2/14/07

Overcoming Obstacles: Learning is more than Academics

"Stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities"
- Terry Josephson

Lying flat on my stomach as I happily read some stories from Norse mythology, I barely caught the groan from the dining room table when I turned the page. I looked up and saw my older brother sitting with his homework in front of him. Wanting to know what he was working on, I lifted myself off from the floor.

"Watcha doin'?" I asked cutely, my hands behind my back as I swung side to side. He pointed to a math problem that read 232+709. I blinked. Why would he sound so frustrated over a simple problem? Almost as if he had read my mind, he told me there were too many questions and they kept getting harder. I stayed silent as I watched him write down 842. Wrong. I looked at the next problem, 579+586. He thought for a couple of seconds, and then wrote 1074. Wrong again.

"Wait, that's not right."

He let out a frustrated sigh, tossed his pencil on the table and ran his fingers through his hair. "I can't do it. It's too hard."

Being the perky little sister I was, I grinned up at him, put my hands on the table, and bounced up and down. "Nuh uh. You just count separately." I showed him my fingers as I counted off. "9- 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. See? 6 fingers! And I counted up to 15. The last number should be five!" I proudly exclaimed. I thought he would say something like, "Yeah, that is easy," or "I get it now. Thanks!" and ruffle my hair. Instead, the sides of his mouth curved upward as though he was about to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

"Thanks…," he said sadly. I blinked and tilted my head to the right, my signature reaction of confusion. In that moment, I didn't comprehend how hard it was for him to handle the fact that his little sister knew more than he did. I sensed that he wasn't telling me how he really felt, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong.

I was just about to ask him when I heard our mother say to him, "Good job! Just keep trying. You're doing fine." I was about to tell her that he wasn't, but she gently pulled me aside. "You have to let him work things out on his own," she quietly told me. "He… doesn't understand things as quickly as others."

I blinked.

"He has a learning disability."

I titled my head to the right in confusion.

"I'll go help him with his homework right now. You can lie down and read your book," she suggested, ushering me in the direction of my room. I knew that she wasn't going to say anymore, so I just nodded my head and left. But I was so confused. As I lay down, I couldn't bring myself to keep reading with the same interest as before. "What did she mean?" I asked myself. "He's my older brother. Of course he understands just fine. Older people are supposed to understand more than younger people." I turned on my side and curled up in a ball. "But, Mommy wouldn't lie to me, and Ryan did look sad. What's happening?"

I was six years old when I learned about my brother's disability. That afternoon was when I began to truly understand him. I paid more attention to his schoolwork and noticed that even though he was in the third grade, he couldn't do any of the things that I had already learned. He avoided reading, wouldn't practice math, and dreaded going to school. It wasn't that he didn't want to learn anything. He couldn't keep up with his class. I'd watch from a distance as he sat next to my mother, struggling to read the first sentence of children's book, and then leaped at the first opportunity to stop doing work. Each time I saw him sweat with stress or throw his head into his hands, I wanted to help him out, but I had no idea how. All I knew was that he was a much slower learner than most people. How exactly could I help someone with a learning disability? Several times that year, and for each year after that, I tried to teach him in some way. I quizzed him on little multiplication problems like, what's 8x6? or how to answer a question in simple, complete sentences.

Finally, he was transferred into Prospect, a school that specialized with learning disabled children. In due time, he slowly began to understand the mathematical and cognitive concepts his old teachers couldn't teach him. He worked harder than before, knowing that even with a disability he could still at least try. Ryan served as a constant reminder of what perseverance really stood for, to never give up. Whenever I struggled in school, I saw the image of him tapping a pencil against the desk, writing something down, erasing it, then writing something else. Any negative thoughts of "I can't do this" for every assignment or test would immediately disappear. My brother was working so hard, I looked up to him as an inspirational figure and followed his example. He soon became the epitome of success. I was so proud of him when he graduated from Prospect. When they called out his name, I distinctly heard the speaker say, "Ryan Jacinto, the hardest worker I've ever seen." However, by the time he reached his new school, he was already 19. He was considered old enough to be in college, but mentally he only had the basics of a school curriculum learned. So, his school decided to give him a job.

Around the middle of the year, they noticed how much of a hard worker he was and offered him the chance to work around campus. He now files papers, cleans up classrooms after school, and carries heavy boxes of paper and other various school objects around (cause my bro's strong!). They're simple tasks, but he doesn't complain about them or anything. He's just happy that they gave him the chance to do a job, even though he didn't complete his education. And it's all right that he didn't, because after what he struggled with, he still pushed himself to be the best that he can be.

A couple years ago, my brother asked my family, "Why was I created this way? I didn't want this." It was such a deep, painful question that the only thing I knew to do was give him a big hug. But as I look back, I now know the answer to that question. My brother is one of the most strong-willed, and hardest working people I know. At times, it felt like he was going to break down and cry, but he never did. Every time he met a challenge, no matter how much he wanted to avoid it, he would attack it head on. He may not have a spectacularly scholastic brain, but he does have a great heart. Although he may sometimes behave like a 3rd grader who never really grew up, he still acts like an overprotective brother who only wants the best for his little sister. Anything that he can't do on paper he makes up for in working. Anyone who works as hard as he does deserves whatever goodness that comes his way. It doesn't take a genius to know that.