Upon receiving a perfect score on a practice test for a Massachusetts state-wide exam in middle school, Cassie Pacella smiled and felt overjoyed when her teacher announced the results to her class.
Pacella felt a sense of satisfaction knowing the strides she made as a student.
However, Pacella’s smile quickly faded as classmates received their scores. They couldn’t fathom a “sped” scoring higher than them.
Pacella’s success was the rest of the class’s failure. What should have been a gratifying moment for Pacella only reinforced the demeaning comments she heard on a daily basis. When asked to explain how she got her answers, Pacella couldn’t respond to their demands. She held back tears to avoid further embarrassment from her peers.
“I should have just been in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ singing ‘If I Only Had a Brain,’ because to them, I did not,” Pacella said.
In first grade, Pacella was diagnosed with a developmental reading disorder, or dyslexia, as well as other processing issues.
Growing up, words such as “stupid” and “retard” were thrown around Pacella with complete disregard of their connotations.
“A lot of people make comments and don’t understand,” she said. “It’s not the fact that I don’t care, try or pay attention. It’s something I can’t control.”
Between 15 and 20 percent of students in the United States have dyslexia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dyslexia occurs when the brain has difficulty processing information. However, the disorder doesn’t affect one’s ability to think or interpret complex ideas, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. Typically, one may have difficulty separating sounds that compose spoken words. This is especially important in learning how to read because those skills are based on word recognition and separating sounds.
Pacella couldn’t conceptualize reading. In order to stay on track with her classmates, Pacella worked with special education teachers and studied with her own tutor every summer.
Those sessions with teachers and tutors were instrumental in providing the necessary tools for Pacella to succeed at Quinnipiac. She learned helpful study habits and came to school knowing how to succeed despite her learning disability.
Jill Williams has lived with Pacella for the last two years.
“She puts a lot of effort into her work,” she said. “Seeing her do all these all-nighters, I don’t know how she does it, and I would not be able to do what she does.”
Pacella’s other roommate Alexa Morabito believes Pacella deals with her learning disability well.
“You would never know she had a learning disability unless she told you,” Morabito said. “She’s constantly doing her work and getting stuff done.”
Recently, Pacella was accepted into the MAT program in elementary education at Quinnipiac.
“I was so happy I cried,” Pacella said about the moment she learned of her acceptance into the program. “With student teaching, I’ve done so much volunteer work; I worked at an elementary school in my town, and it was so rewarding to be able to see kids’ issues and show them tactics I used on my own to help them through theirs.”
Pacella plans to continue her education past her master’s at Quinnipiac to earn another degree in special education and hopes to help children with disabilities. Pacella knows firsthand what works and what does not for those students.
Because of her history, Morabito thinks Pacella is well-suited to be a special education teacher.
“She will always come through for you when you need her,” Morabito said. “She would be a great teacher. She could definitely relate to the kids and get through to them.”
Pacella believes students with learning disabilities can do whatever they set their mind to. Through her experiences working with children already, Pacella has learned the rewards of making a difference. She anticipates making the same impact on children in the same way her teachers did for her as a child.
“Students don’t need to think they are dumb and can’t do it,” Pacella said. “Students who don’t understand social cues have the most incredible personalities and are such sweethearts. What they know and what they understand and what they taught me is so much more than I think I could give back to them.”
Photo credit: Anna Brundage