“If you could say four words to your 17-year-old self, what would they be?”
A few months ago, this question, posted by a friend, stared at me from my Facebook feed. I immediately thought back to who I was at 17, and how far I’ve come in spite of all of my struggles with nonverbal learning disabilities.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and typed four words: “It will get better.”
My entire life, I knew there was something different about me. At the young age of 2½, I was reading all sorts of books and could speak in full sentences. When I was 8, I started writing abstract poetry and short stories. My spelling was flawless, and I even made it to the New York City Spelling Bee. It helped that I have a phenomenally accurate memory, particularly for things I hear people say.
Because of these traits, when I was in grade school, many people thought I was some sort of prodigy. However, there were also things that were unusually difficult for me.
For example, I consistently struggled with math. My mother sat with me every night for hours at a time to help me finish my math assignments. I often became frustrated with schoolwork because I processed information slowly. I would cry to my parents that I hated doing homework.
I managed to make it through grade school and middle school. But by the time I reached high school, I was failing nearly all of my classes. The work was harder, subjects were more complex, and there was only so much my mother could do to help.
During my freshman year, my school recommended that I have an evaluation. It was then that my struggles became clearer. I had problems with depth perception, fine motor skills, understanding social cues, visual recall and visual-spatial skills, and processing speed. I was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). Slowly, all the pieces of my life’s puzzle began to fit together.
On one hand, I felt angry and hurt. People had told me in the past that I wasn’t trying hard enough or not studying properly for tests, when I was clearly doing the best I could. At the same time, I felt relieved to know the source of my struggles. It wasn’t because I was clumsy, incapable, or stupid, as I used to sometimes think.
Despite a sense of relief from knowing that I had NVLD, things took a turn for the worse in 11th grade. I grew increasingly anxious about my life and future. I didn’t know what I was going to do for college. Seeing my classmates apply and get accepted to fantastic colleges made me feel left out and isolated.
Fortunately, though, my family found out about Landmark College, a school for students with learning disabilities. I met with the director of admissions, who suggested I try their three-week high school summer program.
I looked at her, teary-eyed, and said, “Why should I believe you? Nothing else has worked for me.” She told me that I had earned my skepticism, and urged me to try the program.
So that summer, my 17-year-old self reluctantly went off to Landmark for three weeks, and absolutely loved it. It was the right place for me to be. I met other kids my age who had learning and thinking differences and who faced similar struggles. I made wonderful friends. The teaching was specifically geared toward students with learning differences.
After I graduated from high school, I entered Landmark as a full-time student. I was still scared of failure. But I figured out how to navigate my challenges and study effectively. It was like I was re-learning how to learn. I even started writing poetry and short stories again, which I had given up in high school. I also found my passion for running.
I graduated from Landmark summa cum laude with my associate’s degree in liberal studies. I was honored with the Academic Dean’s Award. Two years later, I graduated from Manhattanville College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Again I was honored, this time with a departmental distinction.
“The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, is my favorite poem. It reflects the challenges I’ve faced with NVLD, a learning difference that’s often misunderstood. Having NVLD and going to two different colleges, I know I have taken the road “less traveled by.” I’m used to having to explain what my challenges are, and one of my goals going forward is to educate people about NVLD.
At 17, I had no idea that things would get better. If someone had told me back then that I’d graduate from college twice (with honors!), I never would have believed them. My path has been filled with many bumps and obstacles, but I’ve kept going. I’m 22 now, and in my moments when I feel like giving up, I’m reminded of what I’ve accomplished and how far I’ve come.
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About the author
About the author
Michaela Hearst, MSW is a writer and advocate.