I’ve participated in several wars in my life and, while serving as a secret Israeli emissary to Soviet Jews, was arrested and interrogated by the KGB, but one of the scariest moments in my life occurred here, in the United States, when I was sixteen.
I grew up in your average suburban New Jersey town—think Happy Days—the home of Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the backdrop to the first two seasons of the Sopranos.
The school system was average, too. Like many suburban schools, mine had adopted the tracking system popular in the 1960s.Under this system, successful students were placed in classes with other successful students, less promising students with other less promising students, etc. The idea being that these “tracks,” as they were called, would enable students to learn and advance at their own pace without feeling left back to far behind or, conversely, under-challenged.
Invariably, the smarter tracks got the best teachers and who, in turn, gave out the highest grades. I was an unsuccessful student, utterly unpromising. And I was put in the lowest track. My teachers were generally the least qualified or motivated, their main task being to keep a lid on the relentless chaos reigning in the class and prevent it from spilling out into the hall. We received the grades our teachers expected us to get, which was irrelevant because learning in such an environment was simply impossible.
There was also the indignity of being in what everybody in school knew was the lowest track—a special dishonor for me, coming from the Jewish community where young people were expected to excel academically.
How did I get there? I had always been what used to be called a “problem student.” Bored in my elementary school classes, I was a discipline problem and spent many hours—even days—in the principal’s office, missing the class time devoted to basic math and grammar. Not that I could master basic math and grammar. I could do neither. As an adult, my kids used to make fun of the fact that I couldn’t help them with their third grade math homework and didn’t know my multiplication tables.
In addition, I was fat, athletically “uncoordinated”—so they called it—and socially inept. In short, a walking disaster area. There were no tutors, no allowances for disabilities—there weren’t even terms for the handicaps I had. And there was certainly nothing remotely like the Lab School.
By age 13, I was friendless, confidence-less, and failing out of school. I spent much of my time alone, wandering in the woods or alone in my room.
But then I began writing poetry. First, in the woods, in my head, and then in my room, in a notebook. Soon I’d completed a book—“Who Cries for the Soul of the Pigeon”—and then became publishing individual poems in august publications such as Seventeen Magazine. The Star Ledger even wrote a story about me, “Teen Poet Fights to Get Foot in Publisher’s Door.”
Still, it took my school three years to notice and only when I was 16 did one English teacher, Mr. David, a man to whom I am fathomlessly grateful, allow me to enroll in one honors literature class.
I was terrified. Shaking. Here were all the talented students, members of the highest track, and I had come from the lowest. Furthermore, I knew nothing. I did not know how to turn in a homework assignment. I did not know how to spell. Imagine the horror!
I faltered miserably, at first. Mr. David insisted I rewrite my papers and that I consult a dictionary for all words over two syllables.
Yet, painfully, doggedly, I began to get it. I began to get good grades—and not just in that English class. And those grades enabled me to escape my other lowest-track classes. I lost weight, refashioned myself into an athlete, and forged friendships.
But my learning disabilities remained. There's a popular wisdom that students get 250 points on their SATs just for putting down their names. I got 230. My guidance counselor smiled at me empathetically and recommended a good community college—maybe.
I took me another try to realize that I suffered from a dyslexic problem: I was unable to discern straight lines. The result was that I was filling in the answer to question 4 in answer box 6. Consequently, I asked for what was then unthinkable—that I be able to take the SATs again with a ruler. Later, my guidance counselor called me down to her office. She wasn’t smiling anymore. She wanted to know how my score had jumped 400 points.
Though I managed to emerge from those difficult years and, yes, to register some successes, I’ve still had to wrestle with my disabilities.
Another dyslexic handicap—an inability to transfer images from a topographical map to the actual topography plagued me throughout my military service. I still can’t see straight lines and I still don’t know my multiplication tables. But I’ve learned to sidestep these obstacles. I’ve learned to appreciate the assistance of a wife who is very good at straight lines and true wizard at math.
Together, we have raised three sensational kids, each of who suffered from learning disabilities every bit as onerous as my own, if not more so. We were able to give our children the assistance and understanding they needed to overcome their disabilities. And we were fortunate to raise our children in Israel, a country singularly sensitive and committed to educating special needs students.
Our eldest son, a fluent Chinese speaker, has just graduated from Columbia. Our daughter is working on an advanced degree in special education. And our baby boy is becoming an officer in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces.
These children—not the degrees, not the books, not the ambassadorial titles—are my greatest success in life. And for that I owe an incalculable debt to those like Mr. David who lent me a hand and lifted my out of that lowest track, who showed me that stretching above the even the darkest and deepest craters is a bright and limitless sky.