Emma Taylor doesn’t remember exactly when she drew the poster that defined her young life.
Definitely elementary school. Possibly third grade. By then the learning disability that has shaped each of her 25 years had already sent her to a neuropsychologist, an occupational therapist, a vision therapist, an educational therapist. By then, she’d been evaluated, diagnosed. She had finally learned to read.
The drawing shows a very little girl two-thirds of the way up a very big mountain. The sky is a blue scrawl. The sun, a small yellow dot. Outsize, uneven black letters dominate: “I am a person That never gives up. EMMa.” Today, the poster hangs in the classroom where she teaches seven little boys who have autism.
That grit helped Emma get to where she is today — finishing up her first year of teaching and preparing for graduate school at Loyola Marymount University.
So did exhaustive evaluations throughout her years in school, which helped discern how her brain worked so she could figure out how to learn. So did accommodations, including extended time, in classrooms and testing centers like the one where she took the ACT. So did the hundreds of thousands of dollars her parents spent on therapists and tutors and private schools.
Emma’s evaluations were detailed; her accommodations, valid and necessary. They stand in stark contrast to the illegal schemes employed by dozens of wealthy parents to guarantee their children entry to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, a scandal that became big news in March.
The money Emma’s parents invested to help her learn pales beside the millions of dollars William “Rick” Singer raked in through the college admissions scam, which will land him in prison, possibly along with a former assistant women’s soccer coach at USC, CEOs, a lawyer and many others. (On May 13, actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to her role in the scandal; she will be sentenced in September.)
The stories that have emerged in the college admissions scandal are a reminder of the ego and arrogance that are sometimes associated with wealth and privilege. Emma’s story is a reminder that an estimated 10% of the population has some kind of learning disability and could legitimately benefit from extra help.
Singer offered families a number of options — some legal, others not. But the one described in court documents as “the college entrance exam cheating scheme” relied on students — or their parents, acting without their knowledge — gaming a system that grants extra time for people like Emma to take the ACT and SAT. The first step was a psychological evaluation.
This was Singer’s advice to one parent who has since pleaded guilty: “I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested … to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is.”
Barbara Dalton-Taylor knew there was something different about her little girl as soon as Emma was able to turn over on the changing table. While her twin sister, Hannah, could roll with all the grace a baby can muster, Emma “got a little lost in space,” Dalton-Taylor said. “She’d be in mid-turn and freak out.”
The difference between her babies concerned the clinical psychologist. Emma was tested and diagnosed with a vestibular processing disorder, in which the inner ear and the brain have trouble organizing and processing sensory information. The ailment affects balance and eye movements.
Emma started occupational therapy, which sometimes was fun (lots of swinging and flying through the air) and other times was difficult (figuring out obstacle courses). She was not quite 3. By preschool, her fine motor skills were lagging. Then in first grade, she was evaluated by a clinical pediatric neuropsychologist.
When done correctly, the evaluation process is intensive, time consuming and costly. Janiece Turnbull, who evaluated Emma, charges $5,000 and does not accept insurance. She works with each child for eight hours over two days. She interviews the parents for an hour and a half. No matter the child’s age, she combs through every school record back to kindergarten. Giving parents verbal feedback takes another 2½ hours. Her written reports take up to 20 hours to write, the entire process, between 40 and 60 hours.
Turnbull diagnosed Emma with a learning disorder characterized by a deficit in processing visual-spatial information. The neuropsychologist would evaluate Emma three more times by high school graduation, including one final testing session before Emma took the ACT.
“Those were never fun days for me,” Emma said. “I hated that. They were long, and it didn’t feel fair as a kid that I had to do it, and my sister didn’t.… But when I got into college and I needed accommodations, those things came in handy.”
Throughout school — on the Westside of Los Angeles and later in the Valley — she struggled with analytical concepts. Numbers were difficult for her to understand, math and science daunting. Emma could not fathom “word problems, fractions, percentages, ratios, all of these basic things that are super easy for people, I just really, really struggled with.”
Her elementary school referred Emma to Linda Dunn, a board-certified educational therapist, who would go on to work with Emma twice a week for nearly a dozen years. The price tag was between $150 and $200 a week. Times 52 weeks a year, give or take a few. Times around 12 years.
“Emma was one of the most complex kids I ever worked with in terms of the constellation of issues she had,” Dunn said. But “her gift was her willingness to do the hard thing over and over and over and to stay with it as long as she could.”
Such qualities are in short supply in the hundreds of pages of court documents that outline the scam Singer hatched to provide a “side door” for wealthy parents who insisted their offspring attend top-tier universities such as Yale, UCLA, USC and Georgetown, regardless of their grades, test scores and talents.
Dunn met Emma at the beginning of second grade. The little girl was shy, with an “absolutely angelic face,” Dunn said. She loved stories and unicorns and fairies. She was good with words — until it came time to put them down on paper. And she struggled with reading throughout elementary school.
“We had to learn every letter, every sound, every stroke of each letter,” Dunn said. “She spent a lot of time under my desk when the going got rough. I would sometimes go under the desk with her to keep the lesson going…. There were times she would stand in the doorway and cry. I’d make her a cup of tea, and we’d talk.”
Emma would, however, work for pudding.
She would show up at Dunn’s house right after school. They’d chat. Emma would pick a flavor — tapioca, vanilla, chocolate. She’d snack. And then Dunn would fill the bottom of a baking dish with a layer of the sweet glop. And Emma would practice handwriting.
“She’d let me do cursive [in the dish] with my finger,” Emma said. “She’d tell me a letter and I’d practice and then I’d lick my finger and then she’d add a little more. … I’m still not very good at cursive, but it was fun.”
When Emma hit third grade, Dunn figured they should have The Talk. About how her brain worked and why school was so hard. About how they were helping her learn. About why she had to work so hard when other kids got to go out and play.
Dunn sat down on the floor and started the delicate conversation. Emma interrupted.
“She said, ‘Oh, Linda, I know all about learning disabilities,’” Dunn recounted. “‘And anyway, you’ve got the best name because your initials are LD.’”
Sixth grade was the worst year.
Emma began to have anxiety attacks. She became withdrawn and antisocial. She was nervous about being away from home, away from her parents, cut off from all that was safe and familiar. There was more schoolwork and it was harder.
Her parents had to bribe her to go to school.
This was the deal: If Emma would go to class every day for a predetermined number of weeks, she’d get an American Girl doll. By the end of sixth grade, she’d added two of the historical characters to her collection — Addy, a fugitive slave, and Elizabeth, whose family had loyalist leanings during the American Revolution.
Sixth grade was when Emma finally realized that her learning disability wasn’t going to go away, Dunn said. “She hit rock bottom. It was very scary.”
But it was followed by two years at Park Century School, then in West Los Angeles, which specializes in teaching what its website describes as “bright children with learning differences.” That’s where students researched their learning disabilities, Emma said, talked about their strengths and weaknesses, learned how to advocate for themselves.
“That was the biggest light spark for me and my education,” she said. “I went from like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m the stupidest person in my class. I can’t do anything,’ ... to like, ‘Hey, will you look at that.’”
But like all the other steps Emma’s parents took to help her learn, Park Century had a big price tag. Mark Taylor, a specialty food broker, figures the school cost $60,000 for a year’s tuition, “more than Harvard.”
“It was all I could do to make sure that Emma got into that school and thrived at that school,” he said. “That school basically gave her her life back.”
Then there were the therapists, the reading specialist and all of the tutors. Dalton-Taylor tallied up the costs of all the educational support Emma had in the 2011 calendar year: $27,536, not including private school tuition.
“I fear this makes us look wealthy, and let me assure you, we are not, though I do understand how privileged we are,” Dalton-Taylor said. “Educating our children was how we spent our money.”
Emma remembers her parents working six days a week through her school years. When Dalton-Taylor says, “No wonder I’m working till I’m 80,” it is unclear whether she is joking.
There were other costs too. Costs to their family life and to the twins’ relationship. Hannah Taylor breezed through school, graduated from Scripps College, is studying for the MCAT and plans to go to medical school.
Emma talks of spending her childhood comparing herself to her gifted sister with a deep well of pain and resentment. Her sister talks of a childhood in the family shadows, feeling ignored and lonely.
“The thing I used to ask my mom sometimes was, ‘Mommy, do you still love me?’” Hannah Taylor recounted. “I felt that [Emma] got all the attention all the time…. When I was younger, I didn’t understand what it meant.”
Rick Singer’s “services” included elaborate instructions for parents: Get your kids tested by a licensed psychologist who would diagnose learning disabilities, and seek extended time for ACT and SAT exams — at one of two sites he controlled.
Then he would bribe test administrators, according to court documents, to allow a third party “to take the exams in place of the actual students … or to review and correct the students’ answers after they completed the exams.”
Later, Singer acknowledged: “most of these kids don’t even have issues.”
When Emma took the ACT, she had extended time and a quieter setting. She does not remember her score, she said, but “I remember I did not do well. I remember that for a fact.” Her mother recalls Emma’s score as being “average.”
Emma applied to 17 colleges. She graduated from the University of Redlands in 2016 and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most exclusive honor society in the country. It was one of her family’s proudest moments.
After four tries, she passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test, the standardized exam to become a teacher. She was granted extended time. Her sister tutored her in math. The young women remain close.
She is upfront about her learning disability with her students, who range from second to fourth grade. She hopes that seeing her in front of the class will let them know that they, too, can succeed.
“One of my kids asked me to spell something,” Emma recounted. “And I said, ‘You have to give me a second to look it up.’ And then I got the whole, ‘Well aren’t you a teacher? Aren’t you supposed to know everything all the time?’”
So she told them. That when she was a kid, things were really, really hard for her. That she didn’t learn to read until third grade. That when she was their age she couldn’t do math. That she took a long time to do homework.
But just look at her now.