Samantha Coppola ’17: The Relationship Between Dyslexia and Privilege

This article originally appeared in The Beacon Spring 2019 issue. 

Samantha Coppola ’17 has been passionate about the performing arts her entire life. It was not until she began to speak about her experience with dyslexia and equitable education for all dyslexics, however, that she would give one of her most meaningful performances. She posed the thought-provoking question: If reading is a basic human right, why is it treated as a privilege?

Diagnosed with dyslexia in kindergarten, Samantha recalls her first years in school as meaningless. “It was just the place my parents dropped me off at every day,” she says. “I was so bored in class, and I couldn’t focus. I had no understanding of what was going on; it was as though my teachers were speaking a different language than me.”

Samantha would enroll at Windward in the second grade at the Westchester Lower School. Finally able to grasp the lessons taught in class, school began to make sense to her.

“It was a life-changing experience for me to be able to go home at the end of the day and tell my parents something I had learned at school,” she recollects. “I remember that the months of the year were something I wanted to learn so badly. In third grade Ms. Lipton taught us a song to learn them. Singing that song was something I was so proud to show everyone, including all of my family members.”

Samantha’s newfound knowledge motivated her to put more effort into her schoolwork. The educational environment at Windward encouraged her to reach her full academic potential.

“I never felt rushed or pressured, which is unique to my educational experience and a feeling that I have not felt since then,” Samantha states. “Because I knew everyone else at Windward was going through the exact same journey with dyslexia, I never felt self-conscious about reading aloud. I was never embarrassed. Patience from the teachers and the other students at Windward is so normalized. I never felt judged or made to think that I was different.”

A sense of confidence and thirst for knowledge carried over to the stage once Samantha moved up from fourth to fifth grade at Windward’s Westchester Middle School. Samantha actively participated in the campus drama club and fondly remembers two musicals in which she performed during her fifth- and sixth-grade years.

“I look back on those times, and I am astounded by how creative we were encouraged to be as middle schoolers,” Samantha says. “Any crazy idea we wanted to do, we incorporated it into the show. For example, I insisted that I play a 90-year-old woman in fifth grade. So, Ms. Hooper [Windward’s current performing arts chairperson] cast that role for me because it was my dream.”

With Samantha’s completion of the Windward program after sixth grade, she outplaced to The Hackley School. Although the next two years of middle school were challenging, Samantha kept up with her classmates and felt more engaged in her studies. She enlisted the help of a math tutor who would not only help her academically but also significantly inform her understanding of societal misconceptions of dyslexia.

Her tutor, a vice principal in a Bronx public school, inspired Samantha to have further conversations about dyslexia and equitable education for dyslexics. Curious about others’ experiences in educational settings different from those with which she was familiar, Samantha was disturbed to learn that at her tutor’s school dyslexic students were placed into one large special education program. Due to the level of school funding, all students classified as needing special education, regardless of their disability, would be grouped together.

“I was struck by one story about a girl who was the same age as me, and no one ever knew she had dyslexia,” Samantha reflects. “She didn’t know how to read or write. No school or teacher ever noticed something was wrong because she was moving from foster home to foster home.

“I remember feeling like I had every opportunity in the world because my parents could afford services and schools to teach me how to learn to read. I believe reading is such a basic human right that it felt so unfair that some cannot afford the programs they need.”

After completing middle school, Samantha enrolled at The Masters School for high school. During her time there, Hackley invited her to speak to their third- and fourth-grade students to provide an accessible view of what it means to have dyslexia. She gave a speech about some of the struggles she faced with dyslexia, such as how she could not open a locker and did not like to read something aloud that she had not read before. Although most of the audience did not have dyslexia, many could relate to her challenges.

“I remember one teacher came up to me after my speech, and she was in tears because she was dyslexic, too,” Samantha says. “She had never told her students she was dyslexic because she was embarrassed and afraid that she would be judged, or they would think she’s not qualified to teach. But the way I explained dyslexia made this teacher feel proud, and she said she couldn’t wait to tell her students that she was dyslexic. That was the best compliment anyone has ever given me.”

As she continued to have conversations about education for dyslexics, Samantha began to do more research on the economic ramifications of raising a child with dyslexia. When The Masters School announced it would host a TEDx event using the TED conference form during her senior year, Samantha auditioned to speak about the topic of dyslexia and privilege. Thanks to her experience of speaking about dyslexia to teachers and elementary school students at multiple private schools across Westchester County, she was one of eleven individuals chosen to present her talk, “Dyslexia: Can You Afford It?”

“I wanted to give the TED Talk because it came from a mix of my own frustration with myself and my own privilege, as well as the frustration that so many people don’t understand that dyslexia is such a common and solvable issue,” shares Samantha. “If we believe reading is a basic right, then why is it being treated as a privilege? We’ve lost so many contributors to society due to their learning disabilities combined with their lack of financial resources. With dyslexia, we can’t afford not to afford it.”

In addition to her speeches discussing her experience as a dyslexic, Samantha also continued to take center stage in the performing arts. In her four years at The Masters School, Samantha participated in 16 productions. She served as president of the Drama Society, director, playwright, actor, costumer, screenwriter, stage manager, filmmaker, and casting director in addition to other roles so that she could explore the broad spectrum of opportunities in the theatre industry. In many of these productions, Samantha performed alongside two close friends from Windward, Laine Philipps ’18 and Dylan Douglas ’18.

Many more significant performances await Samantha’s artistic and intellectual prowess as she pursues a drama degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts under the Atlantic Acting School. In her next two years of college, she will continue exploring where to focus her talents—acting, directing, or writing.

Through more formal speaking engagements, Samantha also intends to further her advocacy work for dyslexic students, particularly those in public schools. Hopeful that all children with dyslexia will receive the specialized instruction they need, no matter their socioeconomic status, she will continue to be a vocal proponent of equitable educational opportunities for dyslexics everywhere.