From Frustration to Fulfillment
By Andrew Ackerman
August 7, 2000 is one of the most important days in my life. It is the day I discovered my real learning disabilities—or, as I like to think of it, the day I came to understand my learning abilities.
Three weeks earlier, I had met with an educational psychologist to take a series of tests to evaluate my “learning style” (code for “disabilities”). It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and before I could take the SAT with accommodations, I had to be evaluated. Here were the results in black and white, proof that I really was capable, even superior in some areas. No one was more surprised than I was.
Taking those tests was nothing new. I have been evaluated every few years since the first grade when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. The results are always the same: “Andrew has reading difficulties.” “He’s a hard worker, but he gets frustrated easily.” “He needs to utilize the help that’s available to him.”
Getting to the Real Problem
Those evaluations were right about one thing—I was frustrated. No matter how hard I tried, I could never achieve the success I wanted. I was great in class discussions, but when it came to taking tests I was unable to convey all that I knew. No matter how many times I was told I was smart, I didn’t believe it. If I am so smart, I thought, then why is school so hard?
The morning of August 7th I learned the answer. For two hours my parents and I sat with the psychologist while she explained how my brain works. What she told us changed my life in ways I slowly came to understand.
Her diagnosis was different from the earlier ones. She told me I have a nonverbal learning disability. She explained that most people process information by building on what they know. When I process information, I take it apart and put it together again step-by-step in a logical order. Each time, I have to start from the bottom and build up.
Change of Attitude
The psychologist explained that there’s nothing wrong with my way of learning, but as information becomes more complicated, the process I go through becomes more difficult. Since I put in so much extra effort to solve problems, I naturally get tired and frustrated. My way of coping—and this is the key—has been to shut down and settle for the quick, obvious answer. That’s why I don’t usually do well on tests, especially standardized tests. At some point I just want to get it over with. She compared me sitting through the SAT to a pitcher who’s on the mound for 18 innings. Grueling.
She ended her explanation with words that made my day: “You’re obviously very smart, because you’ve gone through school with above average grades without any help for your real disability.” She explained that, without realizing it, I had been relying on strong verbal skills, which accounted for whatever success I had achieved. The next 30 minutes she spent telling me how to use my verbal strengths to break through the frustration, and she showed me how well I did on her tests when I was able to do that.
What I didn’t realize that day was how much this knowledge would change my approach to school. Instead of fighting the process, I began to use it to my advantage. The benefits were immediate: My grades that quarter were my best ever.
For the first time, learning wasn’t a chore. I liked all my classes (even statistics). Where I used to reject special help as a sign of weakness, I now asked for help the minute I didn’t understand something. I put myself back into Special Ed to acquire as many learning strategies as I could before going to college. I even tried Yoga to see if relaxation techniques could help me deal with test-taking frustration. (It didn’t; but I learned the benefits of stretching football-weary muscles.)
The Right College
I always sensed I belonged at a small college, but I never knew why. This experience helped me recognize that I do my best in an environment where classes are small, professors are accessible, and the curriculum is individualized. I wanted to spend my college years in a school that encourages interests beyond the classroom as well as in the classroom; a place that values the whole person and welcomes individual differences.
I ended up at a small college in California that suited my learning style perfectly. For me, there was nothing better than sitting around a table with a professor and six or seven other students discussing problems of developing nations and calling that school.
Ackerman graduated from Pitzer College with a double major in Political Science and Economics. Today he is a commercial real-estate entrepreneur with his own business.