I felt a tap on my shoulder and someone whispered, “Leah it’s time to go.” Alice, the special education counselor, has come to take me away from my friends. I turned bright red from embarrassment and followed her from the room, head bowed in shame and hands clenched in anger. “I hate her. She thinks I am stupid. They all think that I am stupid,” I would later sob to my mother.
In third grade my parents decided to send me to a school education specialist. When I complained, my father told me that I was lucky to get help. When he had been at school, he was beaten for incompetence. My mother explained that a lot of kids went to see Alice, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed. I just needed help with a small part of the way I learned. In everything else, I "broke the charts."
|Leah Hamilton French has come a long way since her initial diagnosis of a learning disability (LD) nearly 10 years ago. She shares her experience with LD, the hard work it took to graduate with an A average, and the many extracurricular activities she challenged herself with in high school.|
But I knew everyone thought I was stupid, and I became determined to disprove them. I lied to my friends about where I went every morning. I was surly to Alice. When she finally stopped coming, I was convinced it was because she realized I wasn’t an idiot. I couldn't admit that I had actually learned something, the thing that finally enabled me to read.
For most of my school life, I have tried to deny my learning disability, but it would always come like the hand of fate to smack me back down into place. I felt humiliated each time I had to work in a group, or stay after class to finish a test. It seemed like everyone else could think so much faster than I could. I refused to acknowledge that I might need help, or to listen to explanations about my slow processing speed. I thought that my inability to work quickly was a sign of stupidity, an indication that I was not worthy of my friends.
In high school, I became involved with theatre and sailing, but worked very hard to do well in academic subjects. Homework still takes me a long time to complete, but because of this I have become very organized and efficient in my study habits. One of my greatest triumphs has been asking for and receiving extra time on official tests. At first the school counselor and my parents were not optimistic about it, but I stood my ground and my high school arranged to give me the appropriate tests. I had finally come to recognize my learning disability; I swallowed my pride and asked for help I knew I needed. Not long after I was tested, I was granted a 504 plan, which College Board accepted as reason enough to grant me extended time on SAT and AP tests.
Last fall, I worked in the homework center at the Cambridge Boys and Girls Club. Most children finished assignments within the first half hour, but a little boy named Geoffrey struggled for hours each day. As I tried over and over to get him to understand the simple difference between a line segment and a ray, I realized how much he reminded me of myself. Many of the other faculty grew frustrated and often sent Geoffrey home at the end of the day without having finished his work. However, when I was there, I tried to stay patient and help him like so many people had helped me when I was little.
One day when I was discussing my learning disability with my mother, she told me that she thought my slow processing speed made me creative. This really struck me, and I started to think that she might me right. I am like a runner with a weight strapped to my foot. My brain has to go slower, while really wanting to go fast. This forces me to really think about what it is I want to say, write, draw, or do. And somehow, I have gotten to a point where I can view this as an advantage instead of a disability.
All of the five colleges that I have applied to are places where I feel I could further develop this sense of creativity. In choosing small liberal arts colleges, I also intentionally chose schools that will help me thrive intellectually, despite my learning disability. Small class sizes and a small student-to-faculty ratio — these aspects of college education will help me thrive.
I hope to explore the fields of creative writing and filmmaking, and to possibly pursue a career in teaching. Ideally, I would like to make films that explore various social issues throughout the world. I have already begun to think of ways to spread awareness about learning disabilities and education through this artistic medium. The more educated people are about learning disabilities, the better they will understand or accept them as part of who someone is. My hope is that as children with learning disabilities grow up and face the challenges associated with their LD, they can learn to accept and appreciate their differences just as I have learned to do.