As a dyslexic adult, Nancy Hammill makes a difference in the lives of others everyday. Here’s her story.
The Cheese Stands Alone
My earliest memory of school is from kindergarten when we played the Farmer and the Dell. I was chosen last, so I had to be the cheese. I stood alone in a circle as my peers holding hands, skipped around me singing
“The cheese stands alone.
The cheese stands alone.
Hi-ho, the derry-o.
The cheese stands alone.”
It turned out to be a metaphor for my school career and how I felt around others during those years. I always felt awkward, frustrated, filled with self-doubt, and standing alone.
I only made marginal progress with reading and writing throughout second, third, fourth, and fifth grade. I had trouble telling time and learning math facts. I mispronounced sounds and words, and went to speech class. I failed spelling tests and math tests. I had poor fine motor skills and sat in the lowest reading group everyday. Although I wasn’t formally diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD until graduate school, my father (who is dyslexic) was aware that my learning difficulties were not a result of IQ or motivation. The school’s position was that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
At the end of fifth grade, my parents decided to have me repeat the grade in hopes to have me catch up with my peers. This was an extremely difficult decision for my parents, but after years of battling with the school and seeing their child struggle they felt like it was the only option. I was devastated. All summer long, I would wait until we were in the car and would let loose about how they were ruining my life. I was a beast. Honestly, I am surprised I made it to the fall without them wringing my neck.
Mrs. Mary Jane Nauss, my fifth grade teacher, was dynamic, creative, and was the first teacher to ever like me. My parents felt like she was my only hope, lucky they were right! She formed the exclusive Phonics Club, membership one - me. I met with her after school everyday for two years. Mrs. Nauss with her high-heels, diet coke and quirky humor, armed with a bounty of snacks, taught me the code. Although I wasn’t cured, not even close, Mrs. Nauss’s nurturing put me on the path of success.
Pressure to Succeed
During high school and college, I became hyper-focused on succeeding, a quest to prove I was smart. Succeeding at school defined my self-worth and my intelligence. It was extremely difficult. I did not receive any services, supports, or accommodations. I had a lot of shame and self-doubt. I feared that people would see me as defective if I came out needing help. I did it all with flashcards, hours of studying, and hounding my professors. I put a great deal of pressure on myself. I wasn’t emotionally healthy, suffering from perfectionism and anxiety attacks. However, I performed well. I even became a National Officer of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and traveled around the United States talking to college students. It was like living a double life.
Inclusion Benefits All
In the 1990’s, I became involved in the Inclusion movement during a college internship. Its philosophy was embedded in Civil rights – that the general education system needed to be more inclusive, to better serve all students. It was empowering. It flipped the script for me. Instead of believing in a one-size fits all classroom, the inclusion movement embraced the idea that schools could accommodate and educate differences. I marched on Washington D.C.. I decided I should become a teacher. I accepted a job in education and went to graduate school at night. At 24 years old, I mustered the courage to get formally tested. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. I received my first accommodation on my teacher state exam.
Strength from Weakness
I think many of my strengths, like my weaknesses, are directly linked to my learning disabilities. My struggles have made me empathetic, organized, and a constant problem-solver, whether I want to be or not. However, I think my greatest strength is my tenacity and “stick to it- iveness”. I am like a dog with a bone when I put my mind to something. I never quit on a goal. I totally believe that if you work long enough and hard enough there isn’t a goal you won’t eventually meet. To believe is a power that no force on earth can stop. That being said, I still struggle with self-doubt – that I am not smart enough. It is something that I need to frequently put into check.
Effective Life Hacks
The luxury of being an adult is that you can craft your life to your strengths and interests – and I have done just that. Also, technology really helps my organization and writing. However, I still frequently stump spell check. I think my most effective life hack is good old-fashioned kindness. I learned long ago that people are more forgiving and more likely to help people they like. At work, I am a team player. I give freely, try to support others, and reserve judgment. It creates the type of relationships that allows me to ask for help. Let’s face it, if you are dyslexic there are times you need an editor!
A Message to Adult Dyslexics
Accept yourself and the beautiful brain that has been given to you. Take the time understand your strengths and vulnerabilities. With your team, prepare a list of reasonable accommodations that support you, bring the list with you to college and pursue these accommodations. It will take self-advocacy skills and confidence to effectively get the help you may need. Don’t be ashamed! Accept that you may have different educational needs than your friends without learning and/or attention problems, and that is okay. Then go for your dreams…
My Work at Cooper Learning Center
After receiving a Master’s degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street School of Education in New York City, I began teaching in Montclair, New Jersey. I taught grades 3 through 5, both inclusion team teaching and resource room. When my husband and I relocated to Southern New Jersey, I accepted a job as a learning therapist for the Cooper Learning Center. As part of Cooper University Hospital’s Department of Pediatrics, the Cooper Learning Center is distinguished as the region’s only child-learning program affiliated with a university-level medical center. I have developed extensive training in Orton Gillingham, Lindamood-Bell®, Project Read, a certified Teacher Expectation Student Achievement (TESA) trainer, and a Certified Self-Regulation Alert Program Leader. For the last decade, I have provided literacy remediation in public and private schools. I was honored to be the recipient of the 2016 National Learning Disabilities Educator of the Year Award, presented by the Learning Disability Association of America, as well as asked to serve on the New Jersey Board of the International Dyslexia Association. It’s been a remarkable year.
Pictured from left, Elliott Sikes, Nancy J. Hammill, and Liam Gonzales - Read Across America Day.
I love that my position allows me to draw upon my professional expertise and my firsthand experience with dyslexia to help people of all ages overcome their learning challenges to achieve success. With time my responsibilities evolved to include adult education. As Cooper Learning Center’s Professional Development Coordinator, I design and facilitate research-based literacy trainings and coaching opportunities for schools and educators. I also develop community programs, making a difference for families navigating their own educational journeys. One of my proudest accomplishments with Cooper Learning Center has been designing and implementing a professional conference, Facets of Dyslexia, in my region of New Jersey on Dyslexia. The goal for establishing the conference was to provide access to quality information and promote a deeper understanding of Dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities to my community. I feel extremely lucky to be doing the work I do… everyday I work with people making a difference in the lives of others. It doesn’t get better than that in my opinion.
Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your story with us!