I AM AN EDUCATOR of educators. I teach others how to be the best teachers. But, I’m also different. I have learning challenges. I found my way and my life’s calling thanks to dedicated educators.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am reminded of my personal journey.
My disabilities could have defined me. But they did not. I do not consider myself dyslexic or learning-disabled. I am Jim. And here’s the story of how I overcame my challenges and the educators who helped me along the way.
Born in 1970, I suffered a head injury as a young boy while roughhousing with friends. Perhaps that led to my learning problems. Perhaps it didn’t. Doctors aren’t really sure.
What I do know for sure is that in kindergarten, I could not spell my name – James. That is when I became Jim. Over a period of time, I turned Jim into Mij. I did not like school. I decided it was about one thing – learning to read and write. I was poor at both. I didn’t like myself.
At the age of six, I was diagnosed with dyslexia or a minimal brain dysfunction; with learning disabilities. At the time, awareness about dyslexia was so poor that my mother asked, “Is it contagious?”
Then something changed. A breed of new educators – called special education teachers – came to my school. A curriculum tailored just for kids like me was started at my school in East Texas. The curriculum provided reading and writing experiences using specialized learning strategies. For example, I learned I could read books by looking at pictures, orally retelling the stories, acting out stories and reading text. All this happened because in 1975, Congress passed the Public Law 94-142, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law provided special education services for all students with disabilities. Before this law, students with disabilities had limited protections and rights to an education. This law allowed me to receive the special services I needed to learn to read and write.
I began to develop a more positive perception of myself.
How I learned
I wanted to join my peers as a learner, reader, thinker, writer and everything else educational. But it was hard for me to know left from right.
A crucial event occurred in my second year of first grade that helped crystallize the visual cues I was being trained to see. It was the summer of 1977. The roads of my small town were being resurfaced with asphalt and tar. Curious about the process, I did what an inquisitive young boy would do – stepped right into the middle of the warm, gooey stuff. Predictably, it stuck to the side of one of my shoes. I remember the thrill and joy of sticking and unsticking my shoes. The next morning, I lined up the pair so they stuck together perfectly. Next, I slid my feet into the correct left and right shoes. I was elated with my success. For the first time I was able to place my shoes on the correct feet using the sticky tar as visual and kinesthetic cues that my teachers had taught me, for determining left from right. I was independent. This was the beginning of understanding visual cues to learn to read, write and ascertain directions. Although it still took a while, I learned to make the connections.
For instance, when one of my teachers told me I needed to write on the correct side, I still did not understand. I asked, “What is the correct side?” She said, “Write from left to right.” I asked what are left and right. She took my paper, moved the holes of the paper to one side of my desk and said, “The holes face this way, left.” I looked in that direction and saw these huge windows. I still remember thinking, “This is like my shoes and that tar.” I knew it was unlikely the windows would move, so I moved the holes of my paper, lines side up, toward the windows before writing every time. I never wrote on the wrong side again and learned to adjust to my visual landmarks if my desk moved by asking people what was my left. It worked every time.
Using visual cues
Once I understood spatial relationships, I made new discoveries with letters and numbers, discovering that some have “legs” and “loops” that faced the holes in the notebook paper while others faced in the opposite direction.
For instance, letters and numbers like a, d, 7, 3, 4, and Jj faced the holes, while Bb, L, Ee, Ff, and Cc faced away from the holes. There were confusing ones like Zz, 5, Ss, and 2 which had loops and legs that faced toward and faced away from the holes on the notebook paper. I had to memorize or review them each time.
As I learned to write, I learned to read better too. I was not like my peers, but I could call some words out orally and use pictures to fill in the missing parts. Using visual cues, working with peers and seeking meaning were the solutions to learning, reading and writing. Also, I could persuade peers to read to me, and I situated the meaning together like a puzzle. I became a “meaning gatherer.”
Later, using visual cues helped me play football and drive a car. And, to think, it all started with asphalt, tar and some teachers holding my hand.
College and beyond
Learning with learning challenges is never easy. Higher education proved to be a greater challenge.
My first English paper was difficult. Spelling was often perceived as an insurmountable challenge by me. I had to type my papers. But the typed paper resembled a drywall due to the amount of white correction tape I used to correct misspelled words. I again found something that was as life-changing as the tar-on-my-shoes experience for determining left from right – this time, it was the invention and availability of the personal computer.
I purchased an IBM clone with a word processing program that would review and check spelling. Once I used the word processor to complete various written assignments from college, I was like a caveman who discovered fire. I became like everyone else. I could turn in clean documents without worrying about handwriting legibility or the letters facing the wrong direction. I was free. I could be a writer.
I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in psychology with a 4.0 grade point average. Later, while working as a schoolteacher, I completed my master’s degree in special education and my Doctor of Education degree in curriculum and instruction, again with a 4.0 grade point average.
Making a difference
Not that my learning challenges have gone away. I still face the same learning challenges that I did as a young boy. But I have learned to use visual cues. For instance, while driving, I use visual cues – the rings on my fingers and a missing knuckle – to tell left from right. And I depend on technology to help with my writing.
I am now a teacher. And as an associate professor at Tarleton State University, I work with students and their parents to focus on their abilities and not their disabilities – just like my teachers did. My experiences and challenges have enabled me to listen to my students more. I model every day the value of building relationships and collaborative learning. My school days taught me learning occurs best when done together. That’s where good teachers make all the difference in the world. As they did in my life.
I give back to my community in many different ways. I am the co-chair of the university’s Diversity, Access and Disability Services Committee. I have the opportunity to train educators to help make a difference.
I have a purpose. I belong. But more than anything else, I am Jim.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before it have given me and others like me the opportunity to thrive. And what a difference that has made in our worlds.
James Gentry is Associate Professor at Tarleton State University, a member of the Texas A&M University System.