In this episode, Alec talks to spoken-word poet and disability rights advocate LeDerick Horne about getting diagnosed with a learning disability in third grade and spending the rest of his K-12 education in segregated classrooms, and about what SHOULD have happened instead. The conversation ranges from riding the short bus to the watching the Simpsons, and ends with LeDerick’s experience in college – and why he’s a huge supporter of community colleges.
Can I start out by doing a poem? Okay. So the poem I like to start out with is called “New Beginning.”
I was born, I was born on the last day of the ninth month in the year seven seven. And if you know your numerology, you’ll see that my destiny is in line with the divine, I am only one of a chosen few. He had an offer. You rhyme reason and song combined with word magic and poetic acrobatics that flip from my mouth fall into microphones. And hopefully, hopefully make a home within your minds. Say, yo, back in time, you could find cats like me, snacking on knowledge filled fruits in the garden of Eden. But instead I made my bed in a garden state on the East coast of a country that is mine because my ancestors helped build it with blood, sweat, and tears. Their daily fears still be my everyday reality, never got caught up in that emancipation, “Oh you free now” fallacy. Because I too have been systematically institutionalized to rely on everything, and I do mean everything, except for myself. During teenage days, I was trapped in a cage without bars, mental scars produced by verbal whupping.
This is the Unboxed Learning podcast, I’m Alec Patton. And you just heard the opening of “New Beginning,” a poem by LeDerick Horne, recorded when LeDerick gave a keynote to High Tech High’s Project-Based Learning Leadership Academy in October 2019. There’s a link to the full poem in the show notes. I interviewed LeDerick right after he gave this keynote, and one of the most obvious things about him is that he is good with words, but when he was in school, that’s not how anyone would have described him.
Got to the first grade. And I just could not spell as well as I needed to, or do math as well as I needed to, or particularly not read. I just remember a lot of feeling of fear being in school and just knowing that the embarrassment was always sort of looming overhead and close by. I get to the third grade and that teacher just was not playing around. So, you know, it was this, this group reading “read down the row” type of thing that she had us doing. I remember real clearly it was the month of September and it was an activity that I was terrified to have to do to have to read out loud in class. And so she asked me to read a paragraph and I couldn’t do it. And from that got kind of called out of the class, and I guess one thing led to another and I got placed in front of a learning specialist that gave me my first evaluations, but it was, yeah, it was this sort of terrifying moment of being embarrassed in front of all of my peers that then led to having this label that I was never actually made aware of, right? Like I didn’t really learn that I had a learning disability until I was a young adult. What I realized was sort of started from that encounter was this road towards special education. And without really knowing, you know, how my mind worked, not knowing the exact label that I was given, I was clear that I was a special ed kid. And I was clear that within the hierarchy, that that was not where you wanted to be.
30 years later, he’s introducing himself to a packed house in a graduate school of education.
So I’m a poet advocate. I have a BA in mathematics from New Jersey CitU university. I work on a national state and local level and a little bit internationally now. And I really think the mission of my work is really about improving the outcomes of folks with disabilities.
Lederick’s journey has been remarkable, but his experience as an elementary school student diagnosed with a learning disability was entirely typical. And first and foremost, it was an experience of segregation that started the moment he left the house in the morning to wait for the short bus.
Oh God. Yeah, man. The short bus. I actually remember that. That was one of the first encounters that I had that I realized that my educational experience was going to be dramatically different, was that I had to catch the bus at a different corner where I was by myself. And I remember that day, the short bus pulls up and my heart sinks.
This was the beginning of what LeDerick describes as “year after year of being treated like a second class citizen in my own school.” And of course it wasn’t just the bus, but the bus mattered a lot.
That bus is sort of internalized. It is a symbol of shame and it is something that I think a lot of us still carry with us. Even if you’re successful, there’s that sort of imposter syndrome, but sort of turned up to 11, right? Because there’s like this aspect of who you are that you’re constantly trying to hide if you’re someone who, you know, has a, like a hidden disability. I remember at one point having to catch a regular-sized bus with everybody else in the morning, and having to ride a short bus home. And I refused to speak on that bus. I went to the back, I sat in my seat and I never said a word. And there were times throughout my education where I knew I wish to being treated poorly. And the only thing that I could really think to do was just, “I will not participate, I will just be quiet.” ‘Cause I didn’t know where to direct my anger, but I knew something was, something was wrong and it was wrong not from just like one person, like I couldn’t point to a teacher or an administrator. And I think what it was is that I didn’t have the language to really understand that the system was flawed. Several years ago I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were talking about the intersection of the disability rights movement and the civil rights movement. And we said, it always comes down to buses. It is sad that even now throughout the United States, we still have an entirely segregated transportation system for kids with disabilities. And I don’t think anyone questions that to the extent that we should, right? We don’t allow segregation along racial lines for buses anymore, but for whatever reason, we still think that that’s okay for kids with disabilities.
And I think a lot of it is based on a lot of fear and it’s like, the vast majority of our kids are not going to do physical harm to themselves or anybody else. It’s not that kind of situation. But it’s something, a legacy that is continued from a time when our schools were segregated, where kids with disabilities could not go to school with everybody else. And there was a time in American history when it was illegal for kids with disabilities to be educated with their non-disabled peers. And so some of the first steps towards integrating our schools for kids with disabilities was that, yeah, you’d build a classroom all the way at the end of the hall, sort of tacked onto the building. It had its own bathroom, right? It was self contained and the busing system was built to be the exact same way.
And unfortunately we just keep doing that .
And LeDerick definitely experienced that full day segregation firsthand.
Our schools were really just trying to figure out where to put us, right? So I spent a lot of time in classes that were like all block, no paint on the walls, no windows, right, classes that were in basements rooms at the end of the hall in portable trailers, permanently parked in the back of the school. And there is a politics associated with placement, right? When we value students, we put them in places in the school which are spaces of honor, right? Architecture will start teaching before teachers do. Kids get a sense about where they are in the building and how much we value them.
This is a lot of stigma for a kid to start carrying before he even gets out of elementary school. But LeDerick did have one thing going for him. He had a great teacher.
I consider myself to be fairly lucky, because my first special ed teacher was an excellent educator. Her name was Ms. Priscilla Yates. Ms. Yates had a teacher’s aide named Ms. Norsha, and Ms. Yates and Ms. Norsha were excellent educators. I’m gonna let y’all know, when I started out in the third grade, I could barely read: my spelling was so badly impaired that I couldn’t distinguish between the letters of the alphabet. But in Ms. Yates’ class we did a lot of drills, I got a lot of one-on-one attention, and because I have been subjected to more flashcards than should be allowed by law, academically I began to do better.
In fact, LeDerick’s path from being a third grader who couldn’t read out loud to being a spoken word poet begins with Ms. Yates. To explain, we’ll start with a question that LeDerick got from an audience member at his keynote. And I need to give some context. The audience had just learned that LeDerick has a tattoo. Here’s the audience member.
Audience member: (07:59):
Where is the tattoo?
Where is my tattoo? You had to ask. It’s on my shoulder, it’s very respectable. Okay? I have a raven on my shoulder. One of the first poems that I remember really hitting me hard was Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” So I have a raven on my shoulder.
I had to know more.
How did you find Edgar Allen Poe?
Oh my God, That’s great! Right, right? ‘Cause Like I’m a kid in special ed, right? How did I find Poe? So I’m going to age myself, but I remember the first season of the Simpsons, and the Simpsons, I think they still do it, they did a Halloween special, and that first Halloween special, at the end, it was Bart and Homer and James Earl Jones doing a rendition of “The Raven.” And so I remember watching the Simpsons and enjoying the show and then just sitting there, and then all of a sudden, just being hit with a poem and not really knowing like, what is this, you know? And then going to my special ed class, going to my teacher, Ms. Yates, and trying to describe to her what I experienced watching and listening to these cartoon characters do this poem. She said, “Oh yeah, that’s Edgar Allen Poe.” And she took me to the library. I remember this very clearly. She got me a collection of Poe’s work and I struggled with the words, you know, the printed word, but I read “Annabel Lee” and”The Tell-tale Heart.” And that’s how I first got connected to Poe.
And LeDerick was also being pulled towards poetry by his peers.
Now if you’re in special ed, there’s a lot of, a lot of young brothers in there that want to be MCs, right? So I never, at least, I don’t think I ever portrayed myself as having any lyrical ability until I got to college. But I think that a lot of the guys who were rappers that I went to school with could see something. And so I was constantly being sort of encouraged to jump into the cipher and try to drop my freestyle and this that and the other. But I couldn’t do it. It was only once I got to college and I realized, I realized how to write and how to sit down with a pad and pencil and craft a verse that I was able to really manifest that
There was a bit of technical vocabulary just then. So for those of you who don’t know the term, a “cipher” is a group of rappers standing in a circle rapping for each other. Now back to the interview. Do people realize that there’s a whole bunch of rappers in special ed programs?
Yeah, I don’t know. You know, like, I don’t know. I think it’s, hmm… Now one of the, one of the sad realities that I deal with is like this sort of survivor’s guilt, right? ‘Cause Like I’ve done relatively well, but no way I’m the smartest guy that I grew up with, you know, who went through those classes, and no way was I the most talented lyricist or anything like that, like no way, you know? But yeah, there were a lot of guys that looked out for me who encouraged me, you know, young men and young women who, who, who didn’t make it as far. Some with some sort of scary outcomes.
And while LeDerick’s success might feel inevitable now, he almost didn’t get into college because his transcript showed almost all special ed classes
And they didn’t have proof that I could handle mainstream academic work. But one of the things that saved me was that I had a brand new teacher, like first year teacher, if I remember correctly, Mr. G. And they stuck Mr. G in special ed history, and so I had him. There were some days when I sat there with him, I was like, “Man, I feel so sorry for you,” ’cause he was just dealing with this chaos.
But they recruited him, I think, because he was really good at coaching Mock UN and Mock trial. And so he also taught an honors level political debate class. And so G really fought for me and got me into that, that honors level political debate class. And that was a great experience for me because it taught me two things. One is it taught me that I could do honors level work. And then the other thing it did was it helped me to see that those honors kids were actually not that smart, right? That they maybe had a bit more polish and a bit more tutoring and things along those lines. And then of course their self esteem was a lot higher than many of my peers, but intellectually they were right at the same level as everybody else I went to school with.
Yeah. I mean, the only difference between a cipher and debate club is in a cipher you have to rhyme.
Right, right, right. Yeah. It was, it was an eye opening experience, you know? And I was, I was grateful. I was grateful that he looked out for me. Also, I got a scholarship, like a few hundred dollars scholarship when I graduated, from the Republicans of Franklin township. And I think G put my name in the hat for that that scholarship as well. So that was like an interesting moment at at the end of my, my high school education.
So Mr. G sounds awesome. As does Ms. Yates. And part of LeDerick’s story is about the power that great teachers have to transform the lives of kids, but consider that it took until 12th grade for LeDerick to be allowed to get close enough to honor students to realize that he was as smart as they were. That was ten years of coming to school and sitting in a segregated classroom. So I asked LeDerick what should have happened?
First of all, is that I should’ve been given a really clear understanding of how my mind works. I think in a lot of families and a lot of schools, we think that we’re helping students by not telling them about what their disability is. So I think having that, that awareness would have made a huge difference.
No-one explained to LeDerick how his mind worked until after he’d graduated from high school.
When I was first in college and sat down, got exposed to like my documentation, I had a counselor just sort of explain to me what my learning disability was. You know, she explained it as being someone that average to above average intelligence. And I remember like looking through all the neuro psych stuff and there was information in there that I think probably could have just changed my life if someone had just sat down and just explained to me what it was, you know, like that I had all these gifts that I had all of these talents. Yeah. I don’t think that we, we do a good enough job at like conveying that to our young people.
Of course, in college you can go through neuroscientific documentation, but how do you explain this to a first grader?
So if I was going to tell first grade LeDerick how his mind works, I would begin by talking about all the gifts that I have, all the talents that even as a, as a little boy I could see, right? So it was like, “Hey man, you know, you’ve got all this artistic talent,” it was clear that I had very strong verbal skills as even a little kid — and front load all of that. And then at the end, it’s like, “Oh yeah. And you know, you’ve got attention issues and you have a hard time with doing basic calculations and things like that.” But beginning with that asset-based point of view. Somewhere in there, I would’ve loved to have had a mentor. I could have met a high school student or a college student who had a mind like mine and could have been a physical representation of what my future could have looked like, someone who is young and successful and also had challenges around learning. And then, you know, the young man LeDerick, the version of me that was in high school, I should have been getting exposure to all the awesome supports that are out there for folks with disabilities in postsecondary education and the world of employment. I didn’t know anything about that. You know, I just kinda thought I had to just sort of tough it out like everybody else. I didn’t really know what was, what was waiting for me and that there were programs out there that were gonna support people like me.
Do you think, looking back, should you have been in an inclusive mainstream classroom?
I think I definitely should have been in an inclusive mainstream classroom. I would even say that I, certain subjects should have been in honors classes.
Let’s recap those four points. First: when a kid gets diagnosed with a learning disability, explain how their mind works to them, even if they’re really young, and lead with their strengths. Second: connect kids with older mentors whose minds work in similar ways so that they have a vision of a successful future. Third: educate high schoolers about the supports and resources that will be available to them in college and in the workplace, as people with learning disabilities. And fourth: don’t segregate kids. Now for the final part of this episode, we’re going to talk about college because LeDerick is the most passionate advocate for community college I’ve ever met. And LeDerick’s college story begins in high school with the transition plan he made with his support team,
The team actually, they suggested because my skills were so low that I start my education out at a community college, a county college, a technical school… I have since become a huge supporter of community colleges, county colleges, technical schools. I think they are a great place for everybody to begin their education.
I asked LeDerick why he’d become such a huge supporter.
So I think there are a few things. One is, is that all of our young people have to have a transition plan when they’re preparing to exit high school. So for me, my plan didn’t just end at a county college. I knew that a bachelor’s degree was what I wanted. Ultimately, you know, it was going to be several schools before I got there. So that was okay for me. But I’m very pro also because you know, the price piece. When it’s literally the same credits, I think that economically it’s a smarter route to go. Also, if you’re someone who did not perform well in high school, if that school you want to go through is not going to accept you, you can go to a county college, you can get, in some cases, as few as 12 credits, and then that four year institution can only evaluate you based upon your college performance.
Right? So it’s almost as if everything you did in high school, didn’t even matter. In six months, right, you can start all over again. There are also studies that have looked at actual pedagogy, right? Like the quality of education, right? And at our many of our four year colleges and universities, you have this hybrid model where oftentimes hiring professors whose real focuses on research. And sometimes some of those people are not the best teachers. And what my experience has been is that in a lot of our community colleges, county colleges and technical schools, the people that are there because they really want to teach. And what I, you know, what I, what I think that one of the things we should just kind of focus on in general is that unfortunately many of our students are graduating from high school and they’re just not prepared to go to college period. And so some of that is an indictment on just like, you know, have we taught them how to write, do they have basic math skills? I know I didn’t have any of that. I had to do an entire year of remedial classes before I could do college level work. And that’s not just because I had a disability, right? So that’s, that’s not uncommon for, for all of our students.
And those remedial classes might sound like a temporary setback that it’s best to skip over quickly when telling LeDerick’s story. But it was in those classes that he began to understand how much he was capable of.
Using the accommodations, using the supports, right? In those remedial classes, I realized I was good at two things. One was writing, not spelling, but writing. And actually the two are not connected. So I was good at writing and also really good at math. I struggle with basic math – addition, subtraction, multiplication division, but you give me a calculator, the higher order stuff is no problem. So I actually declared myself as a mathematics major while I was in college. Why math? Come on, let’s keep it real: spelling is not that big of a deal in math, right? So I transferred after five years with a 3.75 GPA, I made my way to New Jersey City University. I was a part of another support program for students with disabilities. I was able to do the last two years of my degree in two years, right? I was like determined to get it done in two years. I did 26 credits my last summer because I wanted to get done. But I graduated with honors with the BA in mathematics, minored in fine art with an emphasis in painting.
And there’s one final thing you need to know about LeDerick’s experience of college. His department of disability services chose to be a little less helpful to them than they could have been. And this taught him a very, very important skill.
You’ve got a disability, you go to college, you can access disability services and they will send a letter to all of your professors just saying “LeDerick has registered in our office. Here are the accommodations he’s entitled to, you have any questions come talk to us.” But in my programs, the programs that I was a part of, they said, “Yeah, we can send that letter, but we’re not going to do it. Instead. You’re going to walk up to every single one of your professors, first week of class, you’re going to have a conversation with them about who you are.” Right? And I had to do that every single semester. And so I had to do role playing. And so my counselors would practice with me about how to have that conversation, how to do it in a way which was concise, how to do it with confidence.
That’s it for this episode. But if it’s left you wanting more, LeDerick Horne has co-written a book with Margaret Vreeburg Izzo entitled “Empowering Students with Hidden Disabilities: A Path to Pride and Success.” He’s also got two spoken word, albums out: Black and Blue and Rhyme Reason and Song. Lederick’s also a part of the Eye to Eye organization, who work to help young people who learn differently. They developed a free curriculum to help all young people plan for the future and it’s now available as a free app called Eye-to-Eye Empower. This has been the Unboxed Learning podcast. I’m Alec Patton. Our theme music is by brother Herschel, with additional music by Brent Spirnak. Thanks for listening.