Breaking through learning disabilities


August 19, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Numbers jumbled in Samantha Abeel's head. She was in seventh grade, and she couldn't count money or tell time or remember phone numbers.

"It was hard, because a lot of teachers said, 'You look normal. You don't look like you have a learning disability,' " Ms. Abeel said. "They didn't realize you don't have to have eight eyes or look like you're from Mars to be learning disabled."

Ms. Abeel, who enters 11th grade this fall, was in Baltimore last week during a tour to introduce her remarkable book, "Reach for the Moon" (Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, $17.95, 48 pages, all ages).

In the introduction to her collection of poems and short stories, illustrated in stunning watercolors by Charles R. Murphy, Ms. Abeel writes: "LD does not mean 'lazy and dumb.' It just means you have another way of looking at the world."

Her vision of the world is full of imagery. Her verse is elegant, offering insights and observations far beyond her years -- Ms. Abeel was 13 when she began writing the poems and prose that were to become this book.

It started out as an exercise devised by Roberta Williams, Ms. Abeel's seventh-grade English teacher at Traverse City (Mich.) West Junior High School. By seventh grade, Ms. Abeel's math disability dragged her down in most subjects. Going to school was torture, and she began suffering panic attacks. English class rescued her for one hour every day.

"Sam wouldn't say boo in class, but she was turning in these dynamite writing assignments," said Elizabeth Abeel, Samantha's mother. "I asked Roberta to work with Sam that summer to nurture that one kernel of self-esteem she had left."

Ms. Williams came up with a creative writing project. Charles Murphy, a family friend, contributed slides and photos of his watercolors, which are layered with images open to interpretation. Samantha was to study a painting and write about how it made her feel.

"Charlie left the first one, 'The Cloak,' and Sam went upstairs with it and came down a short time later with the poem," Elizabeth Abeel said. "She floored me with this piece. It was just as it appears in the book -- I think maybe two words were edited."

The project went so well, the Abeels and Mr. Murphy got the crazy notion to self-publish the paintings and poems as a book.

"A stupid idea, very stupid," Elizabeth Abeel said.

Their Hidden Bay productions printed 3,000 copies of "What Once Was White" and marketed it in northern Michigan.

"Within a few weeks I was getting calls from stores in California, asking for copies," Mrs. Abeel said.

Pfeifer-Hamilton, a small publishing house in Duluth, Minn., entered the picture. It had had a lot of success in 1993 with "Old Turtle," an environmental fable.

Pfeifer-Hamilton redesigned and reorganized "What Once Was White," renamed it "Reach for the Moon," released it this month and asked Samantha and her mother to take part in a whirlwind publicity tour.

"One of the best parts is that every time I have a book signing, kids who are learning disabled come up to say, 'I'm in special ed classes, too,' " Samantha said.

"It sends goosebumps down your spine. One kid who was in high school said he was buying the book to take it home to show his parents that this is what it means to have a learning disability."

The book opens with Samantha's eloquent description of her own struggles, and the relief she felt when she was finally recognized as LD in eighth grade and began taking special education classes.

"Remember that if you have trouble in school, it might not be because you don't fit the school, it might be because the school doesn't fit you," she writes. "Be an advocate for yourself."

At the end of the book, Elizabeth Abeel writes an essay that will inspire parents to keep fighting if their kids need help. Roberta Williams, Samantha's former English teacher, writes an essay that will inspire educators:

"I suspect that many more Samanthas sit in our classrooms: the quiet ones who hide out in the back, the ones who always 'forget' their homework or constantly apologize, the ones who cover up by distracting us with their behavior, their language or their attitude."

There's a page of suggestions for parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability, plus two organizations to contact for more information: the Learning Disabilities Association of America in Pittsburgh (412-341-1515) and the Orton Dyslexia Society in Towson (410-296-0232).

And then there is a poem by Samantha, titled "To a Special Teacher," that reads, in part:

When the plain brown seed was planted,

you could already smell the fragrance of

the flower that was to come,

and you were proud

as a good gardener should be.

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