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Personal Stories

The Journey Begins

By: R. Cary Westbrook
R. Cary Westbrook

A learning disability is defined as "the perceived inability of an individual to analyze, process, and produce information in a traditional learning environment". That's a clinical definition. For me, a learning disability is much more personal. This is the record of my journey - and a tool designed to help you maximize your college experience and build the business skills you'll need for real-world success.

Let's start the learning journey where most of us do -- in kindergarten -- where my own problems were becoming noticeable. I was unable to remember my phone number, street address or ABC's. These and other problems persisted and were passed off as just a phase I was going through, "the kid's a little bit lazy" they said, "you know, kind of slow".

As a child these trademarks were more identifying than my name. My afternoons were filled with tutors tying to help, nights studying homework I didn't understand and summer schools propelling me to my next emotional battle. Each new school year began with the hope and optimism things would change, but quickly the aggravation and frustration of previous years set in.

The straw that broke the camel's back came when I failed the seventh grade. I vividly recall this school year from hell as the steady diet of insults and embarrassment fueled a smoldering fire of desperation inside me. It was as if all the characterizations about me converged together to create a crisis of confidence this fourteen year-old boy could no longer handle. No longer could I stand the emotional barrage that seemingly invaded every part of my life.

As my parents saw me, literally on the brink of destruction, they finally decided to have me tested by the local mental health clinic. The results revealed I was dyslexic. I had a 5th grade reading, comprehension, and spelling level. Suddenly, there was a problem they could put their fingers on. The counselors advised my parents to place me in a different school better able to handle my emotional and educational needs. This resulted in being placed in the local public school. And even though the environment had changed, the seeds of mistrust sown years earlier were as much a part of my life as my blond hair.

Life at the new school was strange. It was as if I was living two different lives at the same time. There was the person I wanted people to see: a peaceful, smiling person, on the road to recovery. Then there was the other person, the one dealing with feelings of anger, hate, being alone and being owed something by those who had wronged me. As the emotions raged I began attending my first special education class at the new school. As I look back upon the experience, I realize the class was meant for borderline mentally retarded students, teaching them basic life management skills. In later years, the school developed special education classes better designed to meet LD students' academic needs.

By that time it was too late for me -- I had given up. My teenage years were filled with aimless direction, climaxing with my graduation in 1979. Following high school I enrolled in the local college. But the negative self-portrait of myself was too strong and I willingly faded into the background. I held various low paying jobs, all the while feeling there had to be more to life. I needed an escape, a way to wipe the slate clean.

At the age of twenty I enlisted in the United States Air Force. My Air Force career holds many great memories. I was able to see the world and experience life unlike any time before. During most of my ten-year career, dyslexia wasn't a problem. No one knew and I didn't tell them. But upon being assigned to Lackland AFB, Texas, I was placed in a job requiring reading and writing skills - the very skills I didn't have. It became evident something was wrong and I was forced to confess my closely held secret. Again I was evaluated and the results confirmed the earlier diagnosis. The Air Force gave me several options, the most desirable being separation from active duty.

With a wife and two young children to support I faced a big challenge: finding a job. Countless resumes were faxed and mailed to countless companies all with the same reply, 'Dear Mr. Westbrook, thank you for interest in our company but we have selected a candidate that better meets our needs'. With each new rejection the feelings of inadequacy from past years were revisited, robbing me of any confidence I had gained and replacing it with a state of panic. As badly as I hated to admit it, I needed to go back to school. The very place I had spent my life hating was now the very place I felt I needed the most.

With my wife's encouragement, support, and understanding I enrolled in the local community college. At age thirty I was going back to college again and I had a pretty good idea of what I was facing. I still remember the first day, to myself, "you've got to be crazy to try this again, you tried it before. You can't do this. You're not smart enough. Why are you doing this to yourself?"

To each of these internal questions there was a deafening reply of silence. I was asking questions that had no answers. I just had a hardened belief deep inside of me that I was better than this. I remember thinking to myself on numerous occasions this will either kill me or I will win, as if it was a fight to the death. Time after time I got knocked down but managed to get back up - wobbly kneed and all -- but I was still standing. The more I was hit the more I began to understand what impact my learning disability had had upon my life. Yes, the dyslexia had caused tremendous academic and emotional problems for me but something far more damaging had occurred: it had stolen my ability to dream and tricked me into settling for less than my best.

Each of us has painted a self-portrait of ourselves -- a picture of the way we view ourselves. My portrait reflected a lifeless image, existing but never living. That began to change. I'd like to tell you it was some great transformation but it wasn't. Just an understanding that if I was going to take all the blame for failing, then I was going to finally get the satisfaction of doing it my way.

I determined I was going to be active in every part of my education. The philosophy of "Educational Empowerment" became my single focus in life. To me, Educational Empowerment meant the ability and knowledge to construct a learning environment matching my learning strengths against each semester's objectives. This gave me the greatest opportunity for success.

My first lesson in educational empowerment had nothing to do with college but had everything to do with life. It began, strangely enough, by looking at the world as it related to me. I specifically asked myself a lot of questions, Why this? Why that? No question was left unasked. Slowly, as I worked my way through this process, I realized everything used to describe 'me', as a person was negative. Even the term coined by the experts - learning disabled, was negative, as if I couldn't learn.

I questioned the term again. WWas Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, or Alexander Graham Bell really learning disabled? No, they were the exact opposite. Not only were they not learning disabled -- they were Dynamic Learners. They used creative thinking to solve problems.

So how did their issues relate to mine? I was no Albert Einstein! But, could I like him, turn into a Dynamic Learner, transforming my learning disabilities into great problem-solving capabilities with resourcefulness and creativity?

I began to realize that I had more in common with these great men than I had previously imagined. I began to internalize their success as an indication of my own capabilities. I gained a powerful psychological tool to fight those ingrained memories that seemed larger than life. My self-portrait began to very slowly reflect a different person, and for the first time I began to see myself as a Dynamic Learner using my creative ideas and solutions to solve problems.

To the outside world these tiny brushes of success may seem small and insignificant. But to me, they made life worth living. These tiny steps of confidence led to larger and larger ones. On December 12, 1995 I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Information Systems and have used my degree as a springboard to reach my professional goals.

My purpose in going back to college was primarily driven by my desire to get a better paying job, using my degree as the stepping stone to the business world. I knew the professional objection to my disability, whether founded or unfounded, was a reality with which I had to face. Although the two worlds of college and business are different, they work hand-in-hand with each other making it very important for my newfound learning strategies to be easily transferable from college to a business setting to reach my professional goals. Realizing this caused me to use my time and efforts in college to mold these strategies in a way that would prepare are me for the professional challenges to come.

My life experience, just as yours, shapes the way we view the world around us. And simply put, the discrimination, hopelessness, and dependence upon someone else for my success formed within me a determination to be self-reliant. The road through college was filled with numerous mountains I had to climb. I discovered the average student had bumps in the road but my bumps resembled Mount Everest. There were always more bills than there was money, financial aid never came on time, family sacrifices seemed to be a way of life, and free time became as foreign to me as reading. In spite of these problems, my will to succeed became even stronger.

Success is rarely the accomplishment of a single individual, rather it's a reflection of a collected effort of many people and my story is no different. I had the great fortune to know and learn from several professors in college that allowed me the freedom to use my creative thinking to slightly alter the traditional learning environment and show my talent. This is a story about that success and the strategies that brought it about. In a world where the latest whiz-bang gadget, promising guaranteed results, is all the rage, these strategies are simple, straightforward and down to earth. But don't confuse simplicity and straightforwardness for ineffectiveness. These strategies were designed and built upon the day-to-day factory floor of a real-life college career.

The difference between success and failure is having a plan that understands the environment in which it's operating. By taking a holistic approach, these strategies build the self-confidence, time management, organizational, and people skills you'll need in meeting a variety of different circumstances.

I would like to tell you this is a quick and painless process, requiring little time or effort on your part, but that would be untrue. I don't believe anything as worthwhile as a college education can have a quick fix. I hope I have piqued your interest and that you're eager to move on and more importantly, move forward with the strategies of Dynamic Learning.

Excerpt from "Learning Disabilities and College: Strategies for People that Rock Our World"