The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 2, 2001 Issue
Local News

Poor spelling, writing author offers kids hope

Jonathan Mooney says others, like him, can defeat disabilities too

By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor

Twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Mooney spells at a third grade level.

He reads and writes at a sixth or seventh grade level.

Can a person at his age with these skill levels be intelligent?

You bet.

Last spring, Mooney graduated summa cum laude (Latin for, "with highest honors") in English Literature from Brown University in Providence, R.I.

In September, his first book, Learning Outside the Lines (Simon & Schuster), was published.

Mooney, a Los Angeles native, recently visited St. Bernard School, Green Bay, and St. Norbert College, De Pere, to share his journey from being a sixth grade dropout, who could not read, to the top of the Ivy League.

"I have a simple mission," said Mooney. "By telling my story I hope people get a better understanding of the socialization of a learning disability. Educators are making decisions for kids as to what they can do. They decide what drugs a kid should take for a disability, even though it may affect the kid's personality. The kids have no voice. Look at me as the voice for your children."

Mooney has attention deficit disorder, hyperactive deficiency and a learning disability. His troubles in the classroom began in the first grade.

"I have the attention span of a gnat," he said. "The desk was a horror for me. If I could have gotten up and walked around the classroom every 15 to 20 minutes it would have helped, but I was told you have to be like everyone else. You have to sit there. This dynamic sounds like a factory."

To focus in the classroom, Mooney bounced his foot up and down while sitting at his desk. The teacher considered this action unacceptable.

"'What is your problem?' she would say," said Mooney. "'Get it together. Pay attention.' I began to think to myself, 'Why am I stupid? Why am I crazy?' My identity centered around my bad points."

Mooney was often sent to the school office or forced to sit at a desk in the hallway.

"All kids want to learn," he said. "It was not that I wasn't paying attention. ADHD is a gift. I was paying attention to too many things. If asked I could have repeated word for word what was just said. I could also tell you the color of the carpeting and what the squirrels were doing in the tree outside."

School continued to get worse for Mooney. He vividly recalls the horrors of reading aloud in the second grade.

"As it got closer to my turn, my hands would start to sweat," he said. "I would see spots. My throat would get tight. I would raise my hand to go to the bathroom. I felt sick. When I returned do you think they skipped me? No, no, no, every kid needs to read aloud. I stumbled over every word, every comma. I wanted to die."

Suicide was a consideration many times, said Mooney. He credits his mother's support for his success. Mooney dropped out of school in the sixth grade, but returned the following year.

His athletic ability helped him through high school.

"I was a good soccer player, so that got me a college scholarship," he said. "My mom always told me it would get better and she was right. High school is a speed bump. College is so much better. In college I chose what I wanted to study. It's about ideas, not how well you spell or if you can read aloud."

Mooney transferred to Brown in his second year of college after posting high grades as a freshman at a local university. He urges students with learning disabilities to fight for their rights of accommodation.

"Don't ask me to read aloud or answer random questions," he said. "Give me something to research."

In Learning Outside the Lines Mooney shares his story and offers insight to how educators can better serve students with learning disabilities through alternative teaching methods.

"What is the problem if a kid needs to walk around the classroom every 20 minutes, if it is necessary?" he said.

"Teachers have a phenomenal task," Mooney continued. "They can change lives. It's important to show students that you want them there, and not tell them to go away because they don't fit in. They need to develop empathy and not sympathy."

Mooney has started a non-profit organization called Project Eye-To-Eye where LD/ADHD college students are matched with LD/ADHD elementary students.

"The goal is to have the college students serve as tutors, role models and mentors," said Mooney.

"My strengths are because of my differences, not in spite of them," Mooney said. "People develop at their own pace. Kids like me hit our strides later in life. My journey was inward. I stopped trying to fix myself. Don't let your anger bring you down, let it bring you up."

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