By Jeanne Talbot P'20
Students challenged with learning differences don’t often grow up believing, or being told, they are smart and can be successful in school or in life beyond the classroom. In fact, stinging comments about the likelihood of not succeeding linger, can carve tracks of negative thought patterns, and build walls of academic insecurity for years.
But Landmark seniors Catherina DiGiovanni, Anna Hughson, Alice Schwechheimer, Elizabeth Theriault, Isabel West, and Greta Wright have proven their early childhood naysayers wrong by being named North Shore Scholars; an achievement awarded by the North Shore Chamber of Commerce to those graduating in the top 5% of their class.
All six young women were shocked and yet immensely proud to learn of their achievement and recognition. What they also have in common is early memories of feeling different and separate from students who learn in traditional ways and whose brains function “by the book” that wasn’t written for them. All six are graduating from high school at the top of their class and all will attend college in the fall. All six say Landmark helped them overcome obstacles, see their learning differences as gifts, learn to advocate for themselves in and out of the classroom, and create their own definition of success.
Hockey is in Catherina DiGiovanni’s blood and so Landmark was definitely not the place for her. Or so she thought. Catherina is one of five children, who are all passionate about being on the ice. Even though her sister had attended Landmark, Catherina came to Landmark “kicking and screaming” as a freshman. It wasn’t until sophomore year that she stopped “looking for a fight,” she says. “I was told that I would never be a good writer and that made everything about school harder,” Catherina says. “I learned to advocate for myself, built relationships with teachers, met new people and played varsity volleyball.”
Catherina says she never thought she’d graduate in the top 5% of her class and credits the support of her family for making a Landmark education a reality for her. “I commuted more than an hour each way, every day to Landmark, but it was worth it.”
Catherina will attend Sacred Heart University in the fall and plans to major in neuroscience. “My public school teachers never knew how to help me, and I hope I can use my education to make it easier for kids like me in the future,” Catherina says.
Anna (AJ) Hughson
AJ was told she’d never go to college. Guess what? She’ll be attending Emerson College in the fall, majoring in acting.
Her early school years were fraught with negative messages that made her work doubly hard in order to avoid the consequences of poor grades. “My brother is a math savant and it was hard to grow up knowing I was so different from everyone else,” AJ says.
AJ found a spotlight on the Landmark stage, performing in many shows and cabarets during her freshman and sophomore years. Her biggest lesson, however, is that she is smart. “I never believed that but now I do.”
Alice cried every day of first grade. A fourth-generation dyslexic, she joined Landmark in second grade. “Reading didn’t make sense to me until sixth grade,” Alice says. The small class sizes and individual attention from teachers made all the difference.
At Landmark, she says, it’s been comforting to be surrounded by people who understand. But, for 10 months, Alice left her home and school and was a foreign exchange student in Norway. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Alice says she’ll miss the people most, but she won’t miss the rigid structure of Landmark or the looming fear of homework makeup – which she is proud to say only happened once.
Alice’s next home, beginning in the fall, will be Bennington College in Vermont. “I just knew it was the place for me. It had the right vibe,” she says. “It’s a place for independent thinkers, artists, and nerds.”
Liz Theriault’s learning differences were diagnosed in fifth grade, after years of challenges in the classroom, being told she wouldn’t graduate from high school and being singled out from her peers. Liz was anxious about school because it was so difficult. Teachers told her it was her anxiety that was the source of her challenges. In eighth grade she was diagnosed with dyslexia, but it wasn’t until freshman year that she came to Landmark as a boarding student.
“I made pretty quick progress,” Liz says. “I entered the summer program reading at the third-grade level and I was reading at the eighth-grade level by the end of my freshman year. I could see progress and that helped with my self confidence.” Liz also says that the teaching approach at Landmark made all the difference. “Teachers could teach me, and I could learn. There’s no shame anymore,” she says.
Liz is both grateful and proud. “I have been so fortunate to be able to go to Landmark and I really tried to make the most of my education,” she says. Liz’s education while at Landmark extended to a volunteer position at Beverly Hospital, helping nurses and patients.
She faced other challenges at Landmark too. In her junior year, her father was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in the fall of 2019. It was through his battle with cancer that Liz decided to pursue a career in nursing. “Seeing how good the nurses were to my dad and to our whole family made me realize how much I want to help others and give back,” she says. On the path to making that dream a reality, Liz will attend Merrimack College for nursing in the fall. “It’s my choice to be successful and for the first time in my life, I know I am.”
Isabel (isa) West
Isa knew how to work hard and was an “A” student in public school because she knew how to work the system. Despite good grades, she wasn’t truly learning. “My comprehension was the issue,” she says. “I worked twice as hard as everyone else, but I was learning half as much.”
Isa read and fully understood her first chapter book at Landmark and loves to read now. “Being quarantined for COVID-19 has given me a lot more time to read and it’s great. I’m also re-discovering art.”
Isa has appreciated the shared identity that comes with the community at Landmark. “It’s empowering to be surrounded by people just like me. I no longer have to hide my disability. It’s been a shock to be acknowledged with this recognition. I never thought I’d be able to do this well.” Isa hopes to find a new shared community at Oberlin College, where she’ll attend this fall.
Greta Wright did not want to come to Landmark at first. “I didn’t want to leave my middle school and I just went through the motions at Landmark at first,” says Greta. It wasn’t until sophomore year that she became accountable for her own learning and that everything changed. By senior year, Greta was taking introduction to psychology, introduction to statistics, child growth and development, and emergency first responder classes at North Shore Community College.
Now I’m able to understand my learning disability and use it as an advantage,” Greta says. “I have tools I can use that I had taken for granted that now make me successful.”
What are Greta’s plans after Landmark? She’ll be attending the University of Vermont, pursuing a bachelor of science degree in exercise science. Her goal is to work with kids in a way that promotes health and well-being.
Despite the recognition of being North Shore Scholars, Catherina, AJ, Liz, Greta, Isa, and Alice all know that true success isn’t defined by an award given by someone else. It comes from inside and the knowledge that success is ours to define. What all six know is that Landmark helped pave the way and that they are now ready to fly.
Jeanne Talbot is the mother of Nicole Talbot, a member of Landmark's Class of 2020. When she’s not helping Nicole chase her dreams on stage, she is senior manager of customer marketing for CloudBees, a small software company. She has worked for tech companies in a variety of marketing, communications, and PR roles for more than 25 years. In the midst of COVID-19, Jeanne has found it difficult to accept that helping others means staying home and sitting on her couch. Sharing her writing talents has been one way she’s giving back.