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Twice-Exceptional Me

Giftedness - Gifted Children I am an academically gifted student who has struggled with learning disabilities (LDs) all my life even though I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 2005. Since I began to talk, people remarked on my intelligence. Yet when I learned to write my name, I wrote a mirror image. I was nearly held back in first grade because I couldn’t distinguish “b’s,” “d’s,” “p’s,” and “q’s.” In elementary school, though my vocabulary and science knowledge were exceptional, I performed poorly in spelling, writing and math. My teachers thought of me as academically gifted, but lazy, irresponsible, sloppy and slow. I was bored with the unchallenging curriculum and frustrated, that although I understood the material, I made so many “stupid” mistakes. I despised writing because it took so long, I misspelled everything, and, while I had many ideas, I couldn’t get them onto paper. In middle school, my “stupid” mistakes became more common. When I drew a map of Africa, it was a mirror-image and had to be redone. I asked to see a private psychologist because I thought there was something wrong. She suggested testing. While discussing the results, the psychologist said I was probably LD. I refused more testing or to let anyone know because I thought having an LD meant I was stupid and would be removed from my gifted classes.

Our 2008 Anne Ford Scholar Lenora Somervell’s story follows her difficulty accepting that she has an LD to becoming an advocate for her entire student body. With a strong drive to succeed in her personal goals, she proclaims that her LD has only made her think differently, not hinder her path.
Like many gifted-LD students, I was able to mostly hide my LD until I started Algebra I. I lost many points because I reversed ordered pairs or digits, flipped fractions and lost or turned exponents into coefficients. I was always the last person to hand in my test and often ran out of time. When my mom suggested testing, I agreed because I knew I couldn’t continue like this and stay in honors classes. The tests showed significant discrepancies in written expression, math calculation and basic reading that mostly resulted from visual processing problems. I was diagnosed with dysgraphia and dyscalculia caused by dyslexia.

After I was diagnosed, I felt awful. I was convinced I was stupid, defective, and doomed to failure. I hated having to finish or correct tests during lunch or after school. The accusing glances and comments from students that seemed to say, “I could make grades like that if the teacher let me have extra time and fix stuff” made me feel even worse. The special-ed teacher changed my mind about LDs by having me read about what being gifted-LD meant. The diagnosis helped me accept and learn more about myself as well as significantly improve my academic performance.

Sophomore year, I applied to the NC School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), a highly selective two-year public magnet school for academically gifted students interested in science, math or technology. Before I applied, the assistant-superintendent at Hayesville said my dyslexia made me unacceptable to NCSSM. I applied anyway, and was accepted. I didn’t allow my LD and people’s misunderstanding to dissuade me from embracing this academic opportunity.

I essentially entered college six hours from home two years early. I placed out of Algebra II and Pre-calculus at NCSSM. This made me cocky. I thought that I could handle my LD without accommodations. I was wrong. I didn’t finish my first round of tests. Although we sent the NCSSM counseling department my documentation and IEP multiple times, when I saw my counselor for the needed accommodations, he seemed to know nothing about my LDs. Although he said he would take care of it, I had to tell my teachers about my LD and the necessary accommodations myself. Although some teachers understood, others thought I “just needed extra time.” Afterwards, my grades improved and I haven’t made a final grade below B. It took over a year to get accommodations on the SAT. Despite repeated requests for an IEP meeting at NCSSM, this still hasn’t been done, so I don’t have a current IEP. An accommodation available at NCSSM is taking four courses per term instead of five. I refused this option, taking at least one elective or seminar for five of my 6 terms at NCSSM.

To improve the situation of LD students at NCSSM, I co-founded E=LD², an organization to promote awareness and knowledge of LDs at NCSSM and to offer a network for LD students to share study strategies and information about LDs. E=LD² will be holding a workshop to help teachers better understand and teach LD students. As co-president of E=LD² I am a role model for other LD students, and must be comfortable speaking openly about my LD.

Mr. Gotwals, who taught two of the three terms of my AP chemistry course and was the instructor of the Medicinal Chemistry seminar I took last term, has always taken the time to help and encourage me. I struggled with chemistry my entire junior year because my understanding of the concepts was undermined by my difficulties with the algebra in the problems. It is thanks to Mr. Gotwals that I made a five on the AP Chemistry exam despite not having proper accommodations. He has inspired me to pursue a career as a research chemist.

Initially, I need to either earn a B.S. in Chemistry or enter a combined five-year B.S./M.S. program to achieve my goals. Then I will spend a year in the Peace Corps. Depending on how much student loan debt I have, I will then want to enter graduate school or go to work for the government or a private organization. I am currently applying to five different four-year institutions.

While I’m not sure which area of chemistry I will focus on yet, I’m considering neuro-chemistry and drug design. The chemistry of the human brain is a relatively new field, and the neuro-chemistry mechanism for LDs hasn’t been widely researched. One of the best things I could do to improve life for people with LDs would be to discover these mechanisms and design treatments for the chemical causes of LD.