Aja Capel: Teen with a Mission

AT A GLANCE

When 14-year-old Aja Capel won the Smart Kids 2018 Fred J. Epstein Youth Achievement Award, we published an excerpt from her acceptance speech • But this inspirational young teen has so much more to say as you’ll see in this Q & A with this Urbana, Il student with a very bright future


 

Smart Kids: In talking about your learning challenges you coined the term “diffabilities.” What exactly does that mean?

Aja Capel: As far as I’m concerned I do not have learning disabilities. “Dis” means lacking or without; therefore learning disabilities would mean we are lacking ability, without ability, and that definitely does not describe me. I prefer to talk about learning differences or “diffabilities” because my learning abilities are different—not less than; just different.

SK: How have your “diffabilities” impacted you at school?

AC: I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. School is very much in the box. This results in a mismatch between my learning style and the teaching/assessment styles of my teachers. I struggle greatly with unnecessary repetition and learning things step-wise. I do better with more complex concepts and have the most trouble with the simplest ones.

SK: How does this translate in a school setting?

AJ: For example, I use a calculator because I do not have automatic recall of rudimentary math facts, yet I excel at complex math. I must make a connection with the work to do my best and this is very frustrating for my teachers because I question everything. I have 2½ study periods each day (more than double my traditional-thinking peers) so I can converse with my teachers and take oral exams. I love reading but I read too slowly to keep up so I listen to audiobooks. I spend 3-4 hours each night doing homework and many more over the weekend catching up or trying to stay ahead.

SK: That seems exhausting. It must take a toll on you.

AJ: Most people don’t know just how hard I work to keep it all together. My “different” is a tremendous gift, but not in a traditional classroom or school. It is exhausting to keep explaining my essence—my core being—and hoping others get it. And even if they don’t understand it, it would be great if they could accept it, rather than constantly asking me to do things differently.

SK: Basically, it sounds as if you do battle daily. Is that an accurate description of your school experience?

AJ: That’s one way of saying it. I fight every day through self-advocacy. I insist upon knowing the purpose of an assignment and then fight to be allowed to draw on at least one strength to complete it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It is just my journey. I’ve always insisted on dancing to the beat of my own drum despite how inconvenient it has made it for my teachers and my school. I refuse to be limited. I refuse to give up.

SK: At what point did you realize you would have to take charge of your learning?

AJ: This began in middle school when after using accommodations for a year, two of my teachers refused to allow me to continue to use them saying it was unfair to other students. Despite educating the administrator and the teachers, they would not budge. I was losing my love for learning and my desire to go to school often missing days due to my emotions, anxiety, and anger manifesting as somatic symptoms. When I did go to school I would get in the car crying when my mom picked me up and tell her what my teachers said or did. I was being bullied by comments of ignorance and red marks.

SK: What was the turning point?

AJ: During this period my mom encouraged me to write my feelings out as if I were talking directly to my teachers. It was cathartic. In my first letter I wrote, “I feel ashamed, embarrassed, unequal, disapproved, fearful, angry and helpless. I have many strengths but the structure of your class plays to my weaknesses. You made me feel like something was wrong with me, like I was disappointing you. I don’t know if I can give you what you expect. I am not like them. Don’t assume things about me, ask me and talk to me. Please help me to help myself. I am trying incredibly hard to be successful in your class. I need you to hear me, accept me, embrace me, encourage me and truly believe in me and my ‘different.’ You won’t be sorry.”

SK: That was a bold move. How did that work out for you?

AJ: That letter helped me find my voice and I haven’t stopped using it since. I have learned to actively communicate with my teachers and ask for the things I need. As I have become a better advocate for myself I am better able to help my teachers see who I am outside of class. I am very different and much more confident outside of the classroom. I have come to realize that my extra- curricular activities, especially robotics, are my refuge.

SK: Speaking of robotics, when you accepted the Smart Kids Youth Achievement Award, you spoke of deep interest in STEM. Is that where your future lies?

AJ: Pursuing a career in STEM is a natural extension of who I am. I have always been precocious. Nothing was safe in my house when I was around. My parents enrolled me in robotics at age 4 so I would take other people’s stuff apart. It worked. I have been taking things apart and building things, especially robots, for 10 years now.

SK: Any thoughts on where your interests might take you next?

AJ: STEM just comes natural, like breathing. When I am creating robots and teaching kids I feel invincible. I use my mind in robotics so school doesn’t matter (as much anyway). I know my diffabilities are lifelong but my parents taught me if I work at my passions then I never really work a day in my life—and school has been work enough for a lifetime! I am looking for a college that will embrace me and my “different,” give me the tools to expand how I serve others and use my blessings to become an engineer and live my passions.

SK: One last question. I know your learning differences have helped mold who you are, but if you could pick one quality that has been impacted most, what would it be?

AJ: Being a different thinker makes me a good leader because it affords me a great deal of empathy. I know what it feels like to be different, to not quite fit in, for others to not quite get you, to struggle, to wear your weaknesses like a scarlet letter. I actively demonstrate determination and grit every day of my life as an example for others. My mom says I have done more in my 14 years than many do in a lifetime. That’s good because I am just getting started.

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