A Senator's Wife Struggles with a Learning Disability

updated 06/20/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 01:00AM

Ann Bradford Mathias, 54, is the wife of Charles Mc C. Mathias, the senior U.S. Senator from Maryland, and daughter of the late Robert Fiske Bradford, onetime Governor of Massachusetts. She is also one of the estimated 25 million Americans who suffer from a learning disability, a catchall term that is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as "a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language." The most commonly known form is dyslexia, although only 2 percent of the learning disabled are pure dyslexics.

Like most Americans with learning disorders, Ann Mathias does not fit neatly into any one category. Rather, because of what has been diagnosed as a lag in the overall development of her nervous system, she is afflicted with sensory overload, unable to sort out one idea from the next As a result, she experiences problems in reading, writing, memorization and public speaking. She is also deficient in spatial coordination, and as a child was unable to make her way home from a friend's house. It is only in the last 20 years that medics and educators have begun to recognize learning disabilities, and even today children with disorders like Mathias' are erroneously labeled as lazy, stubborn or even retarded.

Mathias is a direct descendant of William Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower and served as Governor of the Plymouth Colony for 31 years. She believes the roots of her problem may extend that far back, since current research indicates that heredity is a predominant cause of learning disabilities. The youngest of her own two sons has the disorder. Currently chairman of the board of the Lab School of Washington, D.C., an institution that has done pioneering work teaching children with learning disabilities, Mathias told PEOPLE'S Garry Clifford about the pain and frustration of growing up learning disabled.

From the time I was very small, I can remember feeling that I was different. No one ever talked about it; it was just something I sensed. I was an underachiever in every subject. There was confusion within my brain, and I could not pull things out of it when I felt that I needed to.

At 5, like my older sister and younger brothers, I went off to a progressive private school in Cambridge, Mass. I was an academic disaster. Reading, writing and spelling were a problem from the very first. No matter how hard I tried to memorize spelling, I couldn't. As the material, particularly the math, became more complicated, I wasn't able to do it. We had a real math wizard teaching us in the fourth grade, and she would call out numbers for us to multiply. I would sit there cringing because I couldn't remember sequentially much more than the first two steps in any exercise. In front of my peers, I would always come up with the wrong answer or nothing. I couldn't compete.

As the work grew tougher, it only got worse. I became a habitually slow reader; trying to speed up only lessened my comprehension. I was good on the sports field and socially, and since I seemed to be growing in the area of leadership, I was allowed to pass into higher grades even though I wasn't going anywhere academically. I was getting C-minuses and D's no matter how hard I was trying. How I craved to go home to my parents with some good grades! There was never a discussion in my household about marks. There was sort of a vacuum, and that made me all the more uncomfortable. There were always conferences between my parents and the teachers, but I didn't know what they were about and would never be told.

Eighth grade was a real washout. In English we began to memorize the poems of John Masefield and other poets. I would work all evening and go to sleep memorizing, only to wake up in the morning and not be able to recall one line. None of the teachers believed me. I was accused again and again of not doing my homework. It was terribly painful. I felt the only thing I had going for me was my integrity, and to have it questioned struck at my very innards.

In the end I even traded that for a good mark. That same year we began French and Latin. I was having trouble reading my native tongue, much less a foreign one. One day during a Latin test I panicked. Sitting in front of me was the smartest boy in the class, and because he was left-handed his paper was always available for me to see. I desperately needed something to indicate to myself, and more importantly to my parents, that I could be okay, so I copied his paper. At the end of the week I got the test back with "terrific" written in Latin. I took it home and put it on my father's bureau, where it sat like a monument for the rest of the year. Every time I looked at it I felt uncomfortable for having done something so totally dishonest.

Later, when it came time to start thinking about college, I stunned my teachers by telling them I was applying to Vassar. By then I had learned how to organize my thoughts better and then get them down on paper. I still had to work four times harder than my peers, but I felt that if I didn't try I would always wonder if I could have made it. One of my former teachers, who had begun doing some work on identifying what are now called learning disabilities, had been following my progress over the years. She was on the Vassar board of trustees and was a personal friend of the dean of admissions and offered to take me for a private interview, where she was able to tell the dean something about my problems. Her interceding on my behalf got me in. The dean of admissions was very direct and told me I didn't have the necessary skills but that there was a steady progress in my learning. On the famous day when everybody heard whether they had been accepted at the colleges where they'd applied, I got a communication from Vassar that I was on a waiting list. Eight weeks later I got a call saying that I had been accepted as a Vassar "risk." For a long time afterward, whenever the phone would ring in my room at Vassar, I was sure it was some official telling me, "Bye-bye, Baby."

In my sophomore year I had a marvelous English teacher named Mrs. Bergeret. I credit her with the fact that I graduated. She gave me extra time for my papers and advised me to use pencil since it was easier to erase. She sat me down and said, "You know, there is nothing the matter with you. You are an extremely articulate and interesting person." I was astonished. I needed that kind of encouragement. I also needed to learn that there was a way to do things that addressed my needs as opposed to the norm. Although she didn't know about my learning disabilities per se, Mrs. Bergeret taught me that, in order to learn and retain facts, I first had to read, then write down everything I'd read, then speak it. It was simple reinforcement, but for me it worked. By the time I graduated from college, I was making B's and some A's.

My first job after college was with the CIA in Washington, D.C. I was placed in an area where I was performing very well, so well that I soon found myself having to do briefings. The fear of public utterance will always haunt me, but the CIA insisted. So they sent me to an elementary speaking course, where I bombed and was invited by the teacher not to come back.

During that time I met Mac, who had just decided to run for the Maryland legislature. Over the years I've campaigned for Mac, but it has always been on a one-to-one basis. I park my car and walk 15 miles a day, knocking on doors. That's been embarrassing too. Because of my confusion with directions, I've lost my car quite a few times.

One of my father's cousins is Dr. Edwin Cole, an expert in developmental dyslexia and founder of the language training program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has traced a pattern of learning disorders in our family that goes back almost to William Bradford. When my own boys came, I was watching for it. There were few problems with our older boy, Charlie, but with our younger son, Rob, I have relived my own pain. He couldn't write, for instance. He had a real processing problem—a problem getting his thought from his brain through his muscles onto paper. I would have him dictate his creative stories to me and he would then illustrate them. That way he felt he could communicate. As he grew older he became an excellent skier and sailor, and though these sports were an additional expense we let him pursue them because they were great for his self-esteem. Rob is now 22 and a senior at the University of Vermont, and director of operations at the university rescue squad where he takes every message down on the typewriter rather than trusting his handwriting.

A year ago I became involved with the experimental Lab School of Washington. It was founded by educator Sally Smith and teaches learning-disabled children of ages 6 to 16 academic skills through the arts such as music and dance. Each child has his own so-called "prescription" that tells how he learns best. If, for example, he can't read, he can perhaps learn through hearing. The arts offer the children opportunities to strengthen their visual, auditory, tactile and motor skills.

It is a great relief to find out that there are neurological reasons for my disability. Organization is still a problem, though. Even now, when I get nervous, I have trouble pulling out my words. If I am handling my problems in any way today, it is by getting up and talking about them. It is terribly important that the public know such a syndrome exists. I wish they had known about it when I was growing up.

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