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Wrestling With and Conquering Learning Disabilities

getting-organized-stack-of-pencilsIn second grade, my parents had a conference with my teacher where they discussed how I was not progressing as fast as other students. It was suggested that I be tested for learning disabilities (LD). My parents agreed and took me to Northwestern University for testing. I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Thus began my association with the Learning Disabilities department at Northwestern, including Dr. Doris Johnson, Dr. Kathleen Bradley, and graduate and doctoral student teachers. They taught me how I view, break down, and sound out words. I learned how to read, and comprehend what I read. They taught me how to use my strengths. I cannot write well (dysgraphia), but I am able to type my thoughts. I read better by listening to books on CD, rather than struggling with the printed word. I am an auditory learner, and I can process a teacher’s lecture better than trying to type notes as they speak. I was taught (and am still learning) Kurzweil reading software. I rely heavily on spell check.

Throughout my grade school years, I would often hear comments like: “if Scott would only slow down, his printing would improve” and “if Scott would only study more, he would do so much better on his spelling quizzes.” My parents and Dr. Bradley would constantly repeat the same mantra in meeting after meeting: my difficulties had nothing to do with how long I studied or how slow I printed, they were not going to change and they were not a way to gauge my intelligence. I remember these conversations—my parents always insisted I be at the meetings.

 

Scott Schwartz, a runner-up for the 2012 Anne Ford Scholarship, is an honor student, athlete, and student leader. But his experiences with dyslexia and dysgraphia have made his path challenging. For Scott, joining his school's wrestling team helped him gain confidence that went well beyond the mat.

The most hurtful comments were from teachers who said that I couldn’t do/learn certain things or when kids called me stupid. For years I believed they were right—that I was different, that I was not bright and that I would never be “normal.”

Author and LD expert Rick Lavoie talks about how all kids have “poker chips” in their backpacks. Each chip represents self-confidence. Popular kids have backpacks overflowing with chips. They walk with their heads held high, and never seem to doubt their abilities and social skills. If they do something embarrassing and lose a few chips along the way, it’s no big deal because they have plenty to replace what was lost. Kids with LD go to school with few chips in their possession, and are careful not to bring attention to themselves, not to look different or act different because we don’t have many chips to lose.

In eighth grade, my world took a 180 degree turn. Our principal introduced wrestling to our school. He wrestled in high school and college and he also coached wrestling. He explained that wrestling taught him discipline and other skills. I had no interest, but my father forced me to practice. He said, “Practice through your first match and after it’s over, if you still want to quit you can.” I agreed. The day of my match I went out on the mat, the ref blew his whistle, I grabbed my opponent, pushed him down, and fell on top of him. Then, the ref hit the mat and raised my arm in victory. It was the ugliest win in my career, but I haven’t left the wrestling room since then.

In high school I knew I would wrestle; I also knew there would be challenges academically and socially. My sophomore year was filled with highs and lows. Academically, I received an honorable mention (and just missed honor roll). I was named to the Varsity Wrestling team and transformed my physique to become a stronger, leaner wrestler.  I began to understand how to use the techniques I was learning in practice to match competition. The lows came in waves. I still was struggling with my dyslexia and dysgraphia. It seemed at times, I would move one step forward and then slip three steps back. The words were dancing on the pages and the math formulas were not connecting. I was told that this is a common occurrence for dyslexics, and to endure and it will pass, but living through it is torture. What was most frustrating was trying to explain to people what was happening to me. I saw and felt what was happening, but how do I explain that a sentence is no longer is a sentence, or that a math formula that I mastered last week has disappeared? Instructions that were given to me, instructions that I repeated… poof… vanished from my brain.

Despite the challenges, I am very proud of my accomplishments throughout my junior year. I made honor roll and earned a 4.0 second semester. I am the founder and president of the Power Lifting Club, and have developed sport-specific routines to help students achieve their personal goals related to their sport. Last year, at the beginning of the wrestling season, I was elected Co-Captain (an honor typically reserved for seniors.) I was re-elected Captain for my senior year.

I was chosen to participate in our school’s Student Athlete Leadership Training program. The program is designed to guide students into becoming better leaders within their sport, and throughout the community. I have been a moderator and facilitator for other high schools in my area and this year served as a Senior Advisor/Helper to incoming freshmen. This year, I have been asked to speak to the freshmen class during our school-wide NAMES  program. I am speaking on the effects of bullying and my personal experiences and will be on a panel to discuss bullying issues.

Prior to high school, I felt my challenges were too hard to overcome. I felt as if I was destined to be a failure. Five years ago, I would never have dreamed that I would have the opportunity to go to college. Now that dream is not only in reach but, as I have learned these past four years, I will conquer the challenges that I face moving forward. The experts have labeled me “Learning Disabled,” but that is not the best way to describe me, as I am able to learn and accomplish great things with the right support. They should re-label me “Learning Inconvenienced.”

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