By Aaron Moeller
Photo by Matthew Mateo
My brain is an F5 tornado. It spins, twirls me around endlessly, and is highly unstable. After joining college again after three years off, I did not remember how to read or write. I had to teach myself.
I have autism, and seven other diagnoses, including complex PTSD, ADHD, and OCD. I am neurodivergent. My entire life, I had not been civically engaged and did not know how to be. I had yet to start reading my first book. My hands would tremble when I tried to write an essay. My head would spin off my shoulders for any given test. I had lost hope. Why is my brain like this?
Then it happened, during my first semester at ACC. I received my first bad grade: an F on a paper I had spent 15 straight hours writing. I emailed my teacher, Shellee O’Brien, some things I should not repeat.
My ego was destroyed. I tried to read the entire book. I did the work. But I still got an F. Why? I met with Professor O’Brien during our first office hours where I was poised and ready to attack. How dare she not give me a perfect score? I poured my entire life and soul into this; why did I get an F? I demanded a rebuttal from her.
To my surprise, she looked me in the eye and began speaking calmly. She explained where I had skewed off track during my essay, and I realized I was wrong. I knew from her tone that she didn’t try to “win” or have a “gotcha” moment with me. I spoke with her for two hours, not knowing my life would be changed forever because of that call.
This was the first time I felt I had a teacher who cared about me.
We ended the call with her telling me that I could do anything I set my mind to, and I knew I could count on her. I had finally found a mentor.
After that day, I began my next writing assignment. She had told me not to worry about this old one, and I didn’t. I focused. I sat for another fifteen hours and wrote my following essay. Was this something that I could do now? Could I be a writer? Do I have a voice? Is someone going to care what I have to say?
I turned in my essay and got an A. This was the first A I had ever received since I dropped out of high school at 15. I was ecstatic; this was one of the best days of my life. I went outside and shouted to the sky, “I made it.” Because I did. They were my words on the paper, and for the first time, I was heard.
I quickly went back to Blackboard and checked my history class grade. Fail. I began to sob and mentally retreated into myself. Why was my brain doing this? How can I get my first A and an F simultaneously? Why do I remember everything from the other class but nothing from the one I failed? I made it my mission to find out.
I met with Professor O’Brien again and explained what was happening, asking her what the secret was. She told me it was something called “Great Questions.”
Great Questions pedagogy is centered around teaching discussion-based texts and creating lesson plans that allow your students to find their voice. This is immensely powerful, especially for a neurodivergent student like me, who knows that the education system was not created for everybody. Great Questions focuses on collaboration, not rote-memorization. It also focuses on the concepts of the material rather than memorizing answers to regurgitate on an exam.
I was still confused. I thought the answer was simple: suck it up. That is what I have been told my entire life. I perfected the art of masking after my childhood trauma. Everyone tells me, “You don’t look autistic,” or “You look so happy.” If only they knew how I felt. If only they knew every single thought that entered my brain.
But I’m not special. Millions of other people feel this daily. They are stuck inside a system that just isn’t made for them. They try to claw their way “out” at their own expense, only to realize there isn’t one.
Professors don’t have it easy, either. They are thrown out of graduate school after getting a degree, with all the weight of the world thrust upon them, alone, like me. They are expected to care for hundreds of students, each with preconceived notions of how a typical class should be. It is not easy or wise to go against the status quo.
Students expect the teachers to make things easy to learn and perfect in every way, which usually means some rote-memorization style teaching method. A rinse and repeat method: memorize this and that, pass the exam, then forget it all. But O’Brien showed me how things could be different. She went against the norm and had the vulnerability to try something new, which changed my life. The secret is that she was active and engaged in my education, a special method implemented in the Great Questions program.
I know it is not easy. Academic freedom isn’t as good as it is made to seem. Throw in overloaded and stressed students, hundreds of them, with hundreds if not thousands of essays to read, all while keeping a close and tight-knit relationship with the student. It’s practically impossible. Students learn early not to expect much, and teachers are just trying to get by with what they have.
I have a new challenge.
I am challenging professors to challenge themselves. We can all become active readers and writers. Create lesson plans that are discussion based, and allow your students to have a voice, as O’Brien did for me. Give me a chance to realize I am a part of the big picture, and what I say matters. Give me a chance to mess up, and help me back up. Have fun with me.
I know it is hard to try something new, but it is an act of solidarity. In my case, I learned I had a voice, something I never knew I had since I was eleven years old after my offender assaulted me.
But I survived.
Being comorbid with so many diagnoses has challenged me, but I survived. I have faith that teachers will also survive.
After finding my voice, I now eat and sleep better, have become a leader within multiple communities, and am pursuing journalism as a passion for spreading awareness of the disenfranchisement of neurodivergent people.
Before this, I was stuck inside for three years, extremely cloistered with trauma-induced symptoms. I know Great Questions pedagogy has the potential to change a student’s life forever. It changed mine.
My therapist described my reality as “walking in a snowstorm while everyone around me is on a beach,” and I had never felt more validated.
Growing up and never meeting my father traumatized me and left me seeking guidance, but finding a mentor within my professor allowed me to blossom into the real-life human I am today.
After two years, I will be the first in my family to graduate and the first one to publish anything, and that is possible due to people like my Professor Shellee O’Brien and the Great Questions pedagogy who are willing to try something new.