Essay of the Week: Swimming Through the Love for English vs. Dyslexia

By Danielle Quick-Holmes

The smell of chlorine signaled the excitement of a new challenge lastSpring when I entered the pool: lifeguard training. A knot grew in my stomach killing that thrill of anticipation with the trainer’s first words: “Once everyone gets here we’re going to start off with our 200, under a minute and forty. ”

I searched the bleachers for a friendly face, or a nervous one similarly intimidated by the trainer’s words.  To my surprise, everyone looked totally fine; almost a little bored. One kid was slumped down on the first bench, nodding in and out of slumber, while another girl was texting in the corner. I suddenly felt extremely unprepared.

I sat anxiously on the bench while the kid who was previously passed out in the front row, suddenly woke up and jumped in the pool–exceptionally fast and confident. Am I in a little over my head? I threw the question out of my mind as I heard the trainer’s whistle blow, and on cue, sliced into the pool just like I once dove past the obstacle of dyslexia to pursue my passion for English.

In seventh grade English, I am as lonely as I felt in the bleachers at that first session of lifeguard training. Though this time my loneliness actually comes from being prepared. No one in the class but me appears to have read the chapter of Things Fall Apart. Before class, I overhear the nervous clamor between peers:

“Who read the chapter?”

“I didn’t! Did you?”

I was spared the panic. I read and loved the chapter, especially the character development of Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye.

Class starts. Ms. Georges poses a question, precisely about Nwoye and waits for hands–any hand, to rise. I shift in my seat tucking my hands under my thighs. I know the answer, but fear raising my hand may encourage Ms. Georges to choose me to read a passage. Having to stop every few seconds to half-silently sound out a word, or ask the teacher how to pronounce something is terrifying.  

A much worse feeling than not knowing, is knowing the answer but being afraid or feeling unable to respond. It was one of the central challenges of my dyslexia.

I watched her eyes dart around the classroom – -just enough time for that all too familiar knot to rise in my stomach and my throat to tighten. After a beat, she called on Sue. I missed that bullet.

Reading aloud was always taxing, especially when I struggled to pronounce words that my peers would breeze through. But reading silently, though still difficult, proved to be worth the struggle. My hunger for the stories, the meanings and lessons behind them produced a tenacity to improve, helping me overcome this seeming disability. Whether it was my work with a learning specialist or reading aloud to myself on my bed with only Misty, my cat, as my audience, I eventually became a strong reader and English is now my favorite subject.

By eighth grade, I no longer felt held back by dyslexia. Words like ‘superfluous’ no longer read as if they were French. That year in English we read The Odyssey by Homer. Whenever the teacher asked for someone to read I often volunteered even when passages were covered in complex words. I no longer feared those tongue twisters.

My last day of lifeguard training was without fear. I had swam the 200 countless times, and I knew CPR as if my life depended on it. Everyone got in the pool for the last time waiting for the trainer’s signal. The water was freezing and I could feel my heartbeat making waves in the pool, but I was ready.  He blew the whistle and I went to work. When it was all over and I got out of the pool. The trainer broke the few seconds of silence:

“Congratulations, you are now a certified lifeguard!”

Danielle Quick-Holmes, a graduate of the Grace Church School, is a freshman at Vassar

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