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Overcoming Learning DisabilitiesToday my son James graduates from Oregon State University. It will be an exciting day, made especially so because the First Lady, Michelle Obama, will be speaking. Although I’m thrilled to have the chance to hear her in person, it doesn’t come close to the joy arising in me as I think of all the work, focused attention and passion my son has put into his studies.


James has ADHD and other processing disorders that make learning about ten times harder for him than for someone without these differences. Ever since he first began learning to read, he had to work harder and longer at his studies than most of his peers. In fact, learning came so hard for James that I often wondered during his childhood if he would even want to attend college.


Then when he was in middle school we got our first glimpse of his passion for the engineering world. That was the year he and his dad built a skate park in our back yard. Although James measured and designed many different skate ramps and rails, the project that gave us a glimpse of what was to come was the Half Pipe. His dad, a physics teacher, helped him figure out the dimensions and the curve of the pipe and then they went to work building an amazing structure that kept many neighborhood kids busy and out of trouble (with only a few broken bones) for years.


When James entered high school he put down the skateboard – our medical expense budget thanking him – and picked up the guitar. Once again, he didn’t settle for just a solo instrument. He and his dad designed a full-on sound studio. James taught himself not only to play guitar, but also to write music and play the keyboard, harmonica and even the cello. The music just came to him, as if opening up another side of his brain that allowed his soul to flow out for all of us to hear and enjoy.


All this time James was finding ways to learn that suited him, ways that allowed his passions to develop. These engaged passions in turn helped to develop different parts of his brain. Soon his grades followed his enthusiasm and we saw his potential beginning to blossom.


James started out his years at OSU as a music major, but soon realized he wanted a more steady income to rely on some day. That’s when he gained the confidence to go for another of his passions, building things.


James graduates today with an engineering degree. From the boy who really struggled in school, he progressed to skater dude building his own skate park, to musical wonder and finally to engineer. Some think it’s unusual, but as I have grown to know his core, that which drives him, I see the way it all fits together. James is a man who loves knowledge, and who will some day help build things with integrity. He even took an oath to do so.

James is a young man of great wisdom and abiding compassion. I am so very proud of his perseverance as well as his belief in what he can do! He is a walking testament to what can be accomplished in spite of learning difficulties, or perhaps because of them, and the very gifts such disabilities gave him. He inspires me every day to press through my difficulties and focus on what gives me passion and joy. Indeed, I have learned that when we function out of our highest and greatest contribution, as James does, everything comes a little easier.