“Onec oyu laenr to raed, yuo will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

Adult Dyslexia Assessment Tool Question 1: How Much Difficulty Did you Have Learning to Spell in Elementary School?[i]

Mrs. Brown was being mean again.

Apparently, she was like this every year in room C-3, her cloudy personality clashing harshly with the vibrantly colored carpeting and the brightly optimistic alphabet letters lined above the whiteboard. That year I already knew she didn’t like me because I was one of the reds marked kids. It was clear who her favorites were, the children who finished assignments before time was up, their crisp papers then decorated with shiny gold stars and smiley-faced stickers. The rest of us, however, were pitted against them with roughly handed back quizzes and tests scattered with aggressive red slashes that would later personify our very souls. But on this particular day in C-3, it wasn’t a reading quiz or a timed math test that selected me as the target, it was my free write.

I sat at my light wooden desk with my notebook, trying to catch the eye of my best friend McKinley on the other side of the room, his always too big red striped shirt slouching on his thin frame. 

In my distraction, the criticism hit.

‘You spelled “my” wrong again!’ Mrs. Brown snapped seemingly out of nowhere, pointing a shriveled finger at my tiger-covered composition notebook. ‘it’s spelled M-Y, not M-I! write it over.’

This had been the third time that day she had scolded me in front of my other classmates about my spelling skills. No matter how much she growled at me to write it, I still couldn’t comprehend how the “y” worked.

I shrunk lower in the blue metal chair, the other kids at my desk cluster pretending to forget I existed. The seconds seemed to move slowly as my hand gripped my purple number 2 pencil tighter, feeling her presence peering over my shoulder. Frantically I wrote on the light blue lines in huge letters:


As soon as I picked up my pencil from paper, I heard a breathy exasperated sigh escape her tightly thin lips, signaling my demise.

This day was about to get a whole lot worse.

She whipped around to face the class, her worn out ballet flats squeaking on the ugly dark blue linoleum floor.
‘Now class… how do we spell “my?’ she asked mockingly.

I watched horrified as all the kids threw their heads up from their work chanting in unison:


My cheeks flushed in embarrassment, quickly going through and changing every single mistake in my notebook, the pink eraser frantically shedding as I went.

‘I don’t think Lena here heard you, say it again.’ Mrs. Brown said in a clipped voice. 

‘M-YYYY’ they chanted again, giggling a bit. McKinley however, stayed silent, watching me with concerned dark blue eyes not playing into her game.

I felt everyone staring as if enclosing me into my mistake.

Why were they staring? Didn’t everyone spell it that way?

Escaping everything, I slid out of my chair under my desk, my white flowered light-up shoes blinking with the motion.

‘Now Lena,’ she said satisfied. ‘Write it again…. Lena?’

The whole class erupted in laughter crouching to eye level following me to my hiding spot.

‘Why is Lena under the desk? What is she hiding from?’ The mean girls giggled as my spelling burned into my brain.

What the school district and I didn’t understand was, misspelling “my” should have been Farallone View Elementary School’s first tip off as undiagnosed Dyslexia, as misspelling simple words is one of the first signs among first graders. Not recognizing learning disabilities within schools is unfortunately more common than one might think. “Having dyslexia, or another learning disability, is still stigmatized and misunderstood in many school districts, and many public schools do not have the resources or knowledge to educate students that require additional accommodations adequately.”[ii]My parents were outraged at their incompetence and tried getting me assessed other places, finding nothing. The Cabrillo Unified School District despite being obligated by state law to diagnose and assist students who were struggling academically, only assisted students with found disabilities. Without the official diagnosis, kids like me were dead in the water, falling through the cracks of not fitting into a designated cookie-cutter assessment.

Question 2: Did You Have Trouble Learning to Read When You Were in School?

It was mid-semester reading assessment season again, and all the second graders were bustling with excitement. Everyone in school, including the books on the shelves were split up according to our numerical reading scores and given a range of letters from the alphabet as our benchmark. But at seven years old in 2004, however, we kids had our own system. We knew this test and the scores as absolutes, ranked in “better” or “worse,” “smart and dumb.” We all proudly knew the alphabet and understood the word competition better than any curriculum, using the model as a social hierarchy of intelligence and popularity. I, myself, was always on the lower end of the scoring and poetically branded at the bottom of the food chain.

As Mrs. Hollins, in her bright cardinal red cardigan, called each kid over to her great mahogany desk to administer the reading test, I watched her across the room, bouncing my leg on the cold metal bar of my chair, too distracted to go about the coloring assigned to us.

At this desk cluster, I could hear the boys too, were distracted by the day’s events.

‘I got to level S last time Kevin, I’ll bet I’m higher than youuu.’ Andy said, sporting messy blonde hair and a gape-tooth smile. He was always bragging about his reading level, shoving huge chapter books in our faces like he had won the lottery.

Kevin smirked, grabbing a green color matching his striped polo shirt.

‘Nuh uh, I got letter T last time, so that’s one level higher than youuu.’

I blew out a breath and grabbed  an orange, deciding to draw yet another tiger to pass the time.

‘Yeah… well… uhh… I know LENA is below all of us.’ Andy teased.

I rolled my eyes, aggressively filling in the tiger’s orange body. I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to blow everyone out of the water and get a higher score than the boys, so they might finally leave me alone.

Finally, Mrs. Hollins called my name.

I jumped from my chair, escaping the banter, and ran  to the huge desk, looking for my name on the manilla folders.

Mrs. Hollins smiled at me with her kind brown eyes as she grabbed my file and took out the test. She told me to read the sentence out loud while following along with her pencil.

I glanced down at the white page, my hands beginning to sweat. I rubbed them on my pink pants and stared intensely at the sentence.

This big truck is a snowplow
It pushes the snow to the side of the road
Then big trucks come
To carry the piles
Of snow away.

Immediately the letters began morphing as if in a simulation. Suddenly The b’s looked like d’s and were reversed in the wrong places.

Thsi igd trukc is a sonwdlow
It uphses the nsow to the isde of the orab
Thne dig rtucks ocme
To acrry the iples
Of nsow waya.

I pressed my lips, not knowing what to do. I knew what I was about to say was wrong, but there was no choice, and I couldn’t explain what I was seeing, what if I got in trouble? Time was ticking, and I was too old to hide under desks. This was it. I was either smart or stupid, just like Mrs. Brown had implied with all her checkmarks and snide comments. But the more stressed I got, the worse I became.

‘Take your time.’ Mrs. Hollins answered kindly, furrowing her brow a bit.

I had seen this sentence before, memorizing what it had actually meant to say last time, but was it right?


‘big.’ She corrected.

I blew out a breath, staring harder at the page. (big? The d was a b.)

‘This big…truck is a…

‘Snowplow.’ She corrected again.

I could see in the corner of my eye her marking some pink sheet with her grown-up pen. I swallowed again, wondering why my throat was so dry.

It took several minutes, much longer than everyone else to finally get through each and every question. Finally, Mrs. Hollins leaned back in her seat and frowned a bit, looking at the score sheet.

‘So, what did I get?’ I asked, leaning in as if I could decipher the complex charts.

‘You are at reading level M!’ she said happily.

I huffed, crossing my arms over my leopard-printed chest. ‘M? no! That’s what I was last time!’

‘That’s okay! Everyone increases at different rates.’ She said, patting my shoulder and sent me back to my desk.

I frowned on the way over, feeling defeated, pushing my sparkly purple headband back into my messy blonde hair.

‘Soooo whatdya get?’ Kevin asked with a playful smile.

‘M,’ I snapped and ignored his mean response, thinking up what to do next.

I needed a plan and needed one fast, or I would be stuck in letter M forever, or at least until the end of the second grade, which was basically the same thing. Or maybe the numbers on the test were right all along.

During the early 2000s, my school district was not fond of assessing students as individuals, but as statistics that would lead to more funding from the state. Each student’s California test scores were the benchmark to determine if there was a learning issue. I was one of the kids who wasn’t low enough in the scoring to be flagged as having a learning disability. I had also developed coping strategies (manifesting in first grade) to hide any learning differences to get through any assessment that came my way. I found shortcuts to the answers without really understanding the material in order to keep the wrath of my teachers and other students at bay. This change of value system within my district and many others was the unfortunate passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. This legislation was passed in response to the apparent “achievement gap” among students across the U.S. “The major focus of No Child Left Behind is to close student achievement gaps by providing all children with a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”[iii] This meant all schools were required to have the same level of academic standards for all students, emphasizing the use of state standardized testing as the benchmark of what they considered to be “success.” The higher the scores, the higher the funding for both the district and the school itself.  This shifted the teachers’ focus from individualized learning to accessing children by a set of numbers to signify achievement. The consequence of all this being I was on my own at seven years old to diagnose, access and thrive with Dyslexia myself, or drop out trying.

Question 3: Do You Often Have To Read Things Two or Three More Times Until it Makes Sense?

Right after the mid-year reading assessments in 2004, the mean girls with matching friendship bracelets and Strawberry Shortcake chap stick began making their rounds. It was one of their favorite pastimes to go around each desk cluster of kids finding out everyone’s letter designation to hold it against them forever. If you didn’t tell them, then someone else would. The star student everyone tolerated but never liked was named Anna Young. When she and her friends weren’t hogging the rusted-out monkey bars at recess, they were hanging out at the end of the bookcase… at the end of the alphabet where all the brainiacs got their books.

Just like a filing system, you were only able to pick out books from the colored bin with your designated letter and nowhere else. One day during “silent reading,” I begrudgingly dragged myself over to the green bin with the letter “M” written on it with a sharpie. I glanced into it, dumping out multiple flimsy paperbacks of Magic Tree House Books and Junie B. Jones, wrinkling my nose at the plots I could recite from memory, the lack of page numbers and thickness embarrassingly simple. Just holding them would warrant a challenge from the other side.

From behind me, I could hear the mean girls tittering to themselves at the other end of the long bookcase.

‘Hey, Lena! Did you know I’m at letter X?! I can read Harry Potter!’ Anna bragged, adjusting her jean jacket.

My face fumed with envy as I clutched the pathetic Magic Tree House book in my hand, knowing I hadn’t really learned to read them but memorize what the words were supposed to be. I knew no one else in the class did this, especially Anna, and somehow she knew it.

‘I can pick whatever I want!’ she continued, greedily grabbing her thick paperbacks and scampered off with the others.

I grimaced and returned to my desk with my shameful books, trying to forget about the ranking system. But I couldn’t. Why did Anna get to read all of the fun books? There had to be something more than the world of M and I was curious to find out. Looking over and seeing Mrs. Hollins was occupied, I slipped out of my chair and wandered over to the end of the line, staring at the higher-level books labeled X, Y, and Z. Here it was. I had crossed the border into another existence… now what to do with it? My hand reached in, fingers slowly closing around what I already knew was a beautiful hardback, the crisp pages dense and substantial. Finally finding the courage, I took it out and opened it, the title reading: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the adventures of the out-of-place wizard Dad had read to me about every night. I cracked its spine, looking at the impossibly small delicate words I couldn’t comprehend, in awe that anyone could read something that looked this wonderful.

Suddenly I heard my name echo throughout the classroom, short and shrill.

‘Lena! Come away from the higher-level books please, go back to your seat.’ Mrs. Hollins scolded, catching me browsing over her newspaper. I sighed, closing my magical yet unreadable adventure and sleeked away, leaving the bin I probably would never reach into again, catching the eye of the mean girls, their desks littered with the books only I could merely marvel at.

Later that week, I lamented the fact I was stuck in letter M purgatory and unable to do anything about it. Still plotting, I cracked open the book Dinosaurs Before Dark for what seemed the millionth time, hoping to escape the classroom for at least a little while. Suddenly hearing quiet, I looked up from the book, realizing for the first time no one was around to accost me; the desks of the bullies were vacant, and no one was looking over my shoulder. Maybe I could just try to read what I saw instead of putting up a front. Scowling down at the book, I decided to just let my eyes go, watching all the ways my brain reversed the letters on the page like every time before. On the third or fourth go of re-reading the same sentence, I started noticing a pattern. Every reversal and switched letter was the exact same way on a similar word. Everything was flipped backwards… could I make it right?

That was it. p-l was actually l-p, and n-o was o-n just like it sounded spoken out loud.

If I decoded one reversed word by moving the position of the letters around in my mind to correct it like an anagram, I could change the entire word back. If I switched one word back, then I could get a whole sentence!

‘Hepl! A mnoster!’ said Annie.

‘Yeha usre, a eral mnoster in Fog Creek Pensnlyvnaia.’

‘Run Jack!’ said Annie. She arn up the orad

Oh borther.[iv]

Now with this idea in mind, I could see the words of the sentence flow by almost fully decoded,  With my strategy working, I patiently worked my way down the line, making my brain switch each letter right side up. Finally. I smiled to myself finally seeing Jack and Annie in a whole new light. I was actually reading the book just like everyone else. Settling into my newfound freedom, I proudly swept through the pages of Dinosaurs Before Dark like I was looking at the story for the first time.

A few months later after improving my new-found idea, on the last reading test of the year, I sat down rather confidently at Mrs. Hollins’s desk for the final time as she took out her reading test. The words she pointed to on the page I could decipher quickly, decoding the letters like an anagram in my mind in multiple combinations until I figured out the right one. Looking shocked, she took out another test from her stack, a higher level one than I had ever seen before.

‘Can you read this too?’ she asked.

I nodded and began reciting the sentences at adult rhythmic pace in a voice that hardly sounded like my own.

Finally, I had met my match, some five tests later, my mind unable to comprehend the lengthy letters and small text, I stopped.

‘Okay… Lena, I have your result.’ Mrs. Hollins said shaking her head in amazement.

‘It’s M again, isn’t it?’ I huffed, ready for the blow.

‘No… you’ve jumped up quite a bit! You are… at a third-grade reading level at S and T.’

I sat back up in the chair, shocked, staring at the letter.

‘I can pick whatever I want?’ I almost yelled.

She nodded, and I went over to the S and T bin section, a satisfyingly lengthy distance way from the letter M and grabbed a book with a girl in a purple striped shirt with long brown braids with white tennis shoes like my own, the title above her reading Where I’d Like to Be. I stood there and looked at the title, hoping to find out if she would find her place just like I had.

I was way too young to articulate what exactly happened on that seemingly normal school day, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have told anyone for fear my parents were going to haul me back to the white-walled doctor’s office to find out why. It took me years to figure out what I had done to decode letters, let alone jump over six levels in the reading test to a third-grade pace. But once I had, I took off, over the next few years reading diverse levels of books in the library and beyond, no longer believing I was as “dumb” or “stupid” with the English language like Ms. Brown had implied. Many other kids just like me struggled in silence with symptoms of undiagnosed learning disabilities never recognizing why they were different and treated differently in school. Now I understand none of what happened at Farallone View should have ever occurred in an academic setting, but it wasn’t all about the fact I couldn’t read, it was the social and emotional stigma that came with not being able to read well. To any kid in this situation, the highest priority is to be accepted among your peers and teachers. Reading gave me that, as well as the foundation and freedom of confidence in academia. I had no idea the ripple effects that would have on my success later. Despite being undiagnosed until a sophomore in college, I knew since I had dug myself out of that reading, I could handle anything after.


[i] “Dyslexia Screener for Adults.” International Dyslexia Association, 2 Sept. 2020, https://dyslexiaida.org/screening-for-dyslexia/dyslexia-screener-for-adults/.

[ii] Addenbrook, Stephanie. “Understanding the dyslexic drop-out: why students with learning disabilities graduate at a lower rate than their peers.”

iii “No Child Left Behind Act 2001.”

[iv] Osborne, Mary. Magic Tree Dinosaurs Before Dark 1. Random House, 1992.

Photo by Rob Hobson on Unsplash

Lena Neris Gemmer

Lena Neris Gemmer is originally from the quiet foggy town of Montara CA where her love of writing on her grandfather's Remington Rand typewriter began. Before deciding to pursue her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at University of New Hampshire, she received her BA in English and History from Allegheny College in Meadville PA. As a nonfiction writer she believes in connecting to her readers on a visceral human level by experimenting with structure, form and voice.