When Words Were Mountains is a work of fiction, but its origins are rooted in my childhood experiences decades before the field of learning disabilities existed. A subjective sense that I was different in a way that wasn’t good seeped into my mind during kindergarten. My teacher would push a table over to the side of the room, where she’d then work with me and a boy who frequently misbehaved. The other children painted at easels, made towers of blocks, and played in the doll corner—where I wanted to be.
At the end of the year, the kindergarten teacher insisted I wasn’t ready to learn to read and argued against promoting me to first grade. My mother refused to hold me back. Instead, she promised to help me improve in the areas that concerned the kindergarten teacher. In first grade, learning to read turned out to be easy for me—just as my mother had predicted—and, as the kindergarten teacher forecast, I lagged behind my classmates in other areas. Progressing through the elementary grades, I excelled in certain subjects, able to soar above my classmates. In other subjects, no matter how hard I tried, I floundered while my classmates moved forward.
A special spring conference day for those of us about to graduate from eighth grade remains vivid in my memory. My mother and I sat opposite a counselor from the high school. She pushed a graph across the table and ran her finger along a horizontal line that bisected the paper. The line, she said, represented average scores on the aptitude and achievement tests we’d taken. Most students’ scores, she said, fit in a range marked by the lines parallel to the center line, one above and the other below it. None of my scores fell between the two lines. They either formed peaks above the upper line or valleys beneath the lower one. This pattern of scores was unusual, the counselor told my mother. I sat there stunned, staring at a graph that depicted my inner reality.
In college, an educational psychology class awakened an interest in how children learn, and, more importantly, how to help those who aren’t learning like their classmates. I transferred from Knox College to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, which housed the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children. After graduation, I taught children with a variety of learning difficulties in school districts that participated in the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education.
A few years later, I enrolled in the Learning Disabilities program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In addition to coursework, graduate students participate in diagnostic clinics, diagnostic teaching, and remediation. Grateful for all I had learned—and for my master’s degree—I obtained a job as a strategist in a diagnostic classroom at the Midwest Educational Research Center in Iowa City, Iowa.
Returning home to the Chicago area, my alma mater became my employer. I had the good fortune to work with graduate students in the Learning Disabilities Clinics at Northwestern until my husband began his military service at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The psychologist in charge of the Child Diagnostic Clinic at Ireland Army Hospital taught me to administer tests I hadn’t encountered at Northwestern. I evaluated children and wrote diagnostic reports describing their performance on these tests and others, which my mentor, the psychologist, discussed with the children’s parents.
Two years later, we moved from Fort Knox to a suburb north of Chicago. I opened a private practice that grew as colleagues at Northwestern University and at Evanston Hospital referred children. Soon, the parents and classroom teachers of my students began making referrals as well.
By the time our younger son was two years old, I realized that he had large discrepancies between his strengths and his weaknesses. A colleague, Jane W. Blalock, Ph.D., who headed the Preschool Diagnostic Clinic at Northwestern, evaluated him. The learning disability teacher at our public school provided one-to-one remediation from early in my son’s kindergarten year until the end of fourth grade.
The sum of my experiences as a confused child, a learning disabilities clinician, and the mother of a child with learning disabilities proved to be fertile soil for the growth of this novel.