A student defined as having “outstanding gifts or talents and are capable of high performance, but… also have a disability that affects some aspect of learning” falls into a unique category of learners referred to as being Twice Exceptional (Brody & Mills, 1997). This classification is sometimes designated by the abbreviation “2e.”
At the age of six, it was determined that I suffered from both Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. Dyslexia is an inborn error of the brain that demonstrates a lack of congruence between visual language input and cognitive recognition and understanding. Similarly, Dyscalculia is an arithmetic processing error that affects an individual’s ability to differentiate between and manipulate numbers themselves in order to execute basic mathematical operations.
At about the same time in my life, school staff members took notice that I also demonstrated problem solving strategies and other learning tendencies that coincided with intellectual giftedness. While I consistently scored above my peers in my ability to execute complex tasks, if you looked back at the work I computed to arrive at my final answer, there were errors upon errors that I somehow managed to work around. I told my teachers, who always harped on the concept of “showing work,” that my brain knew what it was doing, and that I trusted what it was telling me the answers were, but I could not for the life of me begin to explain how or why I knew that. I just did.
As I progressed through elementary education, I consistently failed fluency tests and reading comprehension exams. When taught to clap my hands to count the syllables in words, I could not sort out what did or did not constitute a syllable. Left and Right differentiation was a nightmare, and, to this day, I will transpose the numbers five and two incorrectly more often than not. Year after year, my teachers would tell my parents that I was a terrible writer. I could speak remarkably well, but when language turned to writing, my words were a structural existence at best; there was never any depth of meaning to anything I wrote. I was very literal, and my creativity ceased to exist in two dimensional space.
I completed the entire elementary curriculum by the end of the third grade, so for fourth and fifth, I was separated from the rest of my peers, sat on a carpet square on the floor in the back of the room solving Mensa exercises and puzzle cubes while people would study the way I approached these tasks. Clipboards in hand, I was essentially their circus monkey mixed with a lab rat. I was ostracized from my peers who grew to resent me, because to them, it appeared that I got to play games while they worked (on assignments I had done two years before might I add). While educators were busy studying my enigmatic combination of intellectual gifts and deficits, they unknowingly deprived me of a different kind of learning, the ability to emotionally relate to and communicate with people my own age.
Entering middle school, we elected to eliminate my learning disabilities from my Education Plan as I transitioned into a gifted learning environment, thinking that my teachers would not be able to see my full intellectual potential being blinded by the labels Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. My brain so exceptionally worked around these processing errors that my teachers from those years would probably tell you there was no way I could possibly suffer from not one but two learning disorders given my academic performance. I excelled at higher mathematics, first with algebra (and then with calculus in high school), because my brain recognized the patterns of numbers when they behaved in functions (as opposed to operations) as color patterns, not as number symbols, something my brain knew it could not comprehend. I was turned away from musical programs because of my inability to read music appropriately. I could read music, but very slowly, and I had to count up each and every line and space to identify the note just as one would sound out a word. I would then circle the note in the color that my brain associated with that tone, and by the end of my intricate analysis of a sheet of music, you would see nothing but patterns of colored circles… something my brain could read and comprehend faster than any word I had ever seen written on a page. This phenomenon is formally known as Synesthesia.
In high school, I was still dramatically delayed in my social development, a tremendous source of bullying and constant ridicule. I preferred to be alone because that was all I had ever been taught to be. English teachers still told me my reading and writing skills were deficient, and by this point, I had best just accept that I would never perform in written language composition or comprehension at an adequate level. Additionally, I became incredibly fearful to speak up in geometry class because this subject was largely based on numbers themselves and calculations, not patterns. Time and time again I was embarrassed by my transposition of the numbers 5 and 2 incorrectly and my inability to do basic arithmetic.
Not until my junior year did a teacher finally see something in me that others had not. In tenth grade, at the time of standardized testing, I had to wear a heart monitor due to a cardiac arrhythmia which would beep when it detected anything abnormal. For this reason, I had to test in a room by myself with a one-on-one proctor. After the test had concluded, we engaged in conversation during which I confessed to this happened-to-be English teacher that I had kept a learning disability a secret for the past five years of my education, and I was fearful that it would become more apparent and detrimental in my last two years when writing was going to become a critical skill.
This teacher then gave me a twenty-one page packet on the rules of comma usage as a gift, told me to study it over the summer, and to then request that he be my English teacher the following year and that he would personally speak to the guidance department if they had any objections. He became my mentor. My speaking skills demonstrated that I could fully grasp concepts, but I could not convey this in written language. He instructed me to write exactly the way I spoke rather than in any formulated manner I had ever been taught to write. He taught me to embrace this transcription of my spoken thoughts as a stylistic element of my writing and then to eliminate any nuances in the revision process thereafter.
From that point forward, I was a writer. Everything that had been floating arbitrarily in my mind for years upon years could finally be solidified in a more concrete medium. He gave me a gift. He gave me a new vehicle for expression that I had been told countless times to accept I would never achieve.
This is something the school system never could have provided for me. This was something that came directly from an individual whose path crossed mine by happenstance. This is something that will continue to be unaddressed in the realm of education as it becomes increasingly regulated and less and less individualistic.
We as human beings have never learned identically to one another, and we never will, and to assume so would be blatantly ignorant to the basis of the human condition. We raise our expectations of learners while we progressively take away the means by which we learn, such as counting on our fingers [do you mean to tell me that I might find myself in a situation where I need to count and my fingers will not be available? Much like those calculators you said we would not carry in our pockets the way we quite literally do this day in age?].
Asserting that we all learn in the same way stifles our unique capabilities, something we are repetitively told is the basis of our life’s potential. As a twice exceptional learner, I experienced the consequences of this disregard quite early, and honestly, quite harshly as well. By chance and by the good grace of one of my educators, I now have a much stronger ability to communicate, and I must use this in order to point out this fundamental flaw in education that we are breeding yet still have the ability to stop before it is too late. I have a much stronger voice now, and I must use it to spare students like myself and those beyond my situation from existing in the shadows of their own selves for as long as I did.
Do not tell me I possess a unique flame of potential only to put it out on me.
Do not extinguish my light only because you would rather live in darkness.
This one is for you Mr. Nelson. Thank you for setting afire my lifelong, unlit passion for writing I otherwise never would have known I have.