In the final weeks of summer, my oldest daughter mentioned she was dreading the start of school. I thought it was odd, but I chalked it up to nerves, reassured her, and continued on as normal. She loves school and she spent the majority of summer fighting over the coveted role of teacher when playing school with her sisters. But then it came up again, and again, and the week before her first day back, she broke down sobbing uncontrollably.
I didn’t anticipate her fear at all. Not only does my daughter love school, she’s at the most amazing school. She has excellent and nurturing teachers who know her well and want her to succeed. She’s surrounded by friends who include and love her, and their families do the same. She proudly told approximately 4,712 people how excited she is about the new smart lab opening this year at school and all the new programs she can participate in as a second grader. She seemed thrilled for life as a second grader.
But I underestimated dyslexia. No, in reality, I underestimated how much dyslexia had chipped away at my child’s self confidence.
Like a toddler, she climbed into my lap. I held her close and asked, “Why are you afraid to go back to school?”
“Mom, I can’t read. What if my teacher thinks I’m not smart?”
“Your teacher already knows you and she just told you last week how excited she is that you’re in her class. She’s already told you she understands dyslexia and is going to help you succeed this year.”
She sniffled and nodded, “But what if my friends think I’m dumb?”
“They’ve known for a while that your brain works differently and they love you exactly the same.”
“But…what if I never learn how to read?” she choked out her question through tears, finally hitting on her real fear.
Up until this point in the conversation, I could remind her of the truth, but this fear entered new territory. I can’t reassure her that she’ll read the way she wants to, this year or any year. The truth is, we don’t know if she’ll ever read like the other students in her class. I can’t reassure her that everything will be just the way she hopes, but I can reassure her of deeper truths that will never change.
Over a decade ago, I also struggled with fear, and a thoughtful friend pushed me to ask “what if?” until I arrived at my worst possible conclusion. It’s deceivingly simple, but it’s also a really effective way to realize what you will still have even if the worst possible scenario plays out. At the time it helped me realize that even if my fears came true, I still had hope and a future.
“Well, let’s talk about that. What if you don’t learn how to read this year?”
Her eyes welled up, “Well, then I might not be able to go to third grade.”
“Okay, let’s say that happens. What if you don’t move on to third grade?”
“I’ll be so embarrassed and feel like a failure.”
“What if you feel like a failure?”
She started to speak and then stopped. She thought some more before saying, “I’ll just be so sad, Mom.”
I held her closer and delivered the real truth she needed to hear, “Baby, even if you never learn how to read fluently, even if you have to repeat second grade, even if you feel like a failure, no matter how many ‘what ifs’ you come up with, Mommy and Daddy will never stop loving you and helping you, and, even more than that, you will always be God’s child. There’s no ‘what if’ that’s too far gone.”
She’s about a month into second grade and she’s loving every day. I thought she would, but I couldn’t promise it. What I can promise, and will continue to promise, is a hopeful truth so much more important and long lasting; she is loved and valued regardless of her circumstances and achievements.