Remember the song, He Ain’t Heavy. He’s My Brother? Well, my older brother wasn’t heavy, but he had a learning disability. Just sixteen months apart, and looking like twins for much of our childhood, I soared through grade school with my hands tied behind my back while John struggled. Funny thing is–John’s IQ is higher than mine. And I ain’t no dummy. He was smart and I knew it. I could never win an argument with him, and he outsmarted me daily in all practical matters. His frustration was a palpable element of my childhood, and I wished I could make it go away.
I remember reading to him at six and seven years old, and Mom helping him with his homework for hours. I also remember bullies taunting me with the word retarded, and me yelling back, “My brother is smarter than you!” Over the years, he came to symbolize for me what being your own man truly means. He knew he was smart. He never gave up believing that he could somehow overcome the circuitry in his head that seemed to hold him down.
And he did! He was the first person who showed me that obstacles can be overcome, life goes on, and determination is key. By the time he graduated from high school, he was the most well read teenager I knew. His tiny room was filled with the books he’d read, and the stories he’d written.
John has joined the Aberration Nation and hopes his insight can help others better understand what it’s like to be a kid in the special education system. He’s a living testament to the fact that with help and determination, no kid has to be left behind.
You had a learning disability as a child during the 1970’s. You attended special education classes, and then went on to attend a special, private school for several years. Back then, there didn’t seem to be as many specific terms for learning disabilities. Can you tell us about the nature of your learning disability?
My problem was primarily one of short attention span and lack of interest. However, there was another component to it that is not so easily explained. I am a compulsive explorer of ideas and I free associate constantly. When you put all of these factors together you end up with scenarios like this. My teacher would give me an assignment to complete within the next half hour. I would start on it, find it boring, and then notice a fly in the room, which would remind me of a bumble bee I saw earlier in the day. I would then jump to helicopters because they use a similar form of flight, wonder if UFOs use the same type of propulsion, contemplate where UFOs come from and if they exist, and the existence of UFOs would challenge me and it wasn’t boring. This would go on until suddenly the teacher would be there asking for my paper. In many cases, I would be shocked to realize that my time was up and my work wasn’t done. As I got older, I developed the ability to snap myself out of these flights of fancy, but it was next to impossible when I was a child. The result of all this was that I fell farther and farther behind my class mates in school.
Do you recall how your learning disability came to light? Do you remember having trouble learning to read?
I don’t remember much about how it was decided that I had a learning disability, but I do remember having trouble learning to read. It was very frustrating. I was very smart as a child and I remember that the things that interested me were way above my reading level and the things at my reading level were so silly that they insulted my intelligence. It was horribly embarrassing to try to read something like that and fail. I didn’t want anything to do with, “See spot run.”
What did your parents do to support you, and was there anything else they could have done?
As far as I could tell, my father didn’t have as much day-to-day involvement with my educational problems, but I never thought much about it because my mother was very involved. She drove me to school often, and tried to help in various ways. She got me into special schools. I don’t know if there was anything else they could have done to help me, and to be honest, I’ve never thought about it that way. I’m thankful for the help I did get. I think they did everything they could think of and could afford to do. As I grew older, my father had a great influence on my continued reading. He and my sister were avid readers, which created a positive environment for me, in terms of reading.
How did having a learning disability impact you socially? How did you deal with it as a young child?
When I was very young, I was oblivious to any social issues surrounding my learning problems. As I got older, I became very hard nosed about it. I decided that I didn’t care what others thought about anything. I became rather isolated and detached. As a result, I had a few very close friends and everyone else I ignored. Oddly enough this had the beneficial effect of insulating me from almost all the pier pressure that most children have to deal with. I made up my own mind about just about everything and if others didn’t like it, that was just tough for them. Of course, this also included my parents and sometimes that caused problems as you might imagine.
There are many examples in history of highly intelligent people who had learning disabilities. By the time you reached high school, you were able to go back into regular public school, and then you went on to obtain a college degree. Were you able to easily keep up at that point?
It’s true that I went back into public school, but it was far from easy. I still did very poorly at anything that didn’t fire my interest and imagination. If it was boring–and there were a great many boring things in high school–I still had concentration and attention span issues. It is important to understand that being bored by something didn’t mean that I didn’t understand that it was important. It just meant that no matter how hard I tried to get interested in it, I couldn’t. If the interest wasn’t there, then the ability to concentrate on it went out the window. To this day I don’t know why I’m like that, but to be honest, I don’t think it would make a difference even if I did. There were a few things that I did rather well at but they were few and far between. I developed a personal motto that I reminded myself of over and over again through the years. The motto goes like this, I may not finish first, but I never give up–no matter what.
Once you learned to read, you became an avid reader. You also have a high IQ. Did your early struggle to learn, and your success in overcoming hurdles that others easily scaled, help to build your character? If so, how?
This is true. Once I learned to read, I discovered a love of science fiction and fantasy that kept me reading constantly. My high IQ has been both a blessing and a curse in many ways. I often see more deeply into issues than those around me, but I’m seldom smart enough to find a truly profound solution to the problems I see. My struggles have driven me to do a great deal of soul searching over the years, and I’m sure that played a role in shaping my character, but I would have happily jumped at the chance to correct the problems I had if the opportunity had presented itself.
As a great example of a child with a learning disability who grew to be an avid reader and successful adult, what advice can you give parents who fear their children will continue to lag behind?
There is no way to know for sure if your children will overcome the problems that they face in life no matter what those problems are. The main thing you can do as a parent that no one else can do as effectively, is believe in them. When everyone else in the entire world has given up on them, written them off, or told them that they can’t succeed, you can be the one who says, “You can do it if you refuse to give up”. (By the way, you can’t go wrong if you follow that advice with your spouse as well.) Teach them how to face failure with honor and grace, and remember what Batman’s butler said, “The reason we fall down, is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.” When you fall down all the time, you need to live by those words.
Often these children are treated by others as if they don’t care that they are not doing as well as the other children. Many of them even pretend that they don’t care because it’s too painful and embarrassing to admit that they care. Trust me when I say that no matter how they act, they care, and it hurts, and in most cases they would like nothing more than to be normal. They just don’t know how to be anything other than what they are.