“They tried to bury me but they did know that I am a seed?” is the expression that encompasses my life so perfectly in one quote. I am a special education teacher working with fourth grade students with learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders but the irony is that, I too, have spent my life in the neurodivergent universe.
My journey has one been full of tremendous triumphs and tribulations. However, it has led me to a calling that feels entirely instinctive. I was not properly diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder until I was twenty-three years old. As a child and teenager, I struggled in capacities that most people do not even have a point of reference to. When people envision learning disabilities, they envision a child with limited verbiage and that cannot write or speak very well. They do not envision an extremely articulate, well-written miniature professor that cannot tie their shoes or make a paper fit into a folder.
I was resented by many teachers because in their perception I was arrogant, lazy and too verbally gifted to be disabled in any capacity. They saw my strengths but did not recognize the unimaginable visuospatial deficits that made it difficult to button a shirt or copy off of a board or the lack of number sense that made counting change difficult. I failed gym every year, I had little to no friends, became baffled by social situations, experienced crippling anxiety, could not organize my way out of a paper bag or navigate a hallway without getting lost. I felt that I did not belong on this planet. I was relentlessly bullied in school and felt not even the slightest sense of normalcy.
For many, home is a safe haven, a place of refuge, where they are understood and validated but my home life was the greatest source of my unhappiness and angst. I felt like a stray anchovy on a pepperoni pizza. As my diagnosis became increasingly frustrating for adults to navigate and understand, my relationships became tenuous and verbal abuse became the strategy of choice to express resentment and frustration. Day after day, I was told essentially that I was worthless, that I would end up in a “group home” and that my dreams were a dead end. I was told that I was crazy and invalidated in every way imaginable. “You will never be a special education teacher, you yourself are special ed” and then the cackling would follow suit. There were many days, I felt that I did not have the strength or tenacity to go on. I was living in an unimaginable situation for which there seemed to be no escape. I vividly remember struggling to make papers fit into a clip and the roaring laughter that followed from adults. However, my dad continued to push me in the right direction of my dreams no matter how many times I fell down.
The only place of sanctuary was in the classroom that belonged to my high school math teacher, Ms. Pappas. She validated me every single day and made me feel special. She helped me feel successful and safe. She told me that she envisioned me teaching very young students because I was kind. At that moment, I knew that I had to move forward despite the odds stacked against me. I remembered those words sixteen years later.
I wanted to be another Ms. Pappas and change lives in dozens. I made up my mind that I was going to go to college to be a special education teacher and rescue other students with learning disabilities from adult bullies, feelings of helplessness, and despair and instead, empower them. I wanted to be a superhero, but not the kind you see in movies. The more laughter and cruelty I experienced in my home life, the more it ignited a fire in me to disprove these people and I knew that my college degree was my right of passage to escape from a toxic environment.
I was accepted into college with a full list of accommodations. I had such poor math skills that I could not even divide or subtract without help. I enrolled myself in tremendous tutoring, therapy and began my classes to become a special education teacher. People doubted me because I was missing so many prerequisite skills due to a childhood without a proper diagnosis. I did not learn how to subtract with regrouping until college. I could not use a ruler or do long multiplication. Being diagnosed so late caused me to miss out on fundamentals that I had to work rigorously as an adult to learn these skills.
During college, I fell seriously ill and nearly lost my life but that did not stop me from ferociously chasing after my dreams. Despite my chronic illness and other challenges, I began to chip away at overcoming obstacles. In 2013, I graduated with a specialty in Literacy and Special Education K-6. In 2018, I became a special ed teacher at an elementary school locally. I was rated highly effective and commended by parents for the impact I have had on their children academically and emotionally.
Every day that I teach, I feel that I am exactly who I needed when I was younger.
My philosophy as a special educator is that before curriculum and rigor, students need to feel successful, empowered and loved. Feelings of failure are not conducive of self-directed learners that feel safe taking challenges. In fact, I do not hand back failing grades in my classroom. I strive to create an environment that students know they will be successful no matter what. I create the environment that I would have felt safe in as a child ; an environment that is encouraging, warm and allows children to feel safe to make mistakes without judgment or anger.
If my students take one lifelong lesson from me it is that they are not a diagnosis and, in spite of the challenges that are set in front of them, they too will be successful in whatever capacity they choose. I will cheer for them for life and as they conquer every milestone, I hope to be a part of it. Children will forget what we taught them but they will never forget what we said and how we made them feel during the most impressionable years.
You are not your disability or the limitations others have set for you. You are capable of making every dream a reality even if it takes more time or you need to take a non-conventional route. Saturate yourself in your strengths, not your weaknesses. Remove negative forces from your life and fiercely go in the direction of your dreams. After all, for someone who was told they would never in their wildest dreams become an educator, I have had the honor of disproving that theory. Not only am I a teacher, but I am a presenter for the Learning Disability Association and an active mentor for other people in the field of learning disabilities.
The “train wreck” who could not tie her shoes emerged despite the odds.
I am a neurodivergent special education teacher with NVLD and ocular motor dysfunction. I strive to be the person I needed when I was younger. Growing up, I was constantly put down and told I would never amount to anything and struggled in every capacity imaginable. Ironically, I have a full list of accomplishments that I have achieved. The destructive remarks said to me further fueled my ambition and compassion required to fulfill my dreams. I am a writer for ADDitude, an LDA speaker, and a passionate special education teacher. I ultimately hope to go into private practice to work with neurodivergent children and adolescents! I hope to create a safe space for students who do not fit the mold!Share your own story