A review of Reach for the Moon
E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
Reach for the Moon
Poems and Stories by
Watercolors by Charles R. Murphy
210 West Michigan, Duluth, MN 55802
The talents of young students are unveiled in many different ways. Students may have remarkable strengths, accompanied by weaknesses in one or more academic areas. Sometimes we greet this information with questions, and other times we just look at the strength areas and believe that the person will be able to succeed on his or her own as new challenges are brought forth by the school system. It is not uncommon for people to look at a person’s talents to compensate for anything that can’t be done easily. Over and over we see examples of this happening throughout the school system. Although we think that there are protections built into identifying the strengths and weaknesses of students through various diagnostic and screening tools, it all comes down to a decision made by one or more persons as to what, if anything, should be done to intervene in the child’s educational program. If a young student cannot manipulate simple numbers, most times you would seek further assessment of a broader range of skills. This, of course, is not always true.
Let me introduce you to Samantha Abeel, teenage author of Reach for the Moon published by Pfeifer-Hamilton. As a young student, Samantha’s parents realized that she was very bright. However, she often came home from school very unhappy. When a child enters school we realize that there are many new adjustments that have to be made. Some students are able to meet the requirements of the school day very easily, and others are mystified by the challenges in the educational environment. Repeated unhappiness related to school attendance is usually a marker that something is amiss. Steps are sometimes taken at the early stages, and sometimes they are not. For Samantha, the years went by and still there were some problems. The problems became more apparent in mathematics. She could memorize almost anything and some of her compensation strategies and memorization techniques masked her problems in understanding mathematical concepts. As school got harder and harder, it was clear that Samantha would have a difficult time without outside help. Sometimes that help, of course, is not easy to obtain. Even though Samantha’s parents were eager to support her any way they could, a solution was not readily available. Although an evaluation revealed that there were difficulties in Samantha’s ability to work with numbers, special help was not recommended. The comment was “she is so bright, she’ll be fine.” It was further exclaimed that “be glad it’s not a problem with reading. She can always use a calculator.”
Such a dismissal of findings from a diagnostic evaluation causes us to question how students and their parents are protected against the educational system. If it weren’t for Samantha’s mother, who was going to persevere no matter what, Samantha’s future would not have turned out as it has at this point in time. Her mother, obviously, was a teacher at heart and realized intuitively that it was important for Samantha to have opportunities to work on her strengths. She was also someone who was willing to go to the next step of contacting the teacher and encouraging her to plan a special program within the regular classroom. Samantha’s parents approached the school once again. They were confident that their personal assessment of their daughter’s abilities was quite accurate. They insisted that she be assessed and reassessed until a very clear picture of Samantha’s abilities emerged. They also invited the involvement of the teacher of students with learning disabilities, the math teacher, the guidance counselor, and, finally, they were given help for their daughter. But, of course, the diagnosis was controversial for some of the people involved.
The controversy surrounded the idea that Samantha was indeed gifted, as well as learning disabled. The existence of these two exceptionalities was questioned. Sometimes people thought that they were paradoxical traits. Other times people referred to them as dual exceptionalities that needed attention; recognizing one without the other was not enough.
Ignoring the talents and remediating the disability has been the focus of recent research. Reis, Neu, and McGuire (1994) conducted a qualitative study for The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at The University of Connecticut that centered on the accomplishments of 12 college-aged students who were bright, but also had a disability. Most of these students were not identified as having a disability at a young age. Oftentimes it became clear that the students had some learning problems in middle or high school. The ultimate recognition of the disability in later years was quite surprising, given the force of the law behind special education.
Samantha’s mother approached the teacher with a plan that was based on her personal insightfulness and intuitiveness. The weaknesses that Samantha revealed in mathematics were not to be the focus of her future educational program. The parents listened to their child; the school listened to the parents. Samantha was finally involved in special services. Samantha participated in an advanced writing class. Now her strengths were the centerpiece of her school experience. The image of school as a horrible place to be was going to change.
Samantha’s writing talents were nurtured by her teacher, and further stimulated by a family friend’s art work. Samantha’s writing ability was extremely creative, and she captured images through words. When Samantha described herself in a section of a poem entitled “Self Portrait,” she said the following:
I crawled inside a tree, became its roots, bark, and leaves,
listened to its whispers in the wind.
When fall came and painted the leaves red and gold
I wanted to shake them across your lawn
to transform the grass into a quilt, a gift spread at your feet,
but their numbers eluded me,
so I turned a piece of paper into my soul
to send to you so that you might see how easily it can be crumpled and flattened out again.
Samantha creates images for our eyes as we decode the words. The words are reactions to incredible paintings by Charles R. Murphy. Murphy’s palette and images became the lifeline for Samantha to continue her poetry and prose and unveil her talents. Reach for the Moon by Samantha Abeel and Charles R. Murphy is an incredible book that must be read by all parents who find themselves in a similar situation to the Abeel’s. A young child who struggles day to day and views school as a terrible place to be cries out for help. If those cries are not answered at first, the parents have to speak for their child and approach the school until the answer is in everyone’s best interest.
The research of Reis, Neu, and McGuire mirrors some of the experiences of Samantha’s parents. They described the pathways of creating academic success by outlining several factors that are reflective of Samantha’s journey. The continued presence of maternal support was critical. Samantha had family members who were always there for her. A second factor also mirrors the qualities of young Samantha: determination, perseverance, ethics of hard work, and sheer stubbornness. In the research by Reis, Neu, and McGuire, the 12 students learned from their experience of dealing with adversity. Samantha, too, may have had several negative situations that she confronted. She may have come out of the experiences as a stronger person; however, no one would want to have a child experience such pain for so many years without available solutions.
The idea of the creative writing project for Samantha supports another research finding by Reis, Neu, and McGuire. The writing project was really a personal plan for academic success. Samantha had a lot of potential in writing. Compensation strategies that helped her with her writing were part of the package for academic success. Samantha developed her talents, instead of just focusing on any deficits. Her talents were recognized more and more by several people. Initially, her book of prose and poetry was published locally under the title What Once was White. The self-published book gained notoriety and Pfeifer-Hamilton redesigned, updated, and published it as Reach for the Moon.
Samantha is now a teenager, and she may encounter difficult experiences throughout her lifetime. She has probably gained a self-awareness of her talents that will aid her in dealing with adversity. Anyone who picks up the book Reach for the Moon will be astounded by the story of Samantha Abeel. The art, poetry, and prose make a complete package—a marriage of talents of an artist (who also may have had struggles with school) and a young woman whose words were set free because of the intricacies of Charles Murphy’s paintings.
As you read Samantha’s story, and passages from her mother and teacher, you are touched by the path that Samantha took throughout her early years to reach such a successful point. Samantha is now sixteen, and she may look back on her accomplishments with sadness and joy. You will cherish the beauty of Samantha’s words as you read each passage. Her gifts of poetry and prose are remarkable. She makes us look at ourselves, and she projects who she will become. She has a view of the world that makes us realize where we have been and where we are going. The poem entitled If You Want to See illustrates Samantha’s view of the world:
look around you
for everything you do is
living out the legacy of those
who came before you…
Feathers, the open plain
a life following
the heartbeat of a drum.
The eyes of a people
looking with hope,
to the future.
If you want to see the present,
look around you
for it is what you are building
for those who will come
Poverty, not enough room,
the dreams have ended.
Feathers float to the ground, and
drums no longer beat their rhythm.
The eyes of a people
look on with misgiving
to the future.
If you want to see the future,
look inside you
for it is where all the building
Samantha’s life is still building; her talents are still emerging. As educators, we hope that Samantha Abeel’s talents will continue to be nurtured and expressed through ways that promote a love of learning.