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Uneducable: Rethinking my success story for Learning Disabilities Awareness Month


October is Learning Disabilities Awareness month. I have a learning disability, and I’m a professional in the field of learning and thinking differences, so I guess this is my moment to shine! But as I sit down to write this personal piece, I honestly don’t know where to start.

I spend most of my days channeling other people’s stories and experiences, doing research, and developing strategies to make a small difference. I avoid referencing my personal experiences in my work, even though my work is extremely personal. When I do write about myself, it‘s usually to highlight a very specific topic, to answer a pointed question, or to share a specific moment in my life that I can compartmentalize.

But compartmentalizing doesn’t work when you’re trying to spread awareness. So I’m asking myself this open-ended question: What has my personal story taught me that’s worth sharing with the world? No biggie, right?

Since I don’t know where else to start, I’ll start with how I used to tell my story when I was in school. Everyone likes a good defying-the-odds tale, right? Well, I’ve got one for you. (Cue obligatory coming-of-age music.)

I was identified with dyslexia at the end of first grade/beginning of second grade. I was going to a French immersion school, meaning that I was expected to learn in both English and French. It was clear early on that something was “wrong” because I wasn’t reading French or English but could speak both easily.

I remember that there was a star chart in class, and I was at the bottom of that chart. That was the first time my parents noticed something was up. On parent-teacher night, my mom looked for my name on the chart and found me at the bottom. I was the only student without any stars. None.

When my parents were about to go to their first parent-teacher conference in second grade, I said, “I know what they’re going to tell you, Mommy. They’re going to tell you I’m stupid.” This was second grade, and my worth, abilities, and aptitude were already solidified in my mind.

I asked my mom to buy me book covers so that I could hide the books I was trying to read. I would sit in a corner of the playground every recess with my phonics book and the book cover, practicing reading instead of playing, always with my back to a wall so no one could read over my shoulder.

I would also leave notes in books that I wanted to read but couldn’t, to tell myself to read them when I was older. I still have one book with a note on the front cover: “Natalie, read this when you are 14 and up.” I was about 10 when I wrote this. Yes, I was still not reading when I was 10 years old.

This was long after the French immersion school asked that I not return for third grade. My parents got an official letter saying I was “uneducable.”

It was like for my whole life, I’d been watching a party that I could see but couldn’t get into.

From there, I went to a special education school for three years, got all tuned up, and was sent back into mainstream schooling for middle school (oh, great!).

Then I hit high school, with its advanced math and science classes — and I finally felt smart for the first time in my life. I was free! It was like for my whole life, I’d been watching a party that I could see but couldn’t get into. But finally, I’d deciphered the secret password, fashioned myself a mask so no one would know I didn’t belong, and gotten in. What I couldn’t do well, I’d learned to hide or accommodate for. I had discovered the tricks of the dyslexic trade.

I’m now 30 years old. I graduated from my high school as valedictorian (although when I texted my mom to tell her I was valedictorian, I didn’t spell it correctly). I graduated from college with honors and magna cum laude. I got a master’s degree from a fancy-schmancy university in England. I can confidently say that I’ve never “read for fun,” but I’ve succeeded.

Now, didn’t you like that story?

I’ve gotten many a scholarship, standing ovation, and job because of that story. Parents like that story because it gives them hope for their kid. Teachers like that story because they feel like they just might make a difference. Younger peers I’ve mentored with learning disabilities like that story because they can say, “If Natalie can do it, I can too.”

Hell, I like the story. It’s mine, after all.

But looking back on it today, during Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, I’m liking the story less and less.

If you accept the traditional definition of self-awareness, then you know from reading my story that I have “awared” myself to death. I know every nook and cranny of my mind. I’ve found every crack in the barriers I’ve encountered.

I got into the party. I fooled them all and beat the best of them at their own game. And I’m proud of that. If I hadn’t been resilient and persevered, I’d never have discovered my love of neurobiology or medicine or psychology. And I’d never have been able to do what I do today.

But what if I hadn’t felt so excluded in the first place?

Notice how, in my story, I didn’t mention any strengths until I discovered my academic strengths in high school math and science classes. In fact, I had plenty of strengths before high school. But compared to reading and writing, they’re not as central to our American education system.

Back when I was getting no stars on that chart, not reading, and feeling worthless, I was also extremely creative. All types of art were my escape. I could create anything I saw in my mind. I could hear any melody once and repeat it instantly. I could take something apart and put it back together again and build or install things without instructions. If I was interested in something, I’d spend hours to understand every intricate detail.

From these early strengths I learned patience, time management, work ethic, and how to persevere. I developed the confidence to continue to fight within a school system that didn’t fight for me. I still use all these skills every day — much more often than I reference the periodic table. Sadly, many of my creative interests faded into the background. I don’t draw or sculpt much at all now, and I only sing in my car.

But what if I, or society, had valued those personal and creative strengths as much as academic ones? Would I have told my parents “I’m stupid” when I was 6? Would I have had stars on that chart? Instead of spending recess alone, trying to read, would I have played with the other kids? Maybe I wouldn’t have had to hide behind a mask at that party. Maybe I would have belonged.

I wish I hadn’t lost connection to my early strengths. I’m not saying that I’m unhappy about my accomplishments. But I’ll always feel like an imposter, because I developed and built my sense of self-awareness to fit a system that didn’t want me, instead of truly learning who I was, free of judgment and outdated metrics.

I know I’m lucky. Ultimately, I had access to resources that most kids don’t. Many never have a fighting chance to move past the walls built into our education system. And other types of inequality can make those barriers even more impenetrable — being learning disabled and poor, being learning disabled and Black or Brown, being learning disabled without access to well-resourced schools.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish learning and thinking differently wasn’t viewed as a barrier to success, but as an opportunity for everyone to reimagine the ladders to success. Too often, we accept the ability to adequately navigate an oppressive system as sufficient demonstration of self-awareness. But self-awareness shouldn’t be in service of a system. It should be in service of self.

So if you happen to know anyone who is involved in this exclusive party — a caterer, band member, bartender, whatever — can you ask them to invite us next time? And let us help to plan it?

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