Alumni Spotlight: Jake McDaniel

June 06, 2019

This month’s Alumni Spotlight features a personal essay by Jake McDaniel, who attended MMFS for four years and graduated in 2017 from Muhlenberg College. Jake is currently pursuing a career as a writer. 

From a young age, I had difficulty with math and concentration. I would stare at everything from math tests to simple problems and all I could see was a bunch of random scribblings. My head hurt as I tried to formulate equations, the most mundane of problems seemingly impossible for me. At my first middle school, the result was always the same: failed exams, poorly done homework, and numerous parent-teacher conferences. Eventually, my parents realized I needed a change.

I was, of course, upset. I was being taken from a school I loved and dumped somewhere entirely alien. But my parents insisted, promising this was to help me and I agreed, eventually conceding that I wasn’t doing very well in my class nor particularly enjoying myself. So the search was on, and as I transitioned from fourth grade to fifth grade, my parents found a school in Brooklyn that seemed to be a good fit for my particular issues: Mary McDowell.

When I came to the school, nestled in Brooklyn, I was immediately drawn to it. There was a fish tank bubbling in the corner, in which swam a turtle, who I later found out was called Myrtle. I looked upward, seeing a staircase leading up into the upper foundations of the building and I felt a tinge of excitement, as my body shook with palpable nervousness and anticipation.

During my visit, I took a tour of the building, and I saw the intimate focus students experience at Mary McDowell through smaller class sizes, enabling teachers to more accurately use their various teaching styles to aid individual students. I felt seen for the first time.

I met Debbie Zlotowitz, the head of school, who engaged me in casual conversation. She expressed to me the aim of Mary McDowell: to help children with learning disabilities reach their full potential through Quaker values. I confess I didn’t understand it at the time, but I felt comfortable with the school and I nodded along, willing to give it a try.

And so began my middle school years at what was then called Mary McDowell Center for Learning. Here, I met a wide variety of teachers who engaged me on a personal level, making me feel comfortable in the classroom. I always felt it was an open environment, where I could ask a teacher to slow down, ask any number of questions I wanted, and review homework or reading material at my own pace. Slowly but surely, I overcame my math disability and my social anxiety, thanks to the huge support system. I made many friends at Mary McDowell, two of whom I’m still in touch with to this day, and have very fond memories of the institution. To be sure, there were bumps along the way, but every teacher helped me pick myself back up and made sure I could stand on my own feet.

By eighth grade, I was getting much better grades than I had previously, with most of my tests coming back with A’s and B’s, whereas before I had been a solid C student, maybe even lower. And as I graduated Mary McDowell, I felt truly confident, the school having nudged me into independence. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without their help. Although I still struggle with math, I don’t find it as incomprehensible as I once did. And that shy, socially anxious boy is a far cry from the self-assured adult I am today.

I was honored to be a student at Mary McDowell. I hope to still keep in touch with Debbie and the school at large, helping them as they helped me. Mary McDowell is a wonderful school that encourages creativity, passion, and more nuanced thinking towards students with learning disabilities. Math doesn’t seem so scary now, thanks to them, and neither does the outside world.

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