When I was 4, my family lived in a neighborhood overrun by kids. And every evening at 5 o’clock, the ice cream truck would cruise down our street.
My mother had a strict rule, though: I couldn’t get ice cream unless I wore my shoes, and I could never find my shoes. They, along with my toys, were always missing.
So one evening, I organized all the kids in the neighborhood—as well as the driver of the ice cream truck—to help me find my shoes. I made sure I got my ice cream.
Since then, getting people to work for a cause has never been difficult for me. That’s a good thing, because I needed a lot of help to get me through what came next.
My learning differences began to appear when I started school. I couldn’t tell time. I couldn’t tell left from right. Most important of all, I couldn’t read.
I saw other children learn all these skills rather easily and I couldn’t understand why I was having so many problems. I was an outgoing and curious little girl. I could talk circles around other kids and even adults. Why was I struggling?
Needless to say, my parents were also confused and frustrated. No one could tell them why this was happening. (To this day, I’ve never been formally diagnosed with learning differences, though it’s clear to me now that I have and .)
My parents may not have understood why I struggled, but they never gave up on me. I still remember my father, an artist and engineer, helping me create a hands-on project about Egypt when I couldn’t do a book report. My mother, a teacher, read everything aloud to me. She helped me discover that I had the ability to remember almost all of what I heard spoken aloud.
By the fifth grade, I had learned to read by sight. But I still had trouble with writing. My sentences were endless, my ideas confused, my grammar incorrect and my penmanship illegible. Throughout school I needed help with every writing assignment.
Thankfully, I wasn’t shy. I asked teachers, adults, even my classmates for help when I needed it. I knew instinctively to surround myself with the smartest kids in the class. I learned to reach out to others, and I kept working as hard as I could.
Despite the lowest SATs in my high school graduating class, I was accepted into a competitive college.
I ended up studying to be a teacher and went to graduate school. And in 1973, I started as a student teacher at the Churchill School in New York City. Churchill had been founded just a year earlier as a school for students with language-based .
I stayed at Churchill for 35 years, rising to be Head of School, a position I held for two decades. Churchill started as 40 grade-schoolers in a tiny building. But it grew to be over 400 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in an 80,000-plus square-foot school.
How did we do it? We were able to get people to believe in us. And Churchill became one of the leading schools for kids with learning differences.
Through my work at Churchill, I fully realized my strengths—organizing and mobilizing people, rallying them around a cause.
I’m a people person. I can lead a team. I’m good at creating consensus. I know how to bring out the best in people and help them find their passions. I can also see the big picture—the place we want to get to. And I’m a doer. I can help us reach our goals.
The truth is I’ll never be able to read or write in the smooth, effortless way that others do. But, to me, the abilities I do have are just as valuable.
When I was 4, my people skills got me that ice cream I craved. And when I became an adult, those same skills led me to a career, to my life’s work and to who I am today.
Thinking about how you can help your child can find her way? Learn how you can identify and nurture your child’s strengths.
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About the author
About the author
Kristy Baxter, MA taught at the Churchill School, an independent school in New York City for children with learning disabilities.