The other day a guy I’ve known for a very long time inconspicuously posted this story, HIS story, on his Facebook Status. He was born with a developmental disorder that caused learning disorders, like dyslexia, from an early age. The public school system initially dismissed his potential to be an independent, productive member of society. With parents that were willing to support him, his desire to succeed, a wonderful doctor, and God’s help, Tim McCollum has thrived, becoming a well-respected lawyer, father, and husband. Read this story and be inspired to never give up or dismiss someone based on the hand they are dealt, because it just might trump everyone else’s around them. The words below are his words.
Written by Tim McCollum
I have been asked by a very good friend, like the sister I never wanted, to write about my childhood. I was a child with a Learning Disability. If you want to stop reading here, that’s fine. That is the reason I put this up front; so you don’t waste your time reading further if this kind of thing doesn’t interest you.
My life as a child was something of an adventure, but it was more so for my parents than me. My mom and dad would be much better story tellers than myself because it all just happened to me. They were the real heroes. This story is only known by a handful of people, but I will place it out here for everyone to see. I hope it helps someone to be strong and not give up. If you’re a kid reading this, maybe you can go on to be much more than your parents, teachers, or society think you can be. If you’re a parent reading this and see you your child in it, hopefully you can gather some strength or hope for a future better than you could even imagine.
When I was born, I had several physical issues. I don’t remember a whole lot about that time, but one telling anecdote from my early childhood involved my mom having to get rid of her dream car. Not long before I was born, my dad and mom purchased a brand new 1965 Ford Mustang convertible. I’m sure, judging from the photos of her back then, that she was something else sporting around in that thing.
I was not a “manly child” as Luca Brazi wished for the Godfather to have. I was a sickly child. I was diagnosed with asthma, as well as other issues that required me to take medicine on a daily basis. The asthma meant that I had to have an air conditioned environment, to keep the irritation down. If you know anything about Mustangs, you will know that an air conditioner isn’t one of the things Ford put a lot of thought into for the hot rod convertible. The Mustang had to go. For the sake of her second son, she sold the Mustang and bought an air conditioned car that I could ride in without having issues.
I had to take medicine, also to stave off other maladies I suffered from. Some of which were brought on by my mental development, or rather the lack thereof. I had seizures, and my left foot was permanently turned in. At some point, when I was a few years old, my legs were put in braces to keep my feet from permanently pointing inward. My early childhood was not very pleasant. I would wear the braces, like children with cerebral palsy wore, to church, to go shopping with my mom, to sleep in; pretty much everywhere.
When I got older, kindergarten age, I was diagnosed as mentally handicapped. Not that I had a learning disability, but that I was so handicapped that I would never amount to anything. According to my mom, the powers that be wanted to put me in a developmental school; the one in Montgomery is known as McInnis School. At McInnis, they teach mentally handicapped people to shave, comb their hair, put on clothes, and tie shoes; not only children, but adults too. Downs Syndrome children were, and maybe still are since it is still open and operating, sent to McInnis to learn how not to be a burden on their family, to be able to care for themselves. This is what the mainstream education system thought was best for me.
Because, I was a “special needs child”, my mom and dad had early on found a very special pediatrician who I knew only as Doctor Nolan. To me Doctor Nolan was one of those rare individuals, a man before his time, who just happened to find himself practicing his craft in the Cradle of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama. Doctor Nolan, I believe could’ve run the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. But here he was, spiritually holding the hands of my parents, and assuring them that I would “grow out of” my problems. When I was given I.Q. tests, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even be placed in any kind of kindergarten class. I couldn’t understand what I was reading, although I could recognize the letters. I also had no retention of what I had read. I was retarded. I was never going to amount to much. My parents were told that I would always have to have things done for me, but Doctor Nolan assured my parents that I was a normal kid. He performed all kinds of tests on me: tests that I later learned that were designed to see exactly where I was in the developmental stage. He would watch me walk across the examination room. I could hear them talking, but I didn’t understand what they were saying.
But things did not come easy for me. I could play rummy with my mom. I remember enjoying the game, whether it was a test or not I don’t know, maybe she can answer that. But, to put three of a like kind together or a suited straight was so much fun. We would sit on my parents’ bed and play for hours. I thought it was fun, but I could never shuffle the cards; not enough coordination. At this time, I was probably six or seven, but my hand eye coordination was not equal to that of someone my age. Manual dexterity was not something I possessed.
Emboldened by Doctor Nolan, when the mainstream education system tried to pigeon hole me into McInnis School, my parents went into action. My dad became very involved in the United Way, and became convinced that the place for me to go was a place called the Children’s Center of Montgomery. It was a place where blind children, deaf children, and children with other learning disabilities who were not candidates for McInnis went.
Dr. Nolan kept performing tests on me. I remember on one occasion, he made me lay down on a bed in a room. Then he placed on several places on my head, these cold wires; cold because of the cold putty or whatever it was that was used to stick the wires to my head. The room was darkened, and through a speaker somewhere in the room I heard him tell me to look in a corner of the room. A strobe was flashed at different intervals for what seemed like hours at the time. I was told to take a nap, all while these wires were attached to my head.
Then one day, I could shuffle the cards! This simple task eluded me. I thought on it and thought on it until I decided I was going to teach myself how to shuffle cards. That night, after everyone had gone to sleep, I went to the kitchen of our house, and looked in the drawer; the one in the corner that I’m sure almost every house in America has. I spotted the deck of cards already open in the box. I grabbed that deck and went back to my bed. Sitting there, basically in the dark, with only the light coming from the street light that shone through my bedroom window, I separated the cards into two stacks and attempted to shuffle them like my mom did. I bent the cards back with my finger and thumb, the other fingers holding the other end of the stack, one stack in each hand, and I pushed the two stacks together. Nothing. They would simply scatter on my bed. I worked like this, in the dark, for hours. I was frustrated and almost crying. Why could I not do this simple task? I tried again, and again for several hours. Finally in the middle of the night “burrrrap” came the sound as the cards shuffled themselves together. I picked up the shuffled cards, held the two merged stacks and gingerly cupped them in my open hands, squeezing my hands together; “schlapp” came the sound of the cards going back together. I had shuffled the cards! Again, and it worked the same way! Again, and again, I made the “burrap” and “schlapp.” I don’t know how long it was until my bedroom door opened, and my mom walked in. I looked up at her and said “look, mom! I can shuffle.” I don’t think either one of us appreciated what that small task did for me, but later on we would.
Doctor Nolan kept performing tests. The school system kept telling me that the Children’s Center was not the right place for me; that I would never learn enough to enter the mainstream school system. And my parents kept sending me to the Children’s Center. Doctor Nolan kept holding their hand telling them that everything would be okay soon. How soon he didn’t know (although, I think he secretly knew but didn’t want to be wrong, so he didn’t get their hopes up).
I still don’t remember a whole lot about growing up at the Children’s Center, but when I was old enough, not developed enough, but old enough, I was transferred to the Davis Learning Center. The Davis Learning Center was a different part of the Children’s Center and was named after Tine Davis, one of the Davis brothers who started Winn-Dixie who had donated the money to build the school. It was technically a public school, but for the mentally and physically challenged. The teachers at the Davis Learning Center were awesome. There really are no words to describe the experience at this school. The teachers, the P.E. teachers, everyone, made me feel like I was normal, not disabled. They pushed me to learn. They challenged me. They expected me to behave like a child who could learn, like normal. That is not how all the children were treated. Their dedication and commitment to me to make me grow and learn left a lasting impression on me that continues to reap a harvest, that even they never expected.
Like Doctor Nolan had assured my parents on those many occasions, I did grow out of it. The way I understand my problem was that I truly had a “developmental” problem. Not that every child who is dyslexic or who has a learning disability is this way, but my problem was. Doctor Nolan explained to my parents, and I’m sure had to explain at every visit, that one portion of my skull had developed too soon, putting pressure on that part of my brain.
When a baby is born the skull is pliable to enable it to pass out the birth canal. The skull has several holes in it that are supposed to fill in at certain times. Think of it like the proper torqueing down of a head gasket on an engine. It has to be done in a certain order or the car will eventually blow that gasket, and possibly ruin the engine. But Doctor Nolan assured my parents that when the remaining holes filled in, taking the pressure off that one spot, I would be a normal kid. Most of the soft spots a child is born with don’t really fill in and completely close until about age 10-11.
The developmental problems with me were evident at an early age. My left foot still turned in. My hand eye coordination was improving, but I still couldn’t read or comprehend what I was reading.
A few more years went by without any noticeable change except for the anecdotal things like being able to shuffle cards, and the like. Doctor Nolan was so confident of his theory that my parents never let up, they kept on, pushing me onward even though I didn’t even know I needed a push. (Notice I called it a theory? He was pretty confident I’m sure, but that was only what he deduced from the tests he ran on me. Nobody could really see what was going on with me. He’d obviously seen this kind of thing happen, but for my parents, and me, it was a first time experience.) Then it happened. I still could not read and comprehend even as late as eleven years old. When other kids were going into the sixth grade, I was still not comprehending what I was reading. But, a gentleman by the name of Terry Long gave me a special test. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an I.Q. test. They were still trying to see where I should be placed or if I was learning anything. At eleven years old, I could read but not retain what I had read. I could read full sentences, and paragraphs, but not be able to answer questions about what I had read only moments before. Mr. Long reading the passages and the questions to me determined I had the comprehension and development of an eighth grader! All this because he read it to me instead of me reading for myself.
Once they figured out how to teach me, it was Katie bar the door! I quickly advanced and the reading comprehension grew exponentially. I was now expected to read and comprehend things, and I responded. I learned and experienced a lot from the Davis Learning Center. Like the first woman I ever kissed was Frozenia Hall. When I was in school there, she never gave up on me. She wouldn’t let me act out, and she always held me to a standard that inspired me. I can’t even explain it. But Frozenia Hall was the most memorable teacher I had. There were plenty of commendable teachers, though, and I can’t remember them all, but Mary Nell Parson, and Terese Goodson were also influential in my eventual departure from the Davis Learning Center to attend Peter Crump Elementary, real school, and the start to my learning career. These ladies were and are the reason I am here today, and writing this missive to anyone it speaks to. It was an emotional time for me, leaving the Davis Learning Center. It had been my home for many years, and I was being pushed out into the real world. I kissed Fro on the cheek the day I left.
Was I bullied in school because of my disability? Yes.
When I started at Peter Crump I knew kids there already because I had swam with them at the neighborhood pool. I knew others from church. I knew others still from being around them in the neighborhood. They knew I couldn’t play sports well, too. But when I arrived at Peter Crump for my sixth grade year, my first year in a regular school, all the kids I knew from the neighborhood had never seen me at school before. At first they all wondered where I’d been. But the mystery soon wore off as it was obvious to them I was a little slower than they were, literally and figuratively.
Figuratively speaking they weren’t too cruel about my disability. They poked fun about it and picked on me some, until one day. There were a few kids kind of like me, and we all hung together. One such kid, John, a Lou Ferigno looking guy with bushy hair who was much bigger and taller than the others, so no-one dared try to bully him about it, took a liking to me. That was all it took, was John liking me. I didn’t know it, but John didn’t like too many kids. But even John would pick on me about being physically slow. The kids in my class called me “Molasses.” Not the most cruel nickname one could imagine, but it was mine. I walked pigeon toed, and would often look at my feet while walking attempting to will them into walking straight. I would even walk with my hands turned outward, palms facing forward, as if that would show my feet how to behave. But walking straight and upright was a challenge for me. It was not until I reached Junior High that I could finally walk without pigeon toes. But in grade school, I was slow playing sports. I was an “easy out” in kickball. My muscles were not as developed as the other kids and I could not kick as hard, or run as fast. Hence the nickname, because I was as slow as molasses. Nobody wanted me on their team. The kids would call me molasses, until John had had enough, that is. John got in trouble on more than one occasion because of me. Maybe it wasn’t because of me; it could’ve been John just wanted to fight. It doesn’t matter because I remember John as helping me in that time, and that’s all that counts now.
I was picked on some in Junior High as well. I ended up at Cloverdale Junior High School with a lot of the same kids from Peter Crump, including John. I was not looked down upon by the other students, but most didn’t know how to take me. I lied. A lot. About why I was slow in sports. About where I went in study hall; I was in an LD class, getting tutoring while the other kids were in study hall. For a while it worked, and most of the kids didn’t mess with me, but there is always a bully.
John wasn’t in school anymore because he killed his father who was attacking John and his younger brother while in a drunken rage, which the father got into a lot. He spent the rest of his schooling at Mount Meigs. Another friend from church, who was a cool baseball player named Lance stood up for me a lot. But on this day at school, the bully caught me alone in the hall between classes. All the years of frustration, and being called names, knowing I was different and might always be, came bursting out on this day. The bully slapped me in the face, and stuck his finger in my nose and “flicked” it. If you’ve ever had that happen to you, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I made a name for myself that day. I literally went berserk and began flailing my arms, fists clenched, and I found myself, basically unconscious to the world, sitting on top of this kid, hitting him in the chest, the face, the back of the head, repeatedly, and repeatedly, until some teachers pulled me off of him. I got three licks from the assistant principal and my parents were called to come get me. My parents were embarrassed. They had to go to the school and assure the principal that that kind of behavior would not occur again. I think the school was afraid that I had “snapped” and relapsed, or was permanently a violent LD student, who would not conform to the norms of school life. I think they secretly felt like they were right all along, that I belonged in McInnis School.
In spite of my fight, my parents had a different fight on their hands with the school system. There was a science teacher in seventh grade that required the students to keep a notebook which you would be graded on. This notebook was to contain all the handout material, and notes form class, and other items, none of which I could keep up with. My mom helped me every day to organize that notebook, but she could not help me with everything. I could not keep it like the teacher wanted, and I was failing the class. This did not take months, or weeks, but only days to realize and my mom went to the school. The principal assured my parents that there was no way I could move from one class to the other. My parents would not let up. They were not “helicopter” parents by any means, but they stood up for their children and for what was right. They didn’t settle for the status quo when it came to their kids. My little brother ended up with a learning disability too, and they did the same for him, although his was not as severe as mine. So ultimately, I was moved to a different science class, because of my parents. I went to Jeff Davis High School. A much bigger school, and I could act fairly normal. I was still in LD tutoring for one class a day to help make sure I could keep up. But my LD teacher, who was also my art teacher, Ms. Kocher, would made it so that I basically had two art classes. This was from tenth grade on. My creative mind was stimulated during these years and I felt like I really didn’t need the LD program by then anyway. My developmental problems were in the past, and High School seemed easy for me.
I went on to go to college, and got accepted to law school. I took and passed the Bar Exam, and am now a respected attorney of many years practice, and live a normal life as a husband, father, uncle, a Sunday school teacher, and real estate investor. I have written several shorts stories and am writing a novel. I have come much further than anyone ever expected, including me.
To the child I would say that you may not realize it now, but your parents are your salvation. Do whatever it is they want you to do, because the rest of your life depends on it. I would also say that you can literally do whatever it is you want to do with your life. Simply because you have a problem right now, doesn’t mean you won’t “grow out of it.”
And even if you don’t grow out of it, you still are only limited by your imagination of what you can accomplish. Your heart has a desire for you to prosper, only sometimes in ways you can’t really comprehend. Follow it anyway. Your mind can imagine incredible things, regardless of your ability to translate that to paper, in words, or on canvas. Imagine anyway. But never, ever give up. Even if you don’t see that you are giving up, look at what you are doing. If you are giving up, then quit that thought right there. God wants you to prosper in whatever you put your hand to, so put your hand to it.
To parents I would tell you never to give up, too. Your child is a special thing that is entrusted to you. Nurture that child and treat him or her as the most outstanding, most wonderful person ever to grace the surface of this earth. Children are a gift. They will blossom and bloom in whatever way you nurture them. They will blossom and bloom as a thorn bush if you nurture that, or they can be the most beautiful flower known to man if that is what you nourish. Many children start off without the advantage of being “normal,” but normal is not extraordinary, it is normal.
I owe my progress so far to my persevering parents, a brilliant doctor, and teachers in a system that at first wanted to put me away. I am thankful to my parents for their belief in me. I am thankful for the teachers who never gave up trying to find ways to connect with me, and I am thankful to my God, who was there with me even when I didn’t know I needed him.