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While there was never any doubt in my mind that I would graduate from high school, after walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, looking out over a sapphire sea of graduation caps, it was difficult to believe I had finally gotten here. Every high school student faces some challenges in school; but mine, I have known for several years now, were a unique struggle. As a self-advocating twice-exceptional, I struggled against my teachers, peers, education administrators, policymakers, parents, and ultimately, myself.
While some may accuse me here of speaking hyperbolically, the breadth and intensity of the 2e experience is sadly no exaggeration. As a 2e student from a school system that lacked a gifted education program and a grade acceleration policy, trying to be seen as “the smart kid” instead of “the dumb kid” was a constant social struggle; and trying to get accommodations for giftedness as well as disabilities was an uphill battle against a web of policies that prevented me from getting both.
The majority of accommodations I receive are for two problems: math disability and executive functioning disability (which accounts for my disorganization and poor time management). I do need help for both; but if given the chance to receive supports for them again, I would absolutely refuse. The reason? Accommodations and the attention drawn to addressing my disabilities became what defined me as a student, both to many of my teachers and to my peers. Thus, for most of middle school, my name was synonymous with “idiot” and “moron” to my classmates, and I was addressed as “sped” instead of my real name. (For those unfamiliar with the vernacular, many kids use “sped” as a derogatory term for a student who has learning challenges.)
Ironically, each time I sought accommodations for my advanced abilities, I was told I had to “shape up, try harder, and get a better attitude” before I got any sort of recognition for my gifts! To use an analogy, they were essentially demanding that I needed to cure myself of a disease before the antidote would be effective. The situation was just as convoluted as it sounds; and when I finally met their demands, I didn’t receive accommodations anyway.
I felt as though most of the people in my world, including teachers, saw me as something that I was not. It seemed like, in school, I was just a socially maladjusted idiot with math and organizational disabilities. No longer, according to my parents, was I the perpetually happy and energetic person I once was. I became, instead, increasingly miserable, disagreeable, and isolated over the course of high school. I was taking the feelings I had in school home with me every day.
I realize now that, even though I could never get appropriate accommodations in school, giftedness is sometimes best applied outside of school. Focusing my attention on developing my gifts, even if my school wasn’t going to help, really saved me. I didn’t need a public school classroom to learn or succeed; I realized that there were plenty of opportunities for that outside of school.
Junior year, when I finally accepted the fact that I was never going to be appropriately accommodated by my school system, my grades gradually began to improve. My average during my senior year rose to an A-minus. Although I felt beaten by a school system incapable of bending the way I needed it to, I eventually found that I could accept this fact. I think my acceptance was due, in large part, to finally establishing an identity for myself outside of school, one that was strong enough to transcend my disabilities, no matter how much my school seemed to accentuate them.
Despite the struggles I had in high school, I managed to become a published novelist, and a widely published poet, essayist, advocate, and nonfiction writer during my high school years. Though my school never recognized my gift in writing, I ended up getting statewide and national recognition through out-of-school competitions. I focused my attention on what I was good at; I took a talent of mine and exploited it as thoroughly as possible to show myself and the world that I was more than what I appeared to be in the halls of my high school.
As I became increasingly successful out of school, something great happened. By the end of my senior year, ridicules of “sped” and “idiot” had faded away. By pursuing my true abilities, despite the restraints of school, my name in my graduating class became synonymous with “genius” rather than with “idiot.”
In the end, everything I’ve learned can be boiled down to three points:
When I came to realize these three things at the beginning of my junior year, my life improved. I also decided that I was far better off having an unbalanced set of skills than being simply above average in all. I understood that I was both limited and limitless in my abilities.
This new understanding helped me to focus on my particular gift, my writing ability, to the extent that I published a 370-page novel. I also began to actively fight for the changes necessary for 2e students who would come after me, and I brought about the implementation of a new regional school policy. This policy makes special educators responsible for giving attention to strengths in a student, as well as to his or her weaknesses. It also vastly increases communication among the student, his or her teachers, and current and previous IEP case managers. Furthermore, it allows the student greater opportunity to participate in the development of his or her IEP.
I look back on the time when things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse — when I was perpetually miserable and in weekly therapy, when I felt very alone and maladjusted and, indeed, was. After graduating, I looked ahead to attending a private college where I’d be able to take advanced-level courses and receive supports when I needed them.
I feel as though I’ve been slowly emerging from a long nightmare — waking up to a new world in which I can succeed and fit in. I now plan on getting a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in sociology. My goal is to work for the United States Department of Education.
Andrew Collins is an 18-year-old author and advocate. He has published his first novel, Pondera, and currently serves on the Governing Board of the National Youth Leadership Network, and the ARC Expert Advisory Committee. This fall, Andrew began studying philosophy and sociology at Dean College and Harvard Extension School. In the future, he plans on working for the Unites States Department of Education to pursue the changes he envisions for the public education system. Andrew is a strong advocate for appropriate treatment of people with disabilities.