Jonathan Mooney, once labeled “severely learning disabled,” is a graduate of Brown University and recipient of a Truman Fellowship for graduate study in creative language and education. He has also co-authored two award-winning books: Learning Outside the Lines and The Short Bus, and is the co-founder of Project Eye to Eye, a mentoring and advocacy non-profit organization for students with learning disabilities. A past recipient of the Smart Kids Community Service Award, Mooney remains an inspiration to students with LD, and their parents. In this interview with Smart Kids Contributor Sheryl Knapp, the irrepressible Mooney talks about his struggles growing up, along with his thoughts on changing the system that makes it so difficult for children with LD to succeed.
SK: No one would have believed that a child who didn’t learn to read until he was 12 and visited the principal’s office so frequently that he was on a first-name basis with the office receptionist would graduate from one of the best schools in the country and author two award-winning books. Who do you think would be most surprised by your success?
JM: A lot of people. I believe that there are teachers out there who are changing lives in a positive way, but the majority of the educators in my life, with the exception of five or six, really came down on the “you’ll flip burgers” side of things. The list of who would be surprised is a long list.
SK: Who would not be surprised by your success?
JM: I do not think my high school English teacher would be. I really hated the guy because he pushed so much and was so hard. In retrospect—and I think I even understood this back then—he pushed me in a way that was inclusive. He pushed me to write, but writing could be dictating; he pushed me to do the class essay, but that essay could be written on a computer. He pushed and pushed but he accommodated because he knew I could do it.
SK: You refer to your mom as resilient, yet you seem pretty resilient yourself. I read that you dropped out of school while in sixth grade and even contemplated suicide before you reached 12. What helped you get through that period?
JM: I think what helped me get through that period were three things: First, my mother brought home a tape of an interview with a young man at Yale Law School who couldn’t read a word—he was dyslexic—and his mom read every one of his law books to him. What was so special was that it wasn’t the story of the guy who “fixed” himself; he still couldn’t read.
Second, I left school and really spent time doing things I cared about and enjoyed. There’s a remediation culture out there that sends kids to resource rooms instead of recess and tutoring instead of art class after school. Young people spend entire days organized around what is wrong with them with little opportunity for talent development, much less the opportunity to just be a kid. So we carved out a space for me to really develop things I was interested in and good at.
And third, we had a plan to go into a new environment. I was leaving sixth grade and going into an entirely different school. This gave me the opportunity to do things differently, and to reinvent myself. Kids get stuck in an identity, and it’s really hard to get out of that—not just with peers, but with teachers too. The file follows you, and you’re the “bad kid,” so when something happens in class you’re the first person they look at. Young children don’t have a chance to break that cycle.
SK: How do you balance the need for interventions with the risk of making a student feel inferior or different?
JM: I have no debate with the importance of mastering certain skills, either as a form of empowerment or pragmatism. The key is to strike a balance: what you put in has to be justified by what you get out. Following the law of diminishing returns, you want to get right up to that point where what you are putting in is balanced with what you are getting out. It’s a very individual decision.
SK: What do you say, then, to the professionals who believe that reading difficulties can often be completely remediated?
JM: When you make the argument that dyslexia can be remediated away or “fixed” you undercut the moral argument for accommodations—essentially, that dyslexia is an immutable difference, and you have an obligation to change your practice. Because if we say to a school district or a state “invest enough money and you fix this,” they don’t need to get books on tape, or time extensions. We’ve seen this in California. For the state standardized tests, someone who has no hands will get time extensions; someone who is blind will get a reader. Nobody will challenge that. But they will not give accommodations to you if you are dyslexic because their argument is “we can fix that.” Parts of the LD community that have argued “we can fix this” have given ammunition to the people who don’t want to give accommodations.
SK: You often talk about the idea of “normalcy,” and about how much we all miss in our efforts to conform. I particularly love your quote, “Normal is a state that no one actually visits.” Would you elaborate further?
JM: The word “normal” has a history. It didn’t come into the English language until the 1860s; before then, there was no word for the norm or normal. It’s a very abstract concept, connected to statistical thought. If I take an average of 25 different heights and then I go back to the 25 people, the reality is that nobody is that “norm” or average; they are a little bit above and below. It is a state of being that doesn’t really exist. It’s like the horizon; every time you try to approach it, it gets further and further away. It is not a place where one can live.