HEALTH -- March 19, 2012 at 6:02 PM ET
Poetry from a 'Neurologically Impaired' Life
Editor's Note: This profile is part of a PBS NewsHour series on the role of learning disabilities in America's dropout crisis. Stay tuned for more in the coming days, both on-air and online.
I have the same dream
but mine came each day
when I'm thinking those
what I want to be
when I grow up thoughts
It was a letter of the alphabet. That much nine-year-old LeDerick Horne knew. But which? An A? B? G? Maybe L?
LeDerick's frustrated mother had just accused him of not knowing the alphabet, and the he responded with a perfect performance of the alphabet song. Then came this awkward moment: She picked up a legal pad, wrote something on it and asked what it was. To LeDerick, it was just a blank page and squiggles, so he stared.
locked behind padded walls
fetus of a man
shivering in a corner
as chapped lips
unravel a long ribbon
of lyrics that fall like hope
disappearing into the floor
LeDerick stared as the rest of the third grade class waited. One by one, the teacher had picked students to read aloud. One by one, until it got to LeDerick. Then things stopped. Everything in the book looked like code to him -- straight lines and curved ones in no particular order. He wondered how anyone could be expected to make words out of that.
"I can't," he finally said. "I can't": two words that finally led to a diagnosis consisting of two more: "Neurological impairment," or as LeDerick himself interpreted it, "We don't know what's going on, but something's wrong with his brain." The treatment: Relocation to a "resource room" for special education. In practice, it was a teachers' storage closet filled with unused textbooks, posters and a few desks.
"This is not a classroom," he remembers thinking.
LeDerick with his kindergarten teacher, before his learning disability was identified.
I have the same dream
the dream that is more than a dream
the one where I'm drowning in meds
and the vulgar chaos of daytime-television
wishing my Mama would sign me out
"This resource room is a closet," LeDerick remembers thinking. "And it was a sign of things to come."
In junior high there would be the janitor's break room -- concrete walls, no windows. But in between came the more traditional classroom reserved exclusively for the special ed kids.
All day long, Ms. Norcia, a special education teacher's aid, worked one-on-one with LeDerick. Flash cards and spelling words. All day long. Flash cards, more flash cards and spelling words until the curves and lines began making sense. He learned the alphabet, beyond the song. He learned vocabulary and definitions.
"Academically, I began to do better," he said, "but being in that self-contained setting really started eating away at my self-esteem."
It was a prison and also a cocoon, of sorts -- an insulated place to be nurtured and shielded from some of the nastiness of middle school. LeDerick's teachers protected him, encouraged him, made him feel smart. He began to thrive, especially in art.
Then came junior high.
LeDerick, standing in a black hooded sweatshirt, in his special education class.
The ones that talk all day to files
- disin' you behind your back
using terms like
disabled, disorder, and disconnected
to describe a person
who never was
I've seen their calculated smiles
preceding the scalpel questions
used to dissect
the crime scene of our lives
Now the days were marked by ringing bells, chaos, and a constant churn of new special ed classes. Socializing became the name of the game, and the academic segregation all but disqualified LeDerick.
"I began to realize I was different," he said. "Really, really different. Junior high has a strict social hierarchy and I knew I was at the bottom."
All those flashcards helped him learn how to read well enough to pass, but spelling was still close to impossible. So they gave him baby books to help -- one featuring a life-sized, walking teddy bear. The kind you see in kindergarten. "This book is an insult to my intelligence," he told the teacher. She disagreed.
"So from then on, I refused to work in that class. I just kind of put my foot down," LeDerick said. "I was going to protest the way I was being treated."
He drew pictures instead. Tortured faces, nails driven into heads, mangled human bodies in various states of severe pain. And he daydreamed of being someone else. Sometimes a cowboy. Sometimes a knight or a soldier -- people who don't need to read or write.
As the storm clouds gathered, LeDerick's attendance started to slip. If he had a bad day, he would stay home the next. He thought about dropping out, but there were too many eyes on him: A mother, a father, grandparents who pushed him into things like cross-country and art, and away from things like drugs and alcohol.
"They would tell me, 'When you grow up, you're going to be a good person,'" he said. "And I always had that in the back of my mind -- even in the darkest days."
The thunderclouds kept building.
Stand side by side on cracked sidewalks
Rigidly confront the empty windows
of each red brick building
We should've screamed like anarchists
at their leather straps
Laugh like stoners at their mundane murals
and run naked through their abandoned cuckoo's nest
from the nurses needle
and the orderlies fist
The unraveling came junior year. "I'm losing my mind," LeDerick would tell himself. "Losing my mind." He slept in the closet because the bed seemed too good for him. When the closet became too good, he would walk the streets, imagining the best way to die. He hoped someone would call the cops so he could be arrested, or easier - shot and killed.
The future looked black. As a junior, LeDerick still couldn't write a grammatically correct sentence or perform a basic math problem.
He quit the cross-country team. He quit his artwork. He quit his girlfriend.
He took up the library. Admittedly, it was "an odd place for a guy who can't read to go," he said. "But I was aware all the information in the world was there." His question was simple and he knew he was bound to find it buried somewhere in all those difficult-to-understand words.
Who am I?
He read about African-American history, oppression, race, and western society. Then he stumbled upon Einstein's theory of relativity. The math didn't make one bit of sense to LeDerick but one thing rang true: Point of view is everything.
If lightning strikes a tree and one person sees it from the ground and another watches from a moving train, the event looks different. As LeDerick read Einstein's words, he understood that he was both sitting still and moving fast -- slowly shifting on a continental plate in North America as the world spun on its axis and hurtled around the sun. And those stars he saw on his nightly walks may have looked vibrant and bright, but most of the pinpricks of light reaching his eyeballs were millions of years old - perhaps long dead.
Things aren't always as they seem.
"All of that added up to one thing for me," he said. "If the world's got all this wrong, if everyone believes I'm sitting still when I'm really moving so quickly, maybe they've also got it wrong about who the smart people are. Maybe reality is just a reflection of my own thoughts."
At that moment, the boy who spent most of his life feeling broken, like a puzzle missing a piece, began to feel like something more. The boy who spent nearly all his time struggling against school decided he wanted to go to college.
things had changed
ain't nobody goin'a cut at our brains
to make us act right
ain't no one goin'a send sparks
running through our minds
to make us sit still,
they can't force us
Susan Conlan looked a lot like the other middle-class, white females that had stared at LeDerick in the past, trying to figure out how his brain worked. But for the very first time in his academic career, this one had something useful to say about his learning disability.
It was the first week of classes at Middlesex County College -- a two-year school in the neighboring county -- and Conlan, a guidance counselor, met with LeDerick to go through his file. She showed him that he had scored above 130 on every IQ test he had ever taken. Spelling was his downfall, and she told him to forget it -- to write freely and worry about the technicalities later.
From that day forward, he wrote. The poetry poured from him. Some nights, he would wake up in the middle of the night and sit for hours, writing anything that came to mind. He also started receiving the technical support he needed for academic success: a quiet, distraction-free room -- plus time and a half -- for test-taking, a word processor to help catch his spelling mistakes, and audio textbooks to better match the way his brain processes information.
"Everything just fell into place," he said. "I became a rock star student. If I could have received those accommodations in a regular classroom environment -- and if it wouldn't have been viewed as cheating or laziness -- I might have been a rock star student the whole time."
LeDerick with his mother at his graduation from New Jersey City University in 2003.
You know where it comes from
It was born in the firmament
of our self-contained years
The little rooms we were locked in as children
have grown into a sanatorium sized torment
Now 34, LeDerick Horne's "neurological impairment" has been re-diagnosed as an equally vague "non-specific learning disability."
He refuses to accept that language. To LeDerick, it's a learning difference -- one that gave him the gumption to graduate with a mathematics and fine arts degree from New Jersey City University. GPA: 3.75.
It's the difference that helped him become a retail investor and owner of his own company, Horne & Associates, LLC, where he can use spell-check as much as he pleases, capitalize on his creativity and define his own success.
And perhaps most satisfying of all, it's the difference that transformed him into a nationally sought motivational speaker and chairman of the board for Project Eye-to-Eye, a nonprofit that connects students with LD/ADHD and mentors who have been in their shoes.
He hates the word "overcome."
"The only thing I overcame was the low expectations society had for me," he said.
Just panic talking through pictures
our past attempting to cast
some dark spell
It's just our imaginations
imagining the same hell
It ain't real
we made it out
and we are going to be okay
- yeah, that's what I wanted to say
In the days ahead on the PBS NewsHour broadcast, health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser will travel to Boston to learn more about the role of learning disabilities in the U.S. dropout crisis. Click here for a 101 on the set of disorders, and check the NewsHour's Health Page throughout the week for more online-exclusive content.