.

Is ADHD a product of modern lifestyles?

Think about life today. How many ways can you find to procrastinate? Plenty. But no matter what happens, chances are, nobody’s going to keel over if you’re late with your project.

There’s nothing like survival (yours, the crops’, or the animals’) to get you to get it done.

Yesterday’s pioneering families had to work hard. They couldn’t put off for tomorrow what had to be done today. They also got tons of physical exercise – which happens to be one of the best treatments for ADHD.

All this work and fresh air meant they slept well, while today’s ADHD adults struggle with out-of-sync sleep patterns.

Back to the future

It’s said that one reason people with ADHD procrastinate so much is that our ADHD brains don’t hold a picture of the future as easily as others. Lately, as the weather has warmed up, I’ve been walking around the house to see what’s growing and to plan what I’d like to plant.

During my daily lawn inspections, I’ve watched anxiously as the weeds run rampant, overtaking the daffodils, and choking out the hostas before they’ve had a chance to emerge. All I could think about was the future and how much more work it will be if I don’t tackle the weed problem now.

I’ve also been keenly aware of my next-door neighbour. When I first moved in he made a pointed remark about the previous owner who didn’t do any gardening or lawn maintenance. I got the point.

Envisioning a future with a disgruntled next-door neighbour also inspired me to keep up with my yard work.

Procrastination… or not

So today I spent a glorious day in the sunshine pulling up weeds, planting, building, digging, and reveling in the fresh air and sunshine. I was also ensuring that the future would be less work than it otherwise would have been.

But was I procrastinating? Maybe. Maybe not.

A lesson from the land

The next time I’m tempted to procrastinate, maybe I can think of my plants and my pride and use them as a reminder to think about the future.

What will be choked out of my life if I don’t act now? What projects, relationships, or goals will die if I don’t take action immediately? Who will be annoyed if I don’t take responsibility for what I’m responsible for?

They say we can learn from nature. Today, I thank my yard and Mother Nature for reminding me to think about the future when I’m tempted to procrastinate.

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1 min read
Death In A Time of Covid

Death In A Time of Covid

Noah Reed reflects on his father's death during a pandemic. Reed is a writer and a musician in Southern VT. Furthermore Reed works on the front lines of the epidemic, for the indispensable Maple Syrup Industry.

I visited my Dad after having a long walk with my sister, Leslie. We talked about him and we talked about the pandemic. I'm always reminding myself that these are two separate problems that just happen to coincide. This is a valuable little coping tool. Keeping all the various stressors separated keeps them from snowballing into one giant thing.

He asked me if I had any matters I'd like to discuss. I couldn't think of any at first. And then I remembered about the time he taught me to ride a bike. It was a warm Saturday in spring with the temperature somewhere in the low 70’s. I can’t remember what year exactly, except that it, too, was in the low ‘70’s.  The sun warmed my face. I was the last kid in my neighborhood to learn. I was always too afraid I'd fall down and get hurt before I could get going. I felt embarrassed and under pressure. But not from my Dad. I never felt pressured by him for anything. Other members of my family and friends tried to show me how easy riding a bike is, but all they ended up doing was making me feel dumb. It was the patience and warmth of my Dad that I really needed that morning, after so many humiliating failures.

The bike I was using had a banana seat and right behind it was a semi-circular metal bar that served as the handle my Dad promised me he'd hold onto, running along behind me, so I wouldn't fall.

As I pedaled along the street, I saw a giant station wagon headed in my direction, filled with a whole family of kids who’d learned before me. Their windows down, I heard them cheering before I looked over and saw them. I didn't get what they were so excited about until I looked to my right and saw the shadow my Dad and I cast on the ground. And though I glanced for only a split second, I still noticed he wasn't holding onto the back. My attention shot straight ahead. I'm not falling, he's not holding on. I must be riding! 

He remembered the story as I was sharing it with him. Before I could finish, he was telling it right back to me. It felt good to hear it again in his voice. As we talked about it, I thought of a few other things he's done for me I feel grateful for. I wanted to thank him for his influence and presence in my life. 

He planned to end his life on his own terms, instead of letting the disease progress to a catastrophic end. I admire this very much and I am not at all surprised by his choice. I wasn’t sure when exactly he planned to do it, but neither was he. There is a necessary protocol that must be followed in Vermont, prescribed by law in the Death With Dignity Act; Vermont is among the first states to enact such legislation. 

I asked him if he was scared but he said "No." I asked him if he was in any pain and again he told me "No.” I felt relieved knowing these things. 

He told me he was feeling weaker by the day. At one point during our visit, we had to move our chairs into the sun because it was breezy and sort of cold. When it was time to go, I had to bring his walker over to him. He couldn't walk the ten or so feet over to where he'd left it.

We were outside because of the pandemic. His wife was concerned—rightly I think—about his susceptibility. Nor could we visit for very long, anyway, because he gets tired quickly. His condition did seem to have deteriorated in the three weeks since I'd last seen him. 

And then on April 9, 2020, Alijah Reed, my Father and my Dad, ended his own life some time around 10:00 in the morning. 

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1 min read