What were you like as a little kid? What kinds of things did you like to do?
As a little kid I loved so many things. I loved stories, listening to picture books and imagining the stories in my head. I loved making up my own games to play with friends around the yard. I loved being creative, playing with blocks, and building miniature houses out of popsicle sticks with my dad. I loved Legos with a passion. I had almost every Lego set my parents would allow; I could envision the whole building before I made it and I would sit for hours working on making the Legos come to life. I read the instructions with ease because the pictures in the instructions made the build effortless. When I was younger, I loved playing with dolls and dreaming up storylines. I could entertain myself for hours.
What do you remember about books and stories when you were a little kid? Did you like being read to, did you like playacting?
When I was younger, I loved stories. I remember sitting with my mom on the couch reading picture books for hours, imagining the characters coming to life. Even though I did not yet know how to read the words on the pages, the pictures told the whole story.
What was school like the first few years – kindergarten through fourth grade before you went to The Windward School?
In my early years of school, I struggled a lot. Even as a kindergartner, I recognized that I was behind my peers in reading. I vividly remember first being introduced to reading books in kindergarten and not knowing what I was supposed to do with the words on the pages. Everyone else seemed to know innately what to do. I remember thinking to myself, how do they know how to read that? So, for a while I memorized every Elephant and Piggie book I owned. This strategy didn’t work for very long. Once I was in first grade, my school had a reading system, “A through Z,” A-level books being the easiest and Z being the hardest. While many of my friends were reading F or G books, I was reading B and C books. This was one of the worst feelings ever because I couldn’t hide that I was struggling. Everyone knew that I was behind in reading. On top of that, we had paper slots for unfinished work. My peers had one, maybe two pages in their slots while mine was invariably almost full. The work was challenging for me because I could not understand the simple assignments. A lot of the time, I felt like giving up. As a first grader, I remember feeling called out and embarrassed. I felt less smart than my classmates and overall defeated.
In third grade, my struggles were finally recognized and I was placed in the special reading and math classes. Although these extra classes were supposed to improve my reading skills, I still didn’t improve; instead, being pulled out of class pushed me further behind and made me feel worse about myself.
Before you went to Windward, what did you like best about school?
Before Windward, my favorite part of school was art and being with my friends. My friends definitely helped me through some hard times. And art was an escape because it didn’t require reading or complex instructions. Art is just about being creative in whatever ways move you. Art was the way I excelled outside the academic classroom. It was something I was good at, and I loved it. I may not have been the best artist in the art room, but that didn’t matter. Working in the art room and being able to be creative helped me let go of a lot of the stress I felt. Still today, if I feel stressed or anxious about school or other things, I often paint or tinker with something to help calm my mind.
What were the hardest/worst parts about school?
The hardest part about school was feeling misunderstood. I knew I was smart but I was constantly struggling to show my strengths. I was put into a special-help class for math even though math was one of my strengths. I understood the concepts of math but because a lot of what we were learning involved word problems, my teachers thought I didn’t understand. That was difficult.
Another challenge for me was that my teachers didn’t hold me to any expectations. They knew that I was struggling so they excused all late assignments and missed homework. I felt like no one expected me to succeed, only to fail. I could simply say that I didn’t understand the homework and I would be excused. I have nothing against my teachers, I know that they had my best interest at heart, but they just did not know how to help me and the worst part was that I did not know how to help myself.
You weren’t formally diagnosed with dyslexia till you were in third grade. What was it like for you as a struggling reader?
Most of the time, I tried to hide my struggles, though it was obvious that I was falling behind and wasn’t at the reading level I needed to be. I was put into many special reading groups with a reading instructor at my school, but nothing seemed to change. I remember crying to my parents that nothing seemed to be helping. I didn’t know why I was still struggling and it was hard for me to ask for help. I felt out of place in the classroom and separated from my peers. One of the hardest parts was my peers openly expressing that they did not want to be my partner on assignments because I was “slow.” Knowing that my classmates could tell that I was having a hard time was not easy. In addition, the hardest part was not knowing why I was so far behind. I would work incredibly hard, but I was unable to keep up. For a while, I was on the verge of giving up until I was diagnosed with dyslexia and was able to receive the instruction I needed to succeed.
Do you remember being diagnosed with dyslexia … finding out there was a reason why reading was so hard? What did getting that diagnosis feel like?
Being diagnosed with dyslexia was a moment I will probably never forget. I remember my mom telling me that I was going to take a test with a nice lady who was going to tell me if I had dyslexia. I didn’t know what that meant, but I remember wishing that I did have dyslexia. At the time, I thought that it might be bad to wish that I had a learning disability, but looking back, I realize that I just wanted a legitimate reason for my struggles in school. All I wanted was a solution — something that would help me.
Talk about what it was like when you started at Windward? In what ways did you feel truly understood for the first time?
At Windward, it was the first time that my teachers held me accountable. They expected me to do well. They pushed and challenged me. They didn’t question my capabilities, they understood the instruction I needed and taught me in a way that encouraged me to succeed. Windward taught me that my dyslexia is a strength not a weakness and that it doesn’t stop me from success, rather it drives me to work hard at everything I do. Being surrounded by classmates and friends who had gone through similar learning experiences was comforting and encouraging. For once, I knew that I could be right up there with the “smartest” kid in the class, something I’d never imagined at my old school. Being surrounded by a community that understood me and surrounded me with the tools and knowledge to succeed was a feeling that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I felt truly understood.
In what ways did your relationships with your classmates and/or teachers change when you got to Windward?
My relationship with my teachers drastically changed when I started at Windward. They held me to higher expectations by never accepting an unfinished homework assignment or an excuse. They understood how to teach me and knew that I was capable of completing any work I was given. In addition, being in a classroom where everyone else had learning differences and who had experienced the same struggles made me feel included — and understood. I had never felt like that at my old school.
Also, Windward’s small class size allowed me to create a relationship with my teachers and I began to feel more comfortable asking for help and participating in class. This was a big step for me because at my elementary school I would never have participated or dared to raise my hand. Suddenly, I felt safe, which I believe has helped me to grow as a student and as a person.
What do you like most about school now?
I love the freedom and opportunities that come with being in high school.
What do you think your strengths are?
Throughout my years in school, I have learned about my strengths, and have even enjoyed reveling in them. One that stands out is my ability to visualize an assignment and know where to go from there. I have learned that I am a good leader on group projects. I also excel in art — whether it’s painting, using clay, or building something. I’ve also learned that because of my dyslexia, I think and see in three-dimensions, something most traditional learners do not do.
Overall, I have learned about hard work and the importance of embracing a strong work ethic. Windward has definitely taught me how to face a challenge and that being a hard worker pays off.
You play sports and enjoy being on teams like field hockey and lacrosse. Talk about what you like about being on a team.
Through sports, I have learned the value of teamwork and being a member of a close-knit and determined group. There are so many strengths we share with each other and teach each other during practice and games — some that have nothing to do with academics.
Field hockey has taught me a lot about leadership. Looking up to the captains of my team has taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader. For example, a leader is someone who puts the benefit of the team and the players before all else. And sports are fun. Some of my best friends are my teammates.
You participate in some meaningful community service. Why is that important to you?
What better way to give back to a community that has done so much for me than by helping others who may be struggling? One community service project I worked on was rebuilding a local church and house that were destroyed in a flood. This work helped me reflect on how fortunate I was that my home was not damaged and it also made me realize how vulnerable many people are to circumstances beyond their control.
If you had the chance to tell your old elementary school teachers a few things that might help them better understand and teach other kids with dyslexia — or correct any misconceptions about kids with dyslexia— what would you say?
To these teachers, I would say to never give up on your students no matter their struggles, no matter how they learn or how their brains work. I would say to keep fighting to help them and always hold them to the same expectations as the rest of their students. When kids feel that their teacher is giving up on them, they start to lose hope in themselves. And that is painful.
If you met an elementary kid who was struggling with reading, what advice would you offer?
I would tell them that they are doing well and to never be afraid to ask for help or to self-advocate. I would tell them that there are so many people who want them to succeed, who believe in them. In addition, I would tell them that they are smart, that hard work pays off, and to never give up. They are worth it. All of us are.
In what ways has having dyslexia made you a stronger person?
Although I still face some setbacks today, dyslexia has helped me grow stronger as a person. My dyslexia has taught me to advocate for myself and how to persevere. These days, I readily seek out challenges and enjoy the satisfaction of a hard job done well. There’s a lot to be said for that.