Growing Up with NLD

Before I start, I want to say that this is the hardest undertaking that I have ever done. First of all, while I’m extremely comfortable talking in front of children, the thought of just talking to an audience of adults (let alone sharing some of my most personal experiences) really intimidates me. However, every time that I’ve tried to back out of doing this, I hear about another child’s experience dealing with a learning disability that makes me cringe. The other day, I received an application for the renewal of my membership for the Learning Disabilities Association. There were three boxes to check off. I immediately checked off professional, paused and check off parent and took a deep breath and finally checked off adult with LD. For as most of you don’t know, I am an individual with a very severe right brain learning disability and have spent most of my childhood being rejected by the Jewish community. The purpose of my "coming Out" today is the hope that I can change just a few attitudes on what a learning disability is and how we can help children and their parents feel more included in our community.

A learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, motor handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbance or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

My mother had an idea that something was wrong when I started talking at 6 months of age and didn’t walk until 18 months. However, since I was mostly raised by live-ins, because my mother had health problems and my father worked long hours, 7 days a week, no one had a chance to really observe me. My parents believed the pediatrician when he said that nothing could be wrong with me because I was so precocious verbally. My very early childhood was fairly happy. When I was 4, my parents enrolled me in a preschool program (nursery school back then), and the difference between myself and the other children became apparent. I couldn’t cut, paste, color, rum, jump, etc. IT didn’t take long from my teachers to become exasperated and the children to ridicule me. I wanted to stay home in my apartment complex and play with my neighbors, but my family wouldn’t allow it. Kindergarten was even worse. I would get in trouble for sneaking out of the art puzzle center and playing with the dolls. What the teachers and my family couldn’t understand was that I couldn’t handle puzzles, blocks or any fine motor activities. I resisted going to school, and it was a daily struggle to get me out of the house. However, a positive thing also happened that year. I started Sunday school. I loved Sunday school in Kindergarten. My teacher was a kind woman who read exciting bible stories, taught us songs and was proud of my ability to quickly memorize the prayers and understand the deeper meanings in the bible stories. Unfortunately, my parents left that conservative temple that year and joined an orthodox temple since the membership was a lot less expensive. At the orthodox religious school, first graders were required to write in Hebrew. I had tremendous difficulty writing in English, let alone Hebrew.

The following year, my parents rejoined the conservative temple, since my mother hated sitting in the women’s section of the orthodox shul. A new program, which they called ‘mechina’ was established on an experimental basis in the synagogue. Children who had attended two years of Sunday School and were advanced verbally, were invited to participate. It was an immersion program into spoken Hebrew. It only met one day a week. However, the amount of Hebrew that we spoke at the end of the week was amazing. I loved going. My teacher was encouraging and supportive, which contrasted sharply with my public school teacher'’ disapproval of my sloppy work.

In the third grade, the program was dropped. I attended a traditional conservative religious school program that met three days a week. The teachers had a no-nonsense approach to teaching. The emphasis was no longer on Hebrew language or Judaics, but Hebrew reading and writing. While reading in Hebrew was difficult, writing was impossible. One day, the teacher announced to the class that I must have thought that I was in Chinese school instead of Hebrew school because my writing looked Chinese. From that day on, the students would pull on their eyelids whenever they saw me. This translated over to public school where the students in my Hebrew class taught the rest of the school this "greeting". In public school, I had a teacher named Helen M….. who was sadistic. Mrs. M…. always let our class know what a religious person she was. She was Jewish and so was 90% of the class. Ms. M… would ridicule me in front of the class. She at one time threw my desk over onto me because my papers were so disorganized. I was miserable at school, on the playground and with my family at home. I spent most of my time looking at the window. Ms. M… would ask loudly, "Well, Bonnie, have any flowers grown on the bricks outside the window?" And the class would chuckle. She decided to place my desk in the corner facing the window since that was all I would do anyway. On the way home from school, I would run home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t run fast and would often be beaten up. Despite all of this, my grades, except in handwriting, were good, so my parents did not intervene. The only time they did was when boys beat me up; then my father would call their parents.

In one of his sermons, Rabbi L….told us that God sends us messages about human angels and now I know that several existed in my life. For, despite my unpopularity, there were always a few children who would befriend me. These children didn’t mind that I couldn’t ride a bike, or tie my shoes; they just liked me for who I was. In fifth grade, integration came into my school. Suddenly, the teachers were too busy trying to teach children who didn’t know their alphabet to bother me. I was happier. I could daydream as much as I wanted and no one cared. I also found the children who were bused in were a lot more tolerant than my Jewish peers. The teacher even let me teach one of the girls to read, which really felt good.

The next summer, my family moved to Hewlett, NY. At first I was excited about moving; it would be a new start. However, soon I learned what it was like to truly be an outcast. I didn’t fit in with the other Jewish girls. They wore beautiful, stylish clothes and spent Saturdays going shopping. I wore hand-me-downs that were way too big and was not allowed to join the girls by going shopping in my leisure time. At first they were nice to me, but finally gave up. I was very uncomfortable starting school in my too long, old-fashioned clothing. My classmates thought that I was "Amish" and when I told them that I was Jewish, they all said that no Jewish girl would dress like that. The academic work in this suburban school was on a much higher level than that of my pervious school. For one thing, these students never had to deal with split sessions, and were taught subjects such as science as well as music, art and PE. After a short time, my teacher sent me to the school psychologist (my previous school didn’t have a school psychologist) who conducted an evaluation. The psychologist called my parents. Soon after the evaluation was completed, to inform them that the results were so extreme and that she felt that an evaluation by a neurologist was warranted. I was very excited about going to the neurologist. I had already formed a self diagnosis of having a very mild form of cerebral palsy (ataxic type) from all of the reading I had done and was hoping that he would confirm it and send me far away from everyone to a special school. The neurologist was impressed with my self-diagnosis and said that I wasn’t entirely inaccurate. He told me that I had Minimum Brain Dysfunction and that although I was eleven years old chronologically, part of my brain was like that of a 17-year old and part like a six-year old. He told me that he believed that I was trying very hard and that he promised me that if I could just "hand in there’, I would be the top in my college class and that at that point I wouldn’t have to struggle. He told my parents that I would learn to compensate for my physical problems but he was very concerned about me developing secondary emotional problems.

Hebrew school at the temple in my new neighborhood was just as awful as before. It was a small, low-key, down-to-earth, very friendly temple; but the teachers were very impatient. My parents shared the results of the tests with the rabbi whose wife was an educator on her way to becoming the principal of the local elementary school. He discussed this with his wife and then told the teacher that I did not have to write in Hebrew any longer, and that he expected her to be cooperative when it came to my education. He then called me aside and told me that one does not have to write Hebrew to be Jewish. I was totally overwhelmed by his kindness. For years, I was told that I was a disgrace to my religion. I was so touched, that I had him along with the Rabbi whose temple my parents were members of, officiate my wedding (even though he had left the pulpit many years before). Unfortunately, he died a short time ago, and I wrote to his wife about the profound effect that he had on me.

Things had changed for me a great deal in high school. I had many friends, was involved in numerous activities and held several part-time, paid and volunteer jobs at once. I seemed to have an incredible about of energy and required very little sleep. However, I was still incredibly disorganized and was constantly in and out of crises, due to my disorganization. That, combined with some poor choices involving friendships, led me into a severe depression. I was very confused. On the one hand, I was elected band president, a high-status position in my high school. On the other hand, I hung out with some real losers, because, despite good grades and a good heart, I felt like a loser. Some really bad things followed and I was a mess. I kept hearing the messages from my mother, teacher and peers from my childhood. Some terrible experiences followed. I found out for me, and it’s still true today, that the best way out of a depression is to help someone else. I volunteered half a day in an extended readiness class in a local elementary school. I had always known that I loved children’ but I found out that I loved teaching too. I would leave each day feeling high from my work. Twenty-four years later, that feeling still exists for me when I work with children. The teacher and the principal, the rabbi’s wife who was wonderful to me earlier, kept telling me that they never saw a 17-year old with so much raw talent to teach. They had the school psychologist observe me. She happened to have been the same psychologist who observed me the year before and helped diagnose my LD. She convince me to consider going into the field of education.

The story goes on and on, and my life becomes a roller coaster of good and bad events. The neurologist was correct: School had become very easy; but life became very hard. I am still haunted by the negative statements and ridicule that I was subjected to all my life. I remain unconfident with a very low sense of self-esteem. It affects my interpersonal relationships and my day-to-day existence. The way that I build myself up is to spend time with my extremely supportive family, and by dedicating my life to helping LD children avoid the trauma that I have been exposed to. I work with LD children in a one-to-one setting, seven days a week. It is my life’s work. The stories the kids tell me are amazing. Even in this temple, mistreatment has occurred. That is the reason I felt I needed to share my story no matter how hard it has been. Some of the things that have occurred at the religious school are: A teacher told a child that his artwork was terrible. (The child had a fine motor problem and the parents specifically told the school that when they filled out the form); A mother was told that she had to keep her son out of religious school for the next year until they developed a program for him (He was not a disruptive child; he just couldn’t participate in class discussions, due to his language impairment); A congrugant asked a child what his grade pint average was, knowing full well he had a learning disability. When he responded with "some A’s and mostly B’s,"
she said "well, that is not too bad." People asking any student what their GPA is, is like asking an adult what their last year’s income is, or even worse, asking a lady how much she weights. The difference is, an adult can say "none of your business" where a child who responds in kind would be considered rude! Then again, I feel that the way we treat children in this society is terrible; but that is not the purpose of this discussion.

I feel that we can help all of the children in this congregation in the following ways: 1. Don’t teach your children a false sense of Jewish pride. Don’t’ teach them that our children are smarter, and don’t have problems that are reflected in the rest of society. 2. Don’t allow your children to ridicule each other. Encourage them to be helpful. We are so concerned about raising scholars that we forget to raise mensches. 3. If you hear that anyone is giving a child a hard time, get involved. Ten years ago, my daughter had a mildly intellectually disabled boy mainstreamed in her class. She was worried about the fact that the teacher was hitting this child, as well as ridiculing him. When, after a discussion with the principal, nothing had changed, I reported it to the boy’s parents who peeked in the window and caught the teacher in the act. It wouldn’t have been much easier to mind my own business, but I like to sleep at night. In short, I have a sign in my home saying, "It is much easier to build a child, than to repair an adult." Let TKS be a place where children can flourish.