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Dyslexic alum writes of educational 'injustice'

Jonathan Mooney '00 couldn't read until he was 12. A decade later, the writer and public speaker, who is dyslexic, graduated from Brown with a third-grade spelling level, the phonetic awareness of a seventh-grader and a 4.0 grade point average.

That is the success story that helped sell his first book, "Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution." Mooney co-wrote the book with David Cole '00 while the two were enrolled at Brown.

But the explanation for that success — Mooney was also a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship — is not some magical personal transformation, according to Mooney.
"What changed was not dyslexia, what really changed was the context," he said, crediting the flexibility of his education at Brown.

And what he wants to convey, more than his own Ivy League success story, is "the belief that kids like me are not broken, are not defective and that what happens in their education is really a form of injustice," Mooney said.

Mooney continues to explore and celebrate those marginalized students by speaking about education at schools and universities around the country. In 2007, he published a second book, "The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal." The book, which took him six years to write, chronicles his journey across the country in one of the short yellow buses typically reserved for disabled children while telling the stories of learning-disabled children in the U.S. and describing his own personal struggles in institutionalized education.

Riding on the short bus
As a second grader terrified of spelling tests and reading out loud, Mooney would hide in his school bathroom and dream of killing his teacher, he wrote in "The Short Bus." In fourth grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He dropped out of the sixth grade, though he enrolled in a new school the next year.

In high school, Mooney struggled through his honors English class. It always took him far longer to read, write and spell-check assignments than it took his classmates. Mooney worked hard in his only English class during his first semester at Loyola Marymount University, where he ended up attending on a soccer scholarship. But after a semester of late-night spell-checking with his mom, he found out that half his grade in the class would be based on a timed, in-class exam — with spelling and grammar counting for a large portion of the grade. Though he did well in his four English classes the next semester, he had a rocky term, exacerbated by a DUI, heavy drinking and a declining interest in soccer.

Brunonian beginnings
After his freshman year, Mooney transferred to Brown, an experience "best described as an explosion," he wrote in his second book.

On his first day at Brown, Mooney met Cole — who has ADHD­ –– a fellow transfer student who had purple hair and wore bicycle chains as bracelets around his arms. "I was like, that's my boy right there," Mooney said. "That's totally my soul mate."

During the fall semester of 1997, the two friends bonded over their shared experiences with learning disabilities, and together came up with the book concept that later became "Learning Outside the Lines," Mooney said. In the spring, the two sophomores ran a group independent study project to conduct research for the book. That summer, they found an agent and sold their book proposal to publishing house Simon and Schuster.

"They even gave us money," Mooney said. "Which we were amazed at."

The next spring, the two took a semester off in order to work on the book. When Mooney returned in the fall, all four of his classes were independent study projects devoted to completing different aspects of the book. One of his ISPs focused on autobiographical writing, and his project for that class formed what would become the first chapter of "Learning Outside the Lines." Another ISP centered on critical education theory, which was the focus of the book's third chapter. By December, the entire book was finished.

In fact, during his two-and-a-half years at Brown, about three-quarters of his classes were independent studies, Mooney said. It was Brown's philosophy of encouraging student agency over  intellectual life that allowed him to succeed, he said. As a very purpose-driven learner, Mooney was able to find inspiration for his work in his independent studies as opposed to what he called the "broadcast" type of learning found in lecture classes.

"It's a totally only-at-Brown story," he said.

A foot in both worlds
At Brown, Mooney was also able to find a sense of purpose outside of the classroom in Project Eye-to-Eye, a Swearer Center program that he founded with Cole. The program matches learning-disabled mentors with their younger counterparts to create a dialogue about their struggles.

"We were in some dorm room ... and we literally said we should share our stories with kids," Mooney said. The two found other volunteers for the program by reaching out to art classes in particular, where they found many creative students who had struggled in more traditional classes. Today, the project is a national organization with 28 chapters in 25 states, he said.

Mooney is currently at work on a new nonfiction book tentatively titled "Normal People Scare Me." In it, he plans to examine the "neurodiversity rights movement," which advocates for a need for the different skill sets of people with Asperger's Syndrome, autism and other neurological disorders in society.

Mooney has told his story many times, in venues ranging from second-grade classrooms to university lecture halls. But he said he is still struggling with the question of how to reconcile the desire to be normal with the desire to celebrate his own status of being different.

The book's editor wanted to end "The Short Bus" with Mooney physically getting off of the bus after his journey because he thought it would be a neater conclusion to the book. But Mooney said he insisted that the book's ending continue to emphasize his continued journey. Mooney said he still considers himself, in part, to be riding on the "short bus," while standing as a proud part of the community it represents.

Mooney still has a foot in both worlds. "Am I the Brown kid or the short bus rider?"


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