“My problem was the school desk,” said Jonathan Mooney at a recent talk at the Darien Library. “For some kids, a school desk is a benign piece of school furniture. For me, the school desk might as well be a form of enhanced interrogation.”

As soon as Mooney saw a school desk and chair, his hands started to sweat and his face would get red. He knew that after “five seconds at that desk, the foot’s going to start bouncing. Ten seconds at the desk, both feet start bouncing. Fifteen seconds at the desk, I’m going to bust out the drums. Fifteen minutes at the desk, it’s all over. I’m the kid trying to take his leg and put it behind his neck,” he said. “And that young person is shamed for that behavior.”

Mooney shared his experiences as a child who had a learning disability at the talk, Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities, which was held on Sept. 10.

At the talk, which was sponsored by the Darien SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Committee), Mooney encouraged educators not to punish those students who behave differently from their peers. Instead, celebrate all differences.

“The bad kid”

Mooney was diagnosed with language-based learning disabilities, executive functioning and attentional disabilities or disorders, and other conditions. He didn’t learn to read until he was 12.

Growing up, he was labeled the “bad kid,” “dumb kid,” the “at risk kid, and the “special ed kid.”

“I was the kid who had such a torturous time reading out loud that I spent most of my high school experience hiding in the bathroom to escape a reading out loud, with tears streaming down my face,” he said.

He added that it was so hard to stay quiet in the classroom that he grew up on a first name basis with Shirley, the receptionist in the principal’s office.

Mooney was told he would be a high school dropout, unemployed, and end up in jail or incarcerated. He struggled with anxiety, depression, and even had a suicide plan.

Instead, he defied all those expectations and graduated from Brown University with a degree in English literature. He became a published author of several books and is an advocate for “making the world a better place for folks who live and learn differently,” he said.

Changing society’s views

According to Mooney, society has deeply ingrained institutional norms that equate being a good student with one who is quiet and follows the rules.

“If you’re not the compliant kid who sits still and raises their hand and keeps their mouth shut,” society thinks something is wrong, he said.

Instead of punishing those who act different and trying to make them change, Mooney said differences should be celebrated, since they add value to the world.

Empowerment

It’s not about “fixing,” Mooney said, but instead, of being empowered — “an empowerment model for young folks who learn and live differently.”

Mooney said empowerment starts when society redefines who or what it considers to be the problem.

From his personal experiences and observations, whenever people act in a different way from what is considered normal, they’re treated as if something is wrong with them.

This needs to stop, Mooney said

“We’ve turned differences into deficiencies and we put the problem in the person, but the reality is the problem isn’t with the difference,” he said. “The problem is in the interaction between difference and context.”

Having an attention disorder, or any other type of disorder, “isn’t the problem,” he said. “The teasing is the problem. The social stigma of being labeled the bad kid — that’s the problem,” he said.

Furthermore, Mooney said that in school, society values the ability to read well as being smart, and not being able to read well as stupid.

He reflected on his years in the lowest level reading groups at school, and the embarrassment he said he felt, knowing that the entire class knew what reading group he was in.

“If you don’t have reading intelligence, you find yourself in the dumb group,” he said.

“I got the message that because I didn’t have this narrow band of skills, I was dumb — and that’s wrong,” Mooney said. “It’s not the difference, it’s the way the difference is treated — that is a problem.”

His second empowerment idea is if children aren’t able to learn in the traditional way, then teachers should teach the way they do learn.

Rather than change the person, change the environment, Mooney said.

“It’s never about making the round peg fit the square hole,” Moody said. “It’s always about changing the context around the human being with a difference.”

He told audience members to celebrate, embrace, and include human diversity “in all of its forms.”

As a whole, he said, society needs to advocate for a “bigger normal — one that includes more and more types of people.

Finding the good

Instead of what’s wrong with certain people, society needs to focus on what’s right with them, Moody said.

“Put aside what you can’t do and define yourself by what you can do,” he said.

Value “interest, talent, and passion,” he said.

The challenge, he said, is to be committed to the good in everyone. “Find that good, pull it out of them, and help them build a life around it,” he said.

“Every single human being has got something right with them that they can use to build a better life.” Mooney said. “A strength becomes a passion. A passion becomes a purpose. A purpose becomes a pathway to a better future,” he said.

Ultimately, Mooney said empowerment is about rejecting the idea that there’s a normal standard for which all people should follow and behave.

“We are fighting for a world where every single human being has a right to be different,” he said.

The full meeting can be viewed on Darien TV79.

sfox@darientimes.com