This article originally appeared in The Compass Fall 2012 issue.
That September morning, Lenora Rigoni ’09 did what so many other children do on the first day of school: she said goodbye to her mother and to the family dog, boarded the school bus, and headed for class.
But that year, things were a bit different. There were many students on the bus, of all different ages, and its itinerary did not include a stop at the Village Community School, where Lenora had spent her kindergarten and first grade years. The bus wasn’t even taking her to a school in New York City, her hometown. Instead, it headed north to Westchester County and arrived at The Windward School, where Lenora was welcomed as a new lower school student.
“I think I was nervous, for sure,” recalled Lenora, now a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio. Casting back her thoughts to that faraway first day, the art history and studio art major reflected on the two things that struck her most: being greeted by the faculty on the way into her new school building, and the large mural in the front lobby, which caught her eye as she made her way to the classroom of Ms. Janine Bartnett, her new teacher.
“It was a very welcoming way to enter the building,” she said. “I was really nervous at first, but I had really wonderful teachers. They were all amazing.”
Although Lenora’s first day went smoothly, her previous academic experiences had not been so kind. As a student at the Village Community School, the little girl’s favorite class was art (“I didn’t feel behind,” she said), while other academic subjects presented a constant challenge. “I was struggling all the time and going to tutors, and being tested for so many things,” she said. “I was behind in school and I was pretty insecure about reading. Luckily, I didn’t have too many devastating moments; Village Community School was very accommodating. They made an effort to help me while I was there.
“My parents are the best,” Lenora added. “They knew something was wrong and they took the initiative to figure it out.” It was her parents’ discovery of Windward that changed Lenora’s academic life for the better.
Although she repeated first grade upon her arrival at the School, she thrived under Ms. Barnett’s tutelage and did equally well in the second grade classroom of Ms. Alice Cohen–“a wonderful lady”–the following year. Lenora fondly recalled her language arts lessons, including learning Red Words, those non-phonetic words whose spellings are so unique they must be memorized, and skywriting with her classmates and teachers during the skills portion of the lessons.
“I got individual attention, and I had the sense that everyone was working together. I felt like I wasn’t alone, and that I was an equal,” she said brightly. “It was a nice feeling.”
Lenora’s years at Windward colored all the ones that came after, and she rapidly acquired the skills she had struggled with previously. As her reading improved, she gained more confidence and began to find that books were more interesting and intriguing for her. “I was reading for pleasure rather than struggling through everything. I’d never done that before because I didn’t know how,” she said. Windward’s art classes also occupied a spot on her list of favorites, as did that all-important Lower School activity: recess.
The budding artist remained at Windward through the fourth grade, returning to her native New York City at the close of that academic year. She enrolled at Brooklyn Friends School, where her new classmates were just learning the intricacies of paragraph writing, an important skill she had already acquired thanks to her time at Windward.
“They were learning in fifth grade what I had learned right away at Windward–how to set up and write a paragraph. My mom was so shocked that they were learning that in fifth grade, and I had learned it already,” she said. “Windward taught me how to read, and at this point it’s just natural. They taught me how to make an outline, which is probably the most important thing they taught me about writing. To this day, I cannot write a paper without using an outline. If I try, it’s a mess! It’s crucial to how I write.”
Lenora spent her middle school years, as well as her freshman year of high school, at Brooklyn Friends before transferring to the Hewitt School, a girls’ school in Manhattan. For Lenora, the move was prompted by a desire to challenge herself, something she continues to do today as a college student. “My time at Windward influenced how I think about learning, and I always want to work harder,” she explained. “Hewitt provided a more structured and organized academic program that I felt was more in line with the challenges I was looking for at that time. Brooklyn Friends was an amazing school, though.”
She graduated from the Hewitt School in 2009 with academic and humanitarian honors and headed off to Oberlin that fall. During the college application process, her class counselor encouraged her to consider Oberlin among her myriad choices. A visit to the campus and an academic scholarship award sealed the deal, and Lenora has been happily ensconced there ever since. “They have a pretty dynamic set of people,” she said, of Oberlin’s small student body. “The people who go here are creative and interesting.”
She is one of them. The high school student who loved art classes and summer-themed art trips, and who filled up her free time with dance classes at the 92nd Street Y and Steps on Broadway, one of New York City’s premier dance studios, gravitated to Oberlin’s highly regarded art department. Her studio art work concentrates on mixed media, and she has studied everything from drawing to abstract art. She enjoys installation work as an art medium, and prefers to work with everyday objects when creating art. She is also taking coursework on how to use computer tools and design software, such as Illustrator, in the art studio.
“I dabble in a lot of different things,” Lenora said, of her artistic endeavors. “I don’t have a specific medium. I like playing around and messing up and making mistakes and solving them. Windward taught me how to solve problems, and now I can do that through art.”
When she isn’t in the art studio, Lenora’s major focus of study also centers on art history. Although she enjoys art’s modern and postmodern periods, she has found herself captivated by some of art’s older works, such as the paintings by Italian artist Gentile Bellini, which she studied in a Renaissance art history course. Her love of art took her abroad to Italy during her junior year, where she studied art history in Rome, and she also spent a summer studying at SACI (Studio Art Centers International) in Florence, where she tackled Italian and enrolled in a silkscreen class.
“I’ve always struggled with learning different languages,” Lenora explained. “When I was in Florence, I was in a small class with my best friend, who is hilarious and confident. She encouraged me to go for it, and Windward taught me to do that, too. “Windward taught me to be confident,” she added. “I no longer feel my dyslexia is a challenge. It doesn’t bother me. I’m proud to say it.”
Lenora is looking forward to her graduation from Oberlin this coming May, and is considering a number of different options for her career path. She has undertaken internships in art galleries, which she enjoyed, and is also considering enrolling in a design program at an art school. She hopes to forge a career in which her creative talents can be put to good use.
She credits her ability to pursue this path to her years at Windward. “It’s a warm environment that facilitates creativity in a structured manner for people who have dyslexia,” Lenora said. “There is a lot of attention and encouragement and extremely kind and helpful teachers, who help you find a way to read and write and work in society.”