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A Special Education: Charlotte Farber’s Story


Fashion designer Dana Buchman's book A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities written with her daughter Charlotte, describes the gradual discovery of Charlotte’s learning disabilities as well as Buchman’s own path to self-discovery. NCLD had the privilege of interviewing both Dana and Charlotte when the book was first published. In this exclusive interview, Charlotte Farber speaks out about what it’s like to grow up with a learning disability.

What did you think when your mom told you she was writing a book about you and your family? I was really excited and really happy because we’ve been through a lot and I thought it was a good thing that the story would get some notice.

You weren’t worried it would be embarrassing or that she’d put things in it you wouldn’t want people to know? No, not at all. I’ve wanted to write a book by myself about learning disabilities, and then I thought this might be even better.

Did you read the manuscript while she was writing it?
Yeah, I read it every once in a while, then I sat down one day after she was finished and read it through and thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” Of course, there are always new anecdotes and there were a couple of times where I thought, ”Wait, I don’t remember it happening like that.” But, really, everything in there was really very good. Mom did well.

What was the hardest thing about growing up?
I know that I’ll always have to work harder than most people to do things they take for granted.

Was there ever a specific point in your life when you thought to yourself “Hey, I seem to be different from all the other kids?”
I knew I went to a different school from my sister Annie but I thought that was just because they didn’t want us competing, or something like that. No one really told me what learning disabilities really meant. I went to Gateway and I thought it was just a regular school and that I was just learning at a slower pace than Annie. No one told me about what it meant to have learning disabilities; no one ever talked about it. So, I’m not quite sure when I really discovered it.

Even now, [managing] money is hard for me. I have a hard time figuring out from five dollars what I should get in change. It can be really embarrassing when I’m standing there trying to figure the whole thing out and there’s a line behind me.

Of all the teachers you’ve had, which ones do you remember the most?
There are two teachers I really remember. One is Ms. Pulnaco at Gateway School—she taught me how to tie my shoe. We'd all have our desks in kind of a horseshoe, and she’d be in the middle and would do this little exercise to make sure everyone was focusing. She’d say, “Everyone stand up!” and we’d all stand up, and then she’d say “Okay, sit down.” She did that just to make sure we were all focused in. She taught us to [recite] the Pledge of Allegiance, which stuck with me somehow. When she taught me how to tie my shoe, she didn’t do the “bunny thing” either. She just taught me how to do it. You go up, across, pull, loop, wrap-around, just like that. She had a very soft voice and she was very patient, too. And it’s really nice to have a patient teacher.

And there was a teacher named Mr. Legrand. I’d known him for three years but we became close when I was in eleventh and twelfth grades at Churchill School. He became my advisor and my mentor; he wasn’t technically my advisor, I mean he wasn’t my homeroom advisor, but I went to him anyway. I loved this teacher because he was the one who pressed me on college; he told me, “Don’t sell yourself short. Try getting into a mainstream college.” And I've always been a cautious person, I don’t take big leaps.

I'm going to a mainstream college now, and I like a lot of the professors. But I still haven’t found a teacher like Mr. Legrand. He was always there for you, helping you with everything from school issues to understanding things about the subway.

Getting in to college is no small feat for someone with learning disabilities. What were some of the biggest hurdles you had to get over, and which ones were the hardest?
One of the biggest hurdles in my education was learning to read. It was very difficult. I remember we spent hours and hours at Lindamood-Bell. I remember sitting there and struggling with things like the index cards and the exercises, like one where we worked with different colored blocks that we had to put together in different ways, and different exercises to help us visualize numbers and letters.

The teachers were very encouraging, but it was hard. We’d go through the alphabet, or do stuff with clay or shaving cream where we’d make letters. I’d get drilled with flash cards with prefixes and endings of words. And I had this thing called a sound sheet. There were these things called “tongue tappers,” and we’d do “clappers” where we’d clap out syllables.

And though the reading instruction worked, the math exercises really didn’t. Even with all that hard work, it's not something that’s guaranteed for everyone.

What age do you think was the toughest for you?
Well, there were different things in different years. Going to a mainstream camp, Buck’s Rock Camp, was huge, because I’d never been to a non-LD camp before. And I love art and I went in there thinking that I’d just be doing that and that I wouldn’t have to do anything that involved measuring or coordination.

I’d been to another camp before this, Creative Arts Camp, and I took this photography class where the teacher had gotten everything set up just so and we had to follow all these instructions and I forgot or did the wrong thing, I can’t remember, and he got really angry with me. So I didn’t do any photography after that. And then at Buck's Rock, they had photography and I said, “Okay, it’s been a few years, Charlotte, c’mon and try this again.” So there I was in the dark, trying to get the film onto this reel so I could develop it, and it felt like it took hours. They were knocking on the door asking, “You all right in there?” But my fine motor skills and my coordination weren’t working very well in the dark. I just couldn’t get it. And that was the last time I've tried photography or developing film. So, times like that were pretty tough for me.


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