Photo by David Sorensen

by Emily McNally

I was a teacher before I was a mother, and it comes in handy all the time. Maybe it’s because of my background in education, because I’ve nurtured so many children over time with reasonable boundaries and solid care, that when I meet the savage mother in me it’s still a surprise.

My daughter, Eva, is a cheerful, empathetic seven-year-old with a quick sense of humor, a love of nature, and learning differences we’re only beginning to understand. One day she came home in tears because a couple of older girls had been a little cruel when she couldn’t read the note they were passing around. I’m calm with Eva. I hold her close. I ask her what she did when she was hurt, what she’ll try tomorrow. I tell her I’ll talk to the teacher. She thanks me for being understanding, and I’m glad I’ve been so deceptively low-key.

It’s true, of course, the things I say to her during this conversation. Working with difficult people, managing the confusing behavior of friends and acquaintances, is always a challenge, even for adults. But I don’t tell her about the way my heart has hardened against those girls, how I imagine how their souls swirl like Munch paintings in a vortex of darkness.

Every day before school, she comes into my room with a new complaint. A headache. A stomachache. A scratchy throat. I don’t think she’s lying or making excuses to get out of school. I think dread hurts. I think fear sits painfully in the body. I wish I could infuse her delicate body with my belief in her. I wish she could see herself through my eyes.

My daughter is probably dyslexic. I recognize the signs from the students I’ve had in my past years of teaching that have struggled. I’ve often thought back to how I laid out the facts for the anxious parents across from me when I was the teacher. I always led with my heart. I reminded them of their child’s gifts as well as their struggles. I was confused by parents who resisted, who didn’t want more specific information, who worried about their child being labeled.

Now I feel myself hovering between two minds. The one that knows from years of experience that if a diagnosis is the end of the world to the parent, that’s when the child is in danger. The problem isn’t the information. Interpretation is everything. But there is this other mind, this alternate reality where I steal her away from this world that ranks and categorizes, that reduces her unique complexities and abilities to bar graphs and tests and standards. In that world, I let her rot pumpkins in the backyard and take note of the outcome; we bake bread and eat it when it’s hot; we watch the weather and learn the language of clouds, fog, and sea.

When I tell Eva that I’ve hired her a tutor for reading, when I explain that we’re realizing reading is hard for her and it has to do with the wiring in her brain, not her intelligence or capabilities, she doesn’t just cry, she rails. “I don’t want extra help! It makes me feel so, so stupid!” It’s so unusual for her to yell at me that for a moment neither of us knows what to do.

I talk about her sister’s occasional but worrying bursts of rage, and the way we watch her subtle intelligence, her profound care for the people around her, temporarily vanish in the storm. I tell her about my own history with OCD. I’m honest with her about the way we all have painful struggles that have no clear ending. Sometimes there are battles we have to pitch ourselves into again and again.

But her dread is evident when I pick her up early from school to take her to tutoring for the first time. Her slender body slumps, a weight of defeat sinking her narrow shoulders. She’s already weary from the day and now she has to perform again.

“Do you think I’ll ever learn to read?” Eva asks as we get out of the car at the new tutor’s house. She doesn’t look at me. I get down on the ground and put my face under hers so we are askew, but eye to eye. She laughs at my weird awkward position.

“You are a gift to the world. You will learn everything you need to learn. I’m not scared at all. I have no doubt that you will be who and what you want to be.”

Worry still knits her brow. “Even going to sea to learn how to talk to the dolphins?” she asks.

“Yes! Definitely, yes!” I answer quickly. Maybe too quickly.

“Okay,” she says, her body relaxing into mine, “Okay, then.”

I hope I can protect her subtle and creative mind with chemistry sets and boxes of poetry books as we enter the world of evaluation and remediation. I hope I can calibrate my wild, primitive love and my practical experience in a way that guides her back to her love of learning. I hope she can ride on my faith in her until her own returns.