It is hard to believe that Coaching4Change is eight years old. It all started with the idea of older youth teaching and leading younger kids. In Coaching4Change’s journey, there have been lessons learned, ups, downs and bumps in the road. I have never felt more focused, empowered and motivated to reverse the educational inequities found in school systems and communities nationwide.
Last week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Shaquille O’Neal to talk about how our parents and education helped us ‘rise from pain’. As kids with learning disabilities, we felt isolated, dismissed and not heard. We shared childhood stories about how we were able to overcome those challenges, how we channeled our anger, frustration and disappointment into trying to create better opportunities for others. Shaq inspires and motivates as one of the NBA’s greatest players. Talking with Shaq got me thinking about the unsung heroes whose everyday acts of kindness and support go unrecognized.
I grew up with mild dyslexia and ADHD. These two disabilities made reading, writing and focusing very difficult. In my case, sitting in classrooms was hard because it enhanced my anxiety about not being able to process information the same way as the other kids. Having ADHD in 1992 was challenging because there were not a lot of programs or strategies to help kids of like me get through the school day. I often got into trouble for disrupting class or talking too much
In the sixth grade, my teacher started a reading program where each time a student would read a book we got stars. For every ten stars, kids were able to pick a prize out of the bin. While all the other kids were on stars 5 or 7, I had not yet received my first star. My mom and teachers took notice. They took away my recess, sports and after-school programs to practice reading. I would often skip words, change the order of words and struggle to pronounce words because of how I saw them. I remember to this day, the frustration in their voice of consistently telling me to "Just read what is on the page!". I would get so angry and discouraged by them because I was reading what I thought was on the page.
At a parent-teacher conference, my teacher was talking to my mom and I about all of my struggles; academically and behaviorally. They came up with a plan for how we were going to proceed for the rest of the year. I was going to sit next to my teacher's desk for the remainder of the year. When my behavior got too much to handle, my teachers would page my mother to put me back in my place. Once the meeting was over, my teacher asked me to step outside of the room so she could talk to my mother one-on-one.
After I left the room and closed the door behind me, I ran to the other classroom to hear what they were saying. I listened to my teacher tell my mom that it did not matter what strategies we put in place because I was not smart enough to understand. I needed a program for kids with special needs. My teacher continued by saying that I might not make it past high school and not to even worry about college. My heart sunk and I was genuinely embarrassed, self-conscious and demoralized.
I started thinking of myself as an idiot. I shut down, got angry, stopped trying and skipped school every opportunity I got. I was sad that my teacher thought so little of me. At this point, no one could reach me. I started hanging out with the wrong group of kids. All this changed when an older kid named DeeDee from the neighborhood took an interest in me. One night, at the arcade she asked me what was wrong and I told her the situation.
She started helping me with my homework and encouraging me. While I have never enjoyed reading, I always liked reading to her. When I read out loud, she was patient with me and rarely got frustrated when I made a mistake. Even if I got upset and impatient with her, she encouraged me. Her number one question to me was, "Did what you read out loud make sense?"
DeeDee’s belief in me pushed forward and to believe that I could do it. I finished that year with all B and C grades. The school year was hard, but I did well thanks to her mentorship and interest in me, something that the school system could not give me. In my inner-city LA neighborhood, there were many obstacles to getting ahead in life, but that same community produced someone like DeeDee whose helping hand made a huge difference at a critical time in my young life.
Coaching4Change helps teenagers value education by working in their neighborhoods as tutors, coaches and role models. If you are interested in learning more about Coaching4Change check out our website.