Paying It Forward

By Erik Neumann

I admit I struggled in school. I hid my inability to read because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t read. For years I listened to teachers tell me I was lazy and unmotivated, but the harder I tried to be a better student, the more I failed to learn.

In elementary school I spent read-aloud time hiding in the bathroom playing basketball with wet paper towels. Usually I got caught by the principal. I could flunk final exams, but had passing grades on my report card because grades were made up of tests and class discussion. Extra credit was my middle name. I spent more time trying to pass than actually learning the material.

No one saw my struggle. My sophomore year in high school two teachers took me aside. One asked why I was not doing well on tests even though I was leading class discussions. Another looked at my writing and spelling and asked if I was dyslexic.

Mystery Solved

The school district said nothing was wrong. I participated in some tests at the Yale Reading Center and finally someone listened. With those surprising results, the school district reluctantly tested me. It turns out that I have a language learning disability with weaknesses in auditory and phonological memory as well as processing speed. To me, it meant that I couldn’t read or write well but had developed compensation skills that masked my learning disability.

After frustrating IEPs, I started walking the halls of my high school listening to my iPod. I figured if I kept my mouth shut and my head down I wouldn’t be labeled a behavior problem—“one of those kids.”

My honors precalculus teacher, Mrs. Turtoro was the one who pushed me and gave me the confidence that I could succeed with all that I do. I dubbed her my “school-time mom.”

Finding A Role Model

In March of 2007, I went to a dyslexia conference on Long Island and heard Jonathan Mooney speak. That Saturday morning changed my life. He was talking about me.

I decided to stop hiding my new status as a Special Ed student and applied to be a student representative to the Connecticut State Board of Education. I didn’t get the Board seat but I was selected to serve on the State Student Advisory Council on Education. It is in this position that I became the voice for students who struggle to learn. I brought a unique perspective to a group of high school students who are stars in and out of the classroom.

I met with Jonathan Mooney again and he encouraged me to testify at a Connecticut State Board of Education Public Hearing in Hartford. I delivered personal testimony regarding the adoption of IDEA 2004 standards in Connecticut and how they affect students who are identified later in their academic career.

Multiple Identities

Being new to Special Ed, I found myself caught between many adolescent worlds: I am an honors and AP student, a three-sport athlete, a four-year Student Council member, involved in extracurricular activities—and “one of those kids” who struggles in the classroom every day.

I have always felt that I have the ability to cross in and out of different social and academic groups easily but saw that not many others did. Some students excel in academics, some in sports, some socially, some in nonacademic classes, and some in ways they or we may not recognize, but everyone wants to be accepted for themselves. I started Project Turn It Around so that my high school could be open, diverse, inclusive, understanding and more cognizant of social and cognitive diversity.

Lessons Learned

My brief journey through Special Education has taught me a lot. And I know it’s not over. I have a new understanding of myself. It has made me an advocate not only for myself, but also for others who struggle in school and are unable to speak up for themselves.

In order to pay it forward, I have promised Jon Mooney that I will start a chapter of his Project Eye to Eye (link to, a mentoring program for kids with LD. My hope is that I can become a Jon Mooney for another LD student and inspire him or her like Jon inspired me.

John Mayer, a songwriter who was misunderstood at a young age was right in his song No Such Thing when he sang, “The best of me is still hiding up my sleeve, they love to tell you stay inside the lines, but something’s better on the other side.” Then I met the man, Jon, who lived his whole life outside the lines. I figured if he survived, I could, too.

This excerpt is from an acceptance speech given by then 17-year-old Erik Neumann upon receiving a Smart Kids Youth Achievement Honorable Mention Award. After high school Neumann attended Northeastern University.