If there is one thing I have learned from being learning-disabled it’s how important goals are. Goals give you a target; something to shoot for, they give you purpose. And if you set a goal and chase after it with fury, the goal will be accomplished.
The journey to any goal involves obstacles. But bear in mind there are suitable alternative routes around these obstacles. There are suitable ways to compensate for learning disabilities. The only thing any goal worth reaching requires is persistence.
My journey through life with LD began with this philosophy in mind and it continues to this day.
I can recall jumping out of my mother’s blue Ford station wagon — the one with the wood-paneled sides — on a clear, sunny, fall morning. I must have been about seven years old. I remember heading into a small brick building all by myself. I was there “just to take some tests” as my mother said to me earlier when we pulled away from our big, white house across town.
I had stick-straight, shiny blonde hair, thick brown-framed “Coke bottle” glasses with near-completely-crossed eyes behind them, and I just know that I was wearing some 1970’s concoction of plaid pants and a loud, striped shirt. I vividly remember sitting down at a table with a woman who had been carrying a big, olive green briefcase, which had a lot of books, puzzles, blocks, pictures and cards in it.
I remember taking various tests with these items, and I won’t ever forget the weary, depressed feeling that I had as I climbed back into my mother’s wagon — you know, the one with the wood-paneled sides — and headed home. I remember asking my third grade teacher for help during a math lesson, and she did not know how to help me or what to tell me. But, one day that all disappeared. And, it changed my life forever.
One day, I left the rest of my classmates during the math portion of class and walked with my teacher down the long, narrow, then-modern corridor of Northview Elementary School in Waukesha, Wis., and into the dark, old wing of the school to a different classroom. It was then that I knew there was something different about me. I spent the remainder of my attendance at Northview (third through sixth grade) in this room at various times during each day. In this room, I was under the close, caring instruction of Mrs. Tucker. Mrs. Tucker was an extremely jovial, full-figured woman who treated all of her students as if they were a part of her own family. The years in Mrs. Tucker’s class were, at times, very depressing — especially when those of us that were in her room were referred to by the rest of the school as “the stupid kids.”
I recall my first year at Waukesha North High School. Once again, I had a new home that I would visit many times in the three years that followed — Room C2A. At North, there was a whole department that advised and taught the “dumb kids,” and I knew every staff member. There was Mr. Brandt, Mr. Massman, Mr. Tucker (ironically the son of Mrs. Tucker from Northview Elementary), Miss Walgren and Miss Olsen. Miss Olsen was in charge of my caseload for that year. There was no sign of the olive green briefcase, but there were some tests that were administered to me by Miss Olsen. I remember walking out of the dumb kids’ room wanting to kill someone and again asking God: “Why me?”
During my junior year, I remember having some worry about my collegiate future, so I set up a conference to have Miss Olsen and my guidance counselor meet with my mother and me to discuss the course schedule for my senior year. I did this because I wanted to know what credentials I would need to get accepted at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
A few days after the conference, Mr. Massman talked to me. “College may not be for you,” he said, “Don’t you think that you expect too much from yourself?”
January of that year was the moment that I had been waiting for. I applied for college admission to Purdue University (Where my sister had gone), Arizona State University (Where brother had been currently attending), The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Colorado State University and, of course, the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In the days that followed, I received rejection notices from every school but one —UW-Milwaukee. Being the stubborn guy that I am, I went ahead and reapplied to all the schools that had denied my admittance. It didn’t matter. I was headed to UW - Milwaukee, located a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. I know that I should have been happy just to have the privilege of attending college, but your sister graduated from Purdue and your brother got to bask in the sun at Arizona State, you want to carry on the tradition — the tradition of succeeding at a university far from the people and cities you know best. And, when you have a whole staff of people whose job it is to help you catch your dreams, but they just push you aside, you want to die.
In the fall after my high school graduation, I attended the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee. I spent three consecutive semesters there. I took about an average of nine credits a semester and one big lesson I learned at UW- M was that, in higher education, you can become more invisible. That’s not by effort or by choice, it’s just how the system is. Anyone can get lost in the crowd if they want to get lost. I was an expert in the art of telling lies. My friends would wonder where I was on exam days. They didn’t know that I had to go to a testing center with other LD kids.
“Where were you?” my “normal” friends would ask. ” Did you take the test? I didn’t see you in the lecture hall.”
“Oh yeah,” I’d lie, “I was there. I came in late. I was … in the back left corner.”
Yes, I could lie with the best of them.
In May 1996, even though it was a clear, beautiful, blue-sky day in Fort Collins, Colo., I was happy to be indoors. I stood next to my friend, Amy, and a tear tried to escape my eye. It was graduation day. I was inside Moby Arena, and my cap and gown had fit me just right.
As I grasped my diploma and pumped my fist in the air, I turned to face my fellow graduates and these thoughts ran through my mind: I wonder if they know that I went to three semesters of college in Milwaukee where I did nothing but study? Did any of them have to copy lecture notes two or three times because they couldn’t understand their own writing? Do any of them have trouble reading a map like I do? Do any of them meticulously plan a route to drive before they go out on a date just so they won’t get lost and look stupid? Do any of them know what it’s like to be learning disabled? I thought these things, but I didn’t feel alone because I know that some of my fellow graduates did know what it felt like to be labeled a certain way. And, on that day, I figured it didn’t matter because everyone in the arena was the same. We were all Colorado State University graduates for life.
I met my goal through persistence. I got rejected. I tried again. It’s as simple as that. My obstacles read like a baseball roster, but I can easily compensate for each. I have a hard time driving so I call a cab or ask others to drive. I’m not good with math so I use a computer or ask a friend. I’m fairly uncoordinated, but I can ski so that’s the sport I participate in. I get lost a lot so I write very detailed directions or ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t feel sorry for yourself it you’re LD and never, absolutely never make excuses for your obstacles, plow through them. With persistence all things can be accomplished.