From “bad kid” to activist, author

A young boy in the first grade sits in his desk and after five minutes he can not stop shaking his left leg. Then 20 minutes later, both of his legs are shaking and he can not sit still or follow directions.

He is labeled as the “bad kid.” The boy was author and activist Jonathan Mooney.

Mooney spoke to students studying to be teachers in general and special education, CSUN alumni and faculty on Tuesday in the Nobbs Auditorium in Sequoia Hall.

The event was sponsored by the CSUN chapter of the Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEE) and Mooney was brought in as part of the CSUN Distinguished Speaker Series. Dr. Virginia Kennedy, assistant professor of special education, introduced Mooney as one of the foremost leaders in Learning Disability (LD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), disabilities and alternative education.

Mooney is a dyslexic writer and activist who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He had a hard time sitting down in class and did not have a lot of friends. He instead “chilled with the janitor in the hallway.”

In the fourth grade, he was  diagnosed as having a learning disability and in fifth grade he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To avoid reading, he would be the “bad kid” in class or hide in the bathroom stall because he did not want people to think there was something wrong with him, Mooney said.

Mooney said he dropped out of the sixth grade and even contemplated suicide that same year because of being labeled as one of “those kids” and feared he had lost his chance to be a regular kid. Suddenly he was considered “not normal.”

It wasn’t until his mother showed him a “20/20” episode about a 25-year-old man attending Yale University who had his mother read his law textbooks to him because he could not read. This inspired Mooney to believe that people with a learning disability were still able to succeed.

“That image changed my life,” Mooney said.

Mooney remembers when he enrolled at Mecosta High that his guidance counselor said people like him end up either flipping burgers or going to jail.  Mooney did the complete opposite and graduated in 2000 from Brown University and holds an honor’s degree in English literature.

Mooney was 23 years old when his first publication of “Learning Outside the Lines” (now in its 14th printing) came out. His second book “The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal,” documents Mooney’s journey in seeking to celebrate profiles of people who have been labeled as abnormal their entire lives.

“Let’s go through this journey from the kid in the bathroom to the person in front of you,” Mooney said.

In order to succeed, Mooney came up with the three rules for inspiring students with disabilities: One is to unlearn the self-concept of “stupid, crazy and lazy.” Two is to use the empowerment model without having to “fix” the student. Three is to reframe what students think about ADHD.

Mooney said for him to unlearn the self-concept of “stupid, crazy, and lazy” was to stop believing that he was a stupid, crazy and lazy kid. He added that students do not need to fix their skill sets because what matters most is what is going on in their mind set.

Mooney said he helps incarcerated kids get back into the workforce after they finish their sentence.

Mooney told the story of  a young boy, Juan, from East L.A. who served time for a 30 person drug ring at the age of 13. At 18 he left prison and told Mooney that he could never get a job because he was dumb and had no skills. Mooney saw the “bright spots” in Juan that he knew how to do business but instead of drugs to do it on shoes or something legal. The last time Mooney talked to Juan he had told him that he is now working on his master of business administration degree.

Sally Spencer, assistant professor in special education read a small excerpt of Mooney’s “The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal” in order for the audience to get a sense of his writing. Spencer said spending an hour with Mooney is like an adventure.

“As teachers we want to inspire students, we are going to leave here really inspired by Jonathan,” Spencer said.

Mooney said his favorite “bad kid story” was when he walked into a third grade classroom in Greenbay, Wis. and noticed in the back there was a book shelf and saw a boy bouncing and jumping around in a box. He asked the teacher what was going on in the back and the teacher looked at him with no hint of irony and said “that’s Jack.”

“The kid in the box can be the next CEO if he has a good school experience,” said Mooney. “One teacher can change a life.”