Pictured above: Joe Stutts and Ben Foss
During the final workshop for the Advanced Trainees at McKinney Christian Academy - Multisensory Teacher Training course last Saturday, we watched a film from Headstrong Nation to spark some discussion about the learning different child and the struggles individuals face from dyslexia and ADHD. The film features Ben Foss, advocate and author, sharing his personal experiences with dyslexia. He reflected on being identified with dyslexia at the age of 8 and how he persevered despite the challenges it created for him in school. He talked about the anger and frustration he felt when teachers would make him rework failing assignments - again and again. When he got home, the frustration would be released in his tearing his room apart. Despite the challenges and many obstacles, he was determined. When he made it to law school, he realized that he had hit a wall and he began to explore his dyslexia. He realized that without accommodations, he wouldn't make it through. While studying law, he came across the case of Joe Stutts and it served as inspiration for him.
Joe Stutts grew up in the 50's and never learned to read due to dyslexia and lack of appropriate intervention. In the film, he recounts his experience of getting 27 F's in one school year and being placed in a class for students with severe cognitive disabilities. He said he knew he didn't belong there but not being able to read meant his abilities were not recognized in school. As a young adult, Joe entered the Army and was trained as a cook. Since the exams during his training were read to him, he excelled and was named the outstanding student of his training group. His fellow classmates accused him of cheating because they knew he couldn't read. But Joe said, "There wasn't no cheating," and laughed. I think it fair to say that this was Joe's first experience with success in an academic environment and it was fuel for his spirit.
Joe's biggest challenge came after the army. He began work for the Tennessee Valley Authority as a laborer and became keenly interested in the apprentice program for heavy equipment operators. When he scored very low on cognitive ability having taken a written exam (General Aptitude Test Battery), he was denied acceptance into the program. Joe used alcohol to reduce his frustration and anger and yet, he was determined and called the EEOC. He just knew that he could be an operator if they just gave him the chance to learn. After explaining his dyslexia and situation to the EEOC representative, he was advised to get a lawyer because he had a case. Joe won but it took an appeal of the first denial decision to win his case and ultimately achieve his goal.
Ben successfully completed law school but decided the practice of law was not his path and went, instead, to business school. Having come to grips with his dyslexia and reaching out to others that faced similar obstacles to create a community of support, he found that it opened door for him. He created a non-profit organization, ILI (Initiative for Learning Identities), fueled by the inspiration of Joe Stutts.
Ben just had to meet Joe to let him know how much his story and lawsuit had meant to him during his struggle through law school and ignited the desire to help others like them both. Joe discounted his actions by saying they were purely selfish ones. He had a goal and, having experienced success in the Army, he just couldn't stand to be denied without a fight. He had no idea that he was fighting for so many others when he stood up for himself and advocated for his opportunity. He said, "That's all I wanted. I knew I could learn if they would just give me the chance to prove it."
During their meeting, Ben presented Joe with the pen he used to sign the documents establishing the non-profit, ILI, and in turn, Joe gave Ben the certificate he earned for completing the apprenticeship program to become a heavy equipment operator. Joe also entrusted Ben with a sword that had been given to Joe by his father. He said, "I would be proud for you to take it and keep fighting for us."
Watch the video yourself! Here is the link: Headstrong Nation
At the conclusion of the film, we all had tears and were clearly moved by the stories of Ben, Joe, and others in the film. We shared other instances of people and students we knew that have overcome huge obstacles with learning disabilities. Everyone agreed that teachers hold so much power to either provide the encouragement and support essential to make a vital difference for a student OR to add to the heap of frustration, anger, and despair our lack of understanding can cause.
Vicki, one of MCA-MTT's advanced trainees and an administrator in a Catholic school, shared this story with us. She recently interviewed a young teacher applying for an opening at her school. During the interview, the young applicant shared his personal struggles in school and how he had been headed down the wrong path. As an adolescent, he would lie, cheat, and steal and knew his life was headed for trouble but didn't care. He was angry and saw no point to school or how it would make any difference for his future. Then, when he was in 7th grade, he was caught cheating on a test by his teacher. He figured he would be sent to the principal and have, yet another, suspension. The teacher, however, did not turn him in; did not punish him or send him to the office. Her reaction was quite surprising to this troubled young man. Instead, she pointed out the strengths that were so obvious to her and that she saw so much potential in him. She let him know that with all he had going for him, he didn't need to cheat his way through school - that he was capable of so much more. In his interview the applicant said this teacher's reaction made ALL the difference in the world to him. She had been genuine and specific in identifying his abilities. He knew she wasn't just giving him a line like, "try harder - you can do it!" He stepped out on another, more positive, path and credits his success to this teacher that showed him grace - giving him the time, patience, understanding and support when he needed it most. As he shared the name of this amazing teacher, Vicki said her jaw just dropped and said, "I know all about this wonderful teacher, but I never knew this story. I know this teacher because she's just down the hall. She's here, teaching at this school." Vicki said, "you can just imagine the reunion that followed."
Just as this teacher never realized the difference she made for this young man when he was a student, Joe had no idea that his goal of equipment operator for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the determination it would take to make it happen would make any impact on anyone else but himself. Ben took inspiration from Joe and is sharing it, and the experiences of himself and others, with so many that also struggle. As teachers, therapists, and caring adults - we MUST remember that we make an immeasurable impact on a child's life with a ripple effect that knows no end. If you receive the gift of a former student showing up to tell you what a difference you made to them - treasure it because for the most part, we may never know.
This, I know for sure - we make an impact on someone's life every day and we must be forever cognizant and intentional that our impact be filled with encouragement, love, and grace. That is a tremendous responsibility and a gift we can give that will change lives - for good.