Now it’s 1969. I am in kindergarten and things are not going well in class. The teacher notices that I am not catching on as fast as my classmates. This was the first sign of trouble, a trouble that continues to this day. When you deal with dyslexia and ADHD, which often coexist, life can be tough for anyone. But in 1969, we did not know how to teach kids with different processing styles.
Now couple that fact with being African American, living on the south side of Chicago in the “Golden Ghetto,” and there is really no room to be different. You see, my family was part of the Chicago black elite. My father was a mover and a shaker in the civil rights movement and part of the Chicago political machine. My mother was a social worker and a high-society Southern Belle. Then you add the fact that the rest of my family are all high achievers. My grandmother used to say, “You better be worth the Lincoln Continental.”
There was absolutely no understanding or compassion for failure or struggle. As I look back, I can better understand why it was that way. Black America had just come through the civil rights movement and there was a need to appear strong and show no cracks in the Armour. So I learned to put up a facade of strength in a time of change and pain. You only have to look at what was happening in the 1960's, to see that Black America was in pain and trying to recover from a series of setbacks. The leaders of the civil rights movement were being assassinated, one by one.
June 12, 1963, was a day that hit my family hard. June 12, 1963 was the day, Medger Evers was assassinated in Greenwood Mississippi. My grandfather and Mr. Evars worked closely together for the NAACP. People said my grandfather was next on the Klan’s hit list. The killings of civil rights leaders just kept flowing like the Niagara river over the falls. On November 22, 1963, President John F, Kennedy was killed. Then 14 days after I was born, on June 21, 1964, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were brutally murdered in Philadelphia Mississippi. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was killed in Harlem. Then in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968, at Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed.
Now these events left the black community fractured and in pain. My family had to represent the strength of a whole movement and there was no room for weakness or excuses. The long arch of history was bending down, so our families swept learning disabilities under the rug from the need to feel strong. In my family, education was just a given. You had to have a Masters degree at least or you were letting the family down. Some families tried to wish the LD away or ignore it all together.
My parents did the best they could at the time, but this was before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the understanding was just not there. Most people took a more negative view of what was wrong with me, “He’s lazy. He’s a daydreamer.” They would ask my parents, “Is he stupid?” Being part of a high achieving family meant I had a target on my back. I spent a lot of time getting laughed at or ridiculed or belittled. This actually turned me into a fighter. I learned to verbally pick people apart -- the people who crossed my path in that way. My vocabulary and my quick mind became the one survival skill I had to level the playing field or level those who poked fun at me.
The African American community did not want to talk about learning disabilities. They didn’t recognize that the fight for equal justice applies to every realm of diversity. So we face the fact that a lot of black kids got left behind or caught up in the system. Learning disabilities and black male machismo is a mix that does not work. It did not work then and it does not work now. We have generations of lost potential, suffering under the ignorance of our schools.
Nevertheless, my family was also my saving grace. My grandmother, my mother, my father and my aunts and uncles did everything they could to help me. It was heartbreaking to see their frustration over not knowing how to help me. They did help me -- just not in learning how to read.
by Leon Rice