Callie Toal '18: Turning Disabilities into Gifts

This article originally appeared in The Beacon Spring 2018 issue.

Throughout elementary school, Callie Toal ’18 knew she was different. When her classmates were reading, she would pretend to read. Instead of raising her hand to answer a question, she would remain silent. If homework needed to be turned in, she would say she lost it. All of that changed when she came to Windward. As Callie heads off to college next fall, she knows she will go with a firm foundation and the right tools to succeed.

From pre-K to fourth grade, Callie attended a school where her ADHD created constant obstacles to her success. “She was never able to focus on one task, and she would jump from one thing to the next, even when telling stories,” her mother, Julie Leeds, recalls. Looking back, Callie remembers the impact that her early years of education had on her confidence: “I thought I was stupid or the other kids were smarter.”

While her classmates were learning, a teacher suggested that Callie rub quarters together during class because “she thought it would help me focus and sit still.” Rather than contributing to class, the typically social and outgoing Callie became too nervous to participate. The atmosphere became so toxic that teachers threatened to stop teaching her because she wasn’t like the other students. Her self-esteem plummeted. “I had my name picked out to read a story, and as I struggled, I could see my teacher smirking and hear my classmates laughing,” she remembers.

While her parents knew Callie had ADHD from the young age of three, her diagnosis of dyslexia was not made until second grade; and despite having a specialized tutor in third grade, Callie did not fully understand the meaning of her dyslexia diagnosis. Callie’s parents had heard about Windward from good friends and decided that fifth grade would be a good time to transition Callie to a new school. Prior to beginning at Windward, Callie visited the school as part of the admissions process. “I remember visiting a language arts classroom, and they were ‘scooping words.’ Witnessing that process made reading seem so much easier. I knew then that this was going to be the right school for me,” she adds.

Callie’s first day of school at Windward was the end of teachers not understanding her needs and peers laughing at her because she was different from them. There would be no more name-calling of “lazy,” “daydreamer,” “passive,” or “stupid.” She recalls, “When I arrived at Windward, I remember getting ready to read in class, and it occurred to me that everyone was the same as me. When I was called to read in class, no one laughed. The teachers wanted to stay and help me. I felt comfortable asking a question without someone thinking I was stupid.”

That pivotal first day brought another momentous occasion for Callie and her family: a painless evening of doing homework. “When I came home from my first day of school, my parents asked me if I needed help. Homework was always a nightmare, but that evening I completed my homework all by myself. I didn’t need their help. The evening wasn’t a complete mess like it had been many nights before,” she remembers.

Callie’s progress in learning strategies to succeed continued at Windward through eighth grade. Throughout her childhood, Callie had always participated in sports. “I played everything, and I’ve always been extremely competitive,” she remarks. While she participated in Windward’s soccer program in fifth grade, Callie would move on to club sports for the rest of her adolescence. The juggling of sports and academics helped instill discipline in Callie. “Playing sports, especially soccer, really helped teach me to work hard and have the discipline to get my work done. I couldn’t play sports if I wasn’t doing well in school—and that was not an option for me,” she shares.

With discipline firmly in her skill set, she would soon add time management and organization. “Windward really helped me manage my time and kept me organized. Before Windward, I shoved all my papers into my backpack. I wasn’t sure what was homework or not. At Windward, they gave us binders to organize our papers. It really helped me keep things in order,” she reminisces. Discipline, time management, and organization were all essential to making the most out of the eighth-grade study skills class: how to write a research paper. “If I had left Windward without being able to write a research paper well, I wouldn’t have survived,” she asserts

After Windward, Callie enrolled in Blair Academy, a boarding school in New Jersey, where she is currently finishing her senior year. No longer afraid to raise her hand in class, Callie participated in a sophomore speech competition in which she shared with her audience what it is like to be in the mind of someone with ADHD and dyslexia. “Windward really helped me understand my learning disabilities because before I attended, I didn’t understand them at all.” She continues, “I also hated public speaking, but thanks to Windward and having to present in study skills class, I became used to public speaking. I learned to be calm, stop fidgeting, and stay on point.” Callie would end up taking first place at that speech competition.

Callie’s discipline, time management, and resilience have remained with her at Blair Academy. “Callie will never back away from a challenge,” her mother points out. “If Callie is told that a class is too challenging or that she does not have to take the class due to her IEP, she will take the class and succeed. Callie was also exempt from taking a foreign language. Most kids would be thrilled with that idea—but not Callie. She ended up taking one for three years!”

The next challenge for Callie will be attending Kenyon College and playing college-level soccer in the fall. With a foundation for success firmly secure, Callie is extremely grateful that Windward taught her to be her best advocate and never to be ashamed of her disabilities. Instead, she sees her disabilities as gifts and opportunities to offer a different perspective of the world. “I hope people like me look at their differences and disabilities and embrace them. Maybe they will turn out to be the key gifts that lead you to do things no one else thought you could. I have ADHD and dyslexia, and I’m proud of it. It makes me who I am, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”