Every Child Deserves a Miss Honey

As a child one of my favorite books was Roald Dahl’s Matilda.  Having dyscalculia, I related to how Matilda was often misunderstood and looked at as “odd” by her family and classmates.  Like Matilda my mind would also wander, I imagined myself on grand adventures, solving problems, being a hero to my friends and defending myself against class bullies. 

In second grade I took my first standardized test. I remember flying through the reading comprehension and writing sections on the first day but once we got to the math portion on the second day, I hit a wall, I was not able to complete the test past the second page.  When we got the results, the discrepancy between reading/comprehension and math reasoning was so large that they made me retake the test three times, and three times I produced the same result.  Not knowing what to do with me, I was placed in the back of the class – with reading material and given worksheets for math so that I could “follow along with the class at my own pace.” Without remediation for math the worksheets made no sense, but I quickly learned that my teachers (grades 2-4) would not bother me if I read quietly.  I didn’t want to do math and when anyone – teacher or my mom – tried to force me to do math problems, I would become angry and resistive. This behavior garnered me the reputation of being oppositional and lazy.

It was not until the 5th grade that I met my Miss Honey.  As accidental luck would have it the fifth-grade class for Indianapolis School #43 was exceptionally small, so small in fact that the school decided to combine 4/5th and 5/6th grade classes.  For a child with undiagnosed dyscalculia this could have been the beginning of the end (children with learning disabilities are three times more likely to drop out of school than those without learning disabilities).  Luckily for me I had a teacher who, for the first time in my elementary school years, saw me.  Mrs. S  noticed that, although I did not and could not perform basic math tasks such as simple addition, fractions, and telling time, I WAS reading books of all varieties, science, non-fictions, history, and lots of them.  In the two years between testing and entering 5th grade my reading and comprehension skills had only increased. It was not uncommon for me to raid my mother’s bookshelf and I frequently asked her to check adult books from the library so that I could read.  Like Matilda’s Miss Honey, my 5th grade teacher began talking to me during break times, we often had lunch together where we would talk, I also stayed after to school with her where she would tutor me – quietly and painfully in math. When she noticed that I could complete some math tasks if I used my fingers to count (which was forbidden for 5th graders) she devised a “safe” way for me to count using my fingers and the shapes of the numbers.  (Safe in that the math teacher would not see me counting with my fingers and give me an “F”.) She gave me extra time for test and arranged for me to take my standardized test in the library un-timed instead of with my classmates.  When the school wanted to move me to a separate behavioral school because I was falling behind and acting out, Mrs. S called my mother and helped her to complete the appropriate steps so that I could attend RTI (Response to Intervention) classes twice a week for math but remain at my home school. This was 1982 a full 8 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect, so there was no 504 or IEP, there were no guidelines for teaching and accommodating children with learning disabilities. To this day I have no idea how they managed, but Mrs. S– with the help of my mother – managed to come up with a set of accommodations that would see me through middle school, high school and college. Like Miss Honey from Matilida, my Miss Honey became my biggest champion at school, my best interpreter, and my most important guide.  She helped me understand my disability and then helped me find ways to incorporate that knowledge so that I could better navigate through school and through life. It helped me navigate through graduate school, to a Ph.D. and to my current job as a professor. Every child deserves a Miss Honey and we at Mothers on the Frontline would like to give a heartfelt “thank you” to all the Miss Honey’s working to improve the experience of our children at school.

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