BANGOR, Maine — In fifth grade, Shayne Andersen was reading at a second-grade level.
When her parents voiced concerns that she may be having neural or medical problems, school officials had a very blunt response.
“My parents went to my teachers and the special education teacher requested testing,” Andersen said. “What they [school officials] kept saying was I had been given all the skills, tools and strategies to be able to read, but I was just lazy.”
Seven years later, Andersen is a college-bound high school graduate with high honors who is heavily involved in volunteer work, a tireless advocate for two causes, and a contender for the Miss Maine crown.
Since the school didn’t have money available for testing in the budget, Tonya Andersen, a retired registered nurse, and her husband, Dr. Christian Andersen, finally paid to have their daughter tested in sixth grade.
“I just couldn’t comprehend how she could seem so intelligent on so many levels but be so difficult to educate,” said Christian Andersen. “We knew something was wrong, but we couldn’t convince anyone else.”
That was before Dr. Jonathan Heeren tested Shayne and confirmed she had severe dyslexia.
“I tested in the lowest 1 percentile, which was Down syndrome level, in four areas: auditory and visual processing, spatial and shapes,” Andersen explained. “But on the other end of the spectrum, I had a high IQ. So I basically met somewhere in the middle.”
There was no middle ground for her as a student at John Bapst Memorial High School, which initially turned Anderson down but then enrolled her on a trial basis largely with the assistance of Dedham schoolteacher Tom Christie and Colleen Grover, Bapst’s former dean of admission and college counseling.
“I don’t believe I have ever met a student — and 34 years in education means a lot of students met — who has had such a positive attitude in the face of challenges,” said Grover.
At John Bapst, the 18-year-old from Dedham played three varsity sports, was a member of seven clubs and activities, earned 11 different awards and scholarships, and worked as a personal care assistant for a disabled person.
“Shayne is the kind of student everyone wants in their classroom and the kind of teenager everyone wants as their own,” Grover said. “She is motivated, hardworking beyond belief, and unquestionably ethical.”
This month, Bapst’s student senate vice president graduated with high honors after taking four Advanced Placement courses, being active with clubs, and volunteering for everything from Sunday school to the Children’s Miracle Network despite battling serious illness through the school year.
She also accidentally entered the Miss Lincoln Lakes pageant — and won it.
“My friend was competing in a pageant down in Portland so I asked my mom if I could go down with her. Mom thought it meant I wanted to be in a pageant and she said I was too sick to go,” Shayne Andersen recalled. “A month or so later, she came up and asked me what my talent was going to be. I had no idea what she was talking about, so she said she signed me up for a pageant in a few weeks. I didn’t want to be in one, but I decided to try it and give it 100 percent. I figured it would be a good chance to get my message about autism and dyslexia out.”
Andersen, who pairs autism with dyslexia as her chief causes because of a longtime friend who is persevering in spite of his severe autism, is now preparing to compete in the Miss Maine Pageant on June 16 at Brunswick High School.
Pain and perseverance
Scholastic achievement is nothing new for Andersen. She earned straight A’s on her report cards in grade and middle school, but only with a LOT of work.
“When I got into first and second grade, what would take my peers a couple minutes to learn — say 10 vocabulary words — would take me two to three hours, and the next day I would completely forget them,” she recalled.
In seventh grade, Andersen began getting help from Cedena McAvoy, a private tutor.
“After that, my reading level went from second to 12th grade in about 12 months,” Andersen said. “Then I really started pushing myself.”
As a freshman, 12-hour study days were more the norm than the exception for Andersen. That eventually decreased to eight and then six hours.
“We got so we had to time her and limit her to four hours a day,” said Tonya Andersen.
But that didn’t quite work.
“I was having panic attacks in the middle of the night, so I’d get up and study once I knew they were in bed,” recalled Shayne Andersen, who says she also has obsessive-compulsive disorder.
There was another reason for Andersen’s behavior. Shortly after her freshman year began, she was diagnosed with a serious medical condition, which the Andersens prefer not to identify, requiring her to take as many as nine different medications at one time, undergo two surgeries and receive regular chemotherapy.
Andersen’s parents said one of the major side effects of her treatment was an inability to sleep because her brain was overly active.
“So I said it was just easier to let her go,” said her mother. “It was tough for us to watch. She was studying seven or eight hours a day on weekdays, and on weekends she’d study another 12 hours a day and sometimes miss church on Sunday because she’d studied right through. Sometimes she’d study until 2 a.m. and get up at 6.”
If that wasn’t enough, Andersen developed an allergy to her chemotherapy treatment, which made her very sick. She spent virtually an entire month lying in bed and vomiting frequently. She was losing hair and quite a bit of weight. Her nails stopped growing.
“I missed about a third of my senior year between sick days and leaving early,” said Andersen. “I was put on two cancer medications and it just knocked me out. Sometimes, by 10 a.m. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t stand, let alone focus, so I’d have to leave school.”
Thinking of college
Andersen graduated on time with a grade average of 96 and has been accepted at a few different colleges, including her first choice, Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., where she wants to earn a medical degree.
But she may put that all on hold if she wins the title of Miss Maine.
“I saw pageants as just a beauty contest, but as I went through the process, I found out it’s not that and it’s not just about scholarship,” said the blond, blue-eyed teenager. “They aren’t looking for the fake Barbie doll who looks best. They’re looking for the whole package.
“When I won the Miss Lincoln Lakes title, it was a blessing from God for me because it’s a perfect vehicle to address and highlight learning disabilities, especially dyslexia and autism,” she said.
Shayne Andersen has a longtime friend from childhood who has autism.
“That’s why autism is such a big part of my platform,” she said. “It’s a lot like my dyslexia where it’s just about finding the right keys to go into the locks. I was getting the information fine. It was recalling it from wherever my brain was putting it that was the problem.”
Talking openly about her dyslexia is a recent development. Until now, Andersen has shared details about it only with family and her best friend.
“I didn’t want my friends to have to feel bad for me or treat me differently, so I really didn’t tell anyone about it,” she said.
Andersen’s pageant talent exhibition involves performing inspirational poetry that she has written — something dyslexics are not supposed to be able to do.
“I was told I couldn’t be artistic and dyslexics can’t read poetry, let alone write it because we’re unable to pick up on the structure and rhythm of a piece,” she said.
It’s yet another example of Andersen’s adept ability to overcome obstacles.
“I take every challenge and bit of adversity that comes my way on and I think it’s helped me become a more mature and a stronger person,” said Andersen, whose favorite book is Homer’s “The Odyssey.” “You’re not defined by your illness, but how you choose to confront it. I hope I’m an inspiration to people and that I’ve been able to show people if you work hard, you can overcome a lot.”