Miss Sierra Nevada’s Secret

Hello again!

Today I am here to talk to you about a subject, a point in my life that I don’t often like to bring up. In fact, it is something that, until today, only VERY FEW people know about me. Why did I choose it? Because, (1) in retrospect, I have learned so much from it and (2) perhaps something I say here can prevent you, or one of your friends or family members from experiencing something similar. So, let’s cut to the chase…

I got kicked out of law school. Yes, you read that correctly, I, Carley Marie Ryckman, got kicked out of law school. It is safe to say that August 7, 2014 was one of the darkest days of my young life.

How? What did I do? Why am I sharing this? Let’s rewind… like really far.

FullSizeRender            When I was two years old, I walked into the door of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute where I was diagnosed with Brown’s Syndrome and Strabismus. What that means is that my eyes were crossed, and then rotated outward. I left with huge thick glasses and an eyepatch that I wore to preschool that would cover my good eye to force the bad one to see(my parents brought extra for my class so that they would understand that I was just like everyone else, my patch was just a…cool accessory?). I was the UCLA Optometry students’ little doll. Each time I came, grad students would line up just to shine lights in my eyes and get a real life look at my conditions, because they were things they probably wouldn’t see again.

When I was 7, I had a surgery where the doctors cut a muscle in my eye with the hopes that they would align. They didn’t actually know for sure if it would work. Spoiler alert, it worked. Pretty soon I didn’t need the patches, and then I graduated to contacts in third grade, by age thirteen I just stopped wearing my glasses. What my parents initially thought was an act of teenage rebellion was really my eyes correcting themselves and I abandoned corrective devices altogether for the freedom of 20/20 vision.

Growing up, I was always the quiet girl in the class. The one that turned everything in on time even if it killed her. I spent hours on all of my take home assignments to make sure they were absolutely perfect—a perfectionist. I was that kid that everyone wanted to do class projects with, not because I was popular but because, if I had anything to do with it, we would get a good grade. I just cared too much. I was definitely labeled a “smart person” and I kind of hated that. What no on ever realized is how long things took me to complete. I liked to read and write papers. I didn’t do well on tests. I never did. No matter how hard I studied, I’d usually get a C, a C+ if I was lucky and maybe a C- if the test was super hard. I “just wasn’t a good test taker”. That’s what I told myself and that’s what my parents assumed. I made it through school on my A papers, my perfect projects, all of the extra credit I could get my hands on, and my sheer work ethic. I had “okay” grades, I was the quiet girl who knew the answer when she was called on and always did the reading. Above average, I guess. There were never any “red flags” to suggest I wasn’t a perfectly okay student.

I was accepted to the University of California Santa Barbara for college. I was going to be a communications major. I soon realized that the grades in those classes were based on tests and I “just wasn’t a good test taker”. I worked my butt off in communications but there wasn’t a lot of room to compensate for lousy test scores. So, since I loved to read and write anyways, I became an English Major. Because of the aforementioned work ethic and my love for literature and writing, I basically…rocked it. There were usually no tests and just a few papers and I loved papers. I picked up a double minor in professional editing and education because I could write even more and make presentations. And what better minor for a perfectionist than “Professional Editing”.

About half way through college I decided on law school. And, obviously, to get into law school, you have to take the LSAT, a test. Being the person that I am, I spent a year and a half studying for the thing. In the months leading up to the test, I took full-length practice exams, in testing conditions, around THREE TIMES A DAY.

I got into a “pretty good” law school (the one that kicked me out). I was incredibly proud. And even though law school is based almost entirely on test scores, I was going to be the best I could be because I wanted to be a lawyer. Like most law students, I spent all of my time studying, outlining, doing practice exams…I was literally chained to my desk. I didn’t do anything else. I stopped working out. I ate with my books. Wherever I went I had a book with me. And I didn’t really go very many places…except for the extra “success programs” they had during lunch. After my first semester, with all C’s, I had to meet with a counselor because my grades had fallen below good academic standing. Very frustrating for a perfectionist.

That meeting was probably one of the weirdest moments of my life. She asked all about what was going on in my life and why I wasn’t applying myself. Basically to explain why I fell below. I didn’t have answers for her. Nothing was wrong. Then this lady had the nerve (or that’s how I felt that day) to tell me that I probably had learning disabilities. I don’t think I really “believed” in learning disabilities back then. I’d always been a hard-nosed, no excuses kind of girl and I think, deep inside, I saw learning disabilities as an excuse people made up for laziness. I think I spent the next week crying. I’m not entirely sure why. I think I felt like someone was telling me that I was incapable of this big dream of mine. And nobody tells Carley Marie Ryckman that she is incapable.

For the entirety of my second semester, I spent every Friday afternoon (after a full week of law school) at the academic psychologist’s office. I stacked blocks, I read ink blots, I memorized pictures, I listened to strange recordings and repeated them back, I took math tests, eye exams, I explained my academic history and the way I pack a suitcase and why I pack it that way…

At age 23 and a half, I found out that I have learning disabilities, a whole slew of them. I have had them my entire life. By the time my testing was done, it was about a week before my spring semester exams. Therefore, there was no time for me to change my learning and I had to take the exams as usual. I did better. But I was still .02 below good academic standing and therefore “academically disqualified”. With the help of my doctor, my favorite professor, and a couple of attorneys, I petitioned for readmission. On August 7, 2014, the school declined to let me return for my second year of law school.

Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending…I am still going to be an attorney…Once I picked myself up off of the floor, I found a school that listened to my story and let me transfer, as a second year law student. It is very different than the first school, but it is still a law school and I am still on my path to the final goal. And that is something to celebrate.

I don’t tell you this story to “vent” or to make you, whoever you are, feel sorry for me. I tell you this story because it can help you or someone you know.

By definition, people with learning disabilites are of average or above average IQ and have a significant discrepancy between their ability and achievement: people with learning disabilites process information differently. I cannot tell you how many times, since August, I have been called “slower” to my face. This is a direct result of society being under educated about learning disabilities. I’ve also been asked: “so what do you have?” or “what medication are you on?”. Learning disabilities are both real and permanent. I (and many other people with LD) don’t take medications for them. I don’t NEED medications for them. I learn DIFFERENTLY. I don’t learn incorrectly or more slowly. My mind works differently than the way schools are structured to teach, and because of that, it takes me longer to process information in the standard way. Also, not all learning disabilities have specific names: I am not dyslexic or dysgraphic, I don’t have Asperger’s or Autism, I don’t have ADD or ADHD. I can explain how my disabilities work (or don’t) to you but mine, and many others, don’t have a specific title. It doesn’t make them less real.

So what do my disabilities consist of? Remember my glasses and my eye patch? That is where they begin. I have “tracking and visual processing issues”. Sometimes when I read, especially when I read under a time constraint or when I have been reading for long periods of time, my eyes start on one line and finish on the next. Making the information that came into my mind from the page I read, extremely jumbled. I’ve been doing this for so long that sometimes, when things don’t make sense, my brain makes them make sense by adding words that aren’t there (but that might make sense if they were there). Which means that if I’m reading quickly, my mind could be making up incorrect facts and inserting them into what I’m reading all of the time.

I’m sure this all sounds very scrambled. It is. And because it is very scrambled, my thoughts can often be scrambled. Which is why I take my time and am, admittedly, a bit of a perfectionist. Because the information in my head can be out of order, my life outside of my head is very structured. I list and calendar and outline and organize and plan. I have become incredibly good at creating order outside of my head. In an educational setting, order is very important to me.

I also sometimes have this fear that I’m going to miss getting all of the notes. So sometimes, I will focus all of my attention on speed writing and completely miss paying attention in class.

What is being done to help my disabilities? As you might imagine, in order for me to make sure I have read something correctly, it can take a couple of read throughs. In a normal test taking environment, not so possible. So, to make sure I track things correctly and efficiently, when I take tests, they are written in 18 point font and double spaced. Additionally, I get a bit of extra time. I also tape record many of my classes so that I can focus on the lecture and not the notes because, if I miss something, I can listen to it again later. Just these things have made a world of difference.

What I have learned? Admittedly, at first I was a bit humiliated. Why can’t I learn like a NORMAL PERSON? There’s really no such thing. I have learned to be incredibly flexible and patient. Which are two traits I did not necessarily possess before finding this out. I’ve learned that there’s more than one right way to do almost anything. I have learned that it’s okay to ask for help.
Why did I share? Because maybe you, or someone you know, is struggling in school. Maybe they’re working hard but they “aren’t a good test taker” or they can’t keep up. Everybody can learn. Just not on the same day and not in the same way. Just because something is difficult, there is no reason to give up. There’s no such thing as a “bad test taker”. If you know a “bad test taker”, their test taking conditions aren’t correct for them. Whoever you are, if you know anyone who kind of sounds like me or who is struggling at school in their own way, give your local educational psychologist a call, it will change their world.

Thank you for reading my story today! I hope it helps you to realize that we all face our own hurdles but that our hurdles don’t make us any less capable of the ultimate goal. Sometimes there’s just a different road to it.