Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I had a bit of a mixed relationship with Navi (Prophets) during middle school. I loved learning Navi because I enjoyed the intricacies of the plot lines and the lessons learned. Shoftim (Judges) is still a favorite. In class, I used to draw little cartoons instead of taking actual notes because the image was easier for me to grasp. That was in fifth grade, so once I got to middle school, particularly seventh grade, cartoon notes weren’t an option anymore. The problem was that neither did studying regular notes.

My hard relationship with Navi came with the low grades I’d received on my report card. I couldn’t understand or didn’t have the ability to memorize the who-said-to-whom and what-was-said-on-this. The lack of context and the fact that I was translating from Hebrew made me work double only to find that once I understood the question, I had no idea what the answer was. The way in which I was supposed to study for these exams didn’t work with how my brain comprehended things. Judaic topics are still taught this way, and while this may work for some, these subjects were particularly difficult for me. I did better in secular studies not because I like it better but because they were tested and taught differently.

At the time, I didn’t know the reason behind my lack of understanding and ability to memorize, so I came up with different methods of studying. Since we’d use songs to memorize lists and other details about Tanach, I would go around the dining room table and sing my notes. No one benefited from this tactic since I still performed poorly and my siblings couldn’t stand me singing. This frustrated me to no end (the fact that the songs weren’t working; not that my siblings were being annoying). I was getting A’s in dikduk (Hebrew grammar) and that was by singing the songs for all the exceptions and pronouns. Truly, that was the best part of seventh grade—because I owned dikduk. It felt good, but it didn’t make up for my D in Navi.

Flash forward to when I discovered highlighters in ninth grade. Somehow the colors helped me organize my notes and remember the material for the test. I’m not making this up when I say that I remembered what color I’d used for a certain concept. The system worked, even though my notes were very noticeable from across the room, but that was fine with me.

What also helped was that I wasn’t required to memorize the Chumash or Navi in ninth grade. I did very well that year compared to middle school. The lesson was taught in a more comprehensive manner that worked with the way I thought. Unfortunately, I spent the next two years having to be taught the same way I had in middle school since the teachers liked that way better.

Still, the highlighters weren’t the solution to my problem. What also helped was that I studied really hard. I’d work for hours to study for exams, probably more than the average girl in my class. I knew I wasn’t stupid because I was doing well in school, but something was not quite right. In 10th grade, I asked to be tested for a learning disability. Somehow I knew that there was something off about how I understood things, and I was right.

What I have is called “Specific Learning Disability” because my scores didn’t point to one particular area, such as dyslexia. The evaluation report says that they couldn’t use the number calculated because my results were very extreme. They recommended a multi-sensory approach and to have reviews and to reinforce what I’d learned, especially when learning new concepts. This was why the highlighters worked and why I had to study all the new things I’d learned every weekend. My brain processes information differently.

The report also insinuated that because I’m below “average” I’m incapable of performing well in school. After every section it said that I’d have a very hard time with a subject, such as math, writing and using a more complex vocabulary to express myself, and that I wouldn’t make progress. It’s been six years since that report was made, and when I look back on my academic accomplishments I can say that the report’s worries that I wouldn’t be able to write comprehensively or speak well is a non-issue. All it took was the chance to write both academically and for myself and to read a lot of books.

I’ve worked at those problems to the point where, yes, sometimes it’s hard to get my thoughts out clearly, but I can also perform above “average.” I’ve received A’s on papers on complicated topics that required an analysis of multiple concepts and then meshing ideas together to create a novel paper.

If I’d read the report back then, I would’ve been crushed. All I’d wanted to get out of the disability testing was an answer and a solution for my problem. I got both. I learned that I have a disability and now receive extended time for exams. There are times when I finish my exam early, and that’s OK too. The buffer gives me the courage to think a bit longer about a problem and to really think about the question I’m being asked. I learned that I can take my time because that’ll help me give the best answer. So, what if I’m not fast? Life isn’t a race, and if I can take the time to think about a problem to find the best solution then that’s fine with me.

Having a disability, whether it’s physical or mental, is an obstacle that can be overcome. I got an A in math in both senior year of high school and in college (something that me and the examination report never believed I’d ever get) and received the highest and second-highest scores for many exams in college. When people meet me for the first time, I come off as a Type A, smart person, since I participate in class, come prepared and take notes. But it’s because I do these things in addition to studying past material and reading ahead that I can appear smart. I wasn’t born brilliant, but then again, how many of us are? Everyone is capable of change; we just need to find our own way of making it happen.

Everything also comes at a price. I’ve sacrificed a lot of my free time to study and my lunch periods to get math tutoring. However, through this I’ve learned time-management skills so that I can use my free time to the fullest. I know how to make sure that I’m fully prepared for my test so I don’t have to cram at the last moment. I work on my papers and assignments, perfecting them so they make sense when I give them in. I regard my disability as a challenge rather than a stumbling block by following the route that works best for me. There are ways to learn differently in our one-sided education system.

If I were to take that evaluation test again, I know that certain things will still be difficult to do. I also know that it isn’t set in stone. A disability isn’t a crutch, but a way to redesign the world. I hope that if there are others who feel that they can’t amount to anything after reading that evaluation report, they should put that report under their bed to collect dust as they work on reaching their goals. To have knowledge is important, but knowledge can only get you so far. To use that knowledge to your advantage—that is the key to overcoming a disability.

By Sara Aliza Judasin

 Sara Aliza Judasin is a senior at Montclair State University where she studies Justice studies and uses her free time to write, sing and create change.