Dedicated To: Phyllis S. Quinlan, PhD, RN, NPD-BC

I always had a difficult time memorizing information and learning in school from elementary through college. I struggled so much trying to learn but did not understand why it was so difficult for me to remember what I learned in class.  There were times during class lectures I would find myself daydreaming, zoning out while trying so hard to focus but missing important information. I would take notes, write down my homework assignments and when I got home what I thought I was supposed to do for homework or what I learned or thought I learned during school I could not remember. I would understand half the assignment and would miss several key points the teacher would make; even though I wrote the notes down and thought I understood what had to be done. The school told my parents that I needed eyeglasses to help me with my reading because they felt that was my issue.

I would read and study for the assignment and still, I would forget what I learned. I started writing everything I read that made sense or what I thought was what the teacher wanted me to learn. I would write pages and pages of notes to compensate for my lack of memory in learning. I would have to read my notes immediately right before I would take any tests because the information was fresh in my mind. I knew if I waited longer to take the test I would not remember all the information.  I stressed and had massive anxiety learning and understanding what I learned, especially during testing at school.

That was my life during my entire education career. While I was in college writing essays I would ask for help from my public school Principal who I had grown close to and at the time told me that I should become a secretary because it seemed to be the main thing that I can be good at. This was based on her observing my struggles in learning. My last year in college I was scouted by General Electric and hired to work in the finance department, which Jack Welch was the head of.  My first real job as a secretary. I was happy because I had a sense of accomplishment after struggling so much throughout my schooling.

My job duties at General Electric consisted of typing and proofreading documents. I thought I did a good job, but my boss would always find errors that I did not catch. I would get yelled at and lectured about my work on a daily basis.  I tried very hard to do the right thing, but as hard as I tried, I would not get it right. One day my boss yelled at me so much that I cried, felt bad and left for the day. When I got home I had panic and anxiety attacks. I went to the doctor and was told to stay home from work for the rest of the week so I can recover.

When I returned to work I found an ocean of yellow stickies all over my desk on documents with instructions on what to do with the documents. My boss did not yell at me anymore and thought the yellow stickies would help out.  After that, I was able to push through. It was because of that boss that I forced myself to do better, to be more careful proofreading and editing my work. I am sure I had some form of a learning disability that was never identified. Had it been identified timely; I know I would not have gone through the hardship in learning during my school years and employment as I did.

It was not until I had children with learning disabilities, and fighting this national broken special education system, that it dawned on me that maybe I had some learning disabilities that were unidentified. I saw my own two sons struggle during their entire schooling and I would reflect back at the times when I had my own difficulties in learning. I will never forget the words I was told by an educator that I would only amount to be a secretary.  It saddens me that an educator would shatter the dreams of a child when trying to learn in school.  After all their job is to teach, give courage, strength, and opportunity to improve and learn.  It shot down my self-esteem to the degree where I always questioned what I wrote and if I truly did understand what I read. My struggles were real, and nobody knew about my invisible learning disability because it is “unseen” to the human eye. It is all about how our brains are wired, and in the words of my late father who saw my difficulties told me “you are a fighter, a struggler and a survivor.” Those words gave me the courage to move forward.  Back then public awareness of learning disabilities was limited.  Today, I am an accomplished entrepreneur and the founder of The Jonathan Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities, a 501 © (3) Private Nonprofit. Thank God I did not listen to my educator and fought very hard to be the person I am today.

In 2019 I became a L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Honoree. I was treated like a queen, provided

$10,000 for my nonprofit, attended an extremely high-profile gala in honor of me and nine other extraordinary women who won the same award for work in their nonprofits. L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth was extremely generous to all of us and gave us support that we could not achieve without that recognition and honor.

During the gala, I had to make a speech and spoke about my twenty-year hardship with the public schools trying to advocate for my own two learning disabled children. Long story short I ended up suing the second-largest school district in the nation and prevailed.  I stated that my journey with this broken special education system commenced twenty years ago, and twenty years later I find myself advocating for hundreds of children more in the same broken special education system. This is a national catastrophe. After my speech, I was making my way back to my table where I sat next to Arianna Huffington who honored me that day and her sister Agapi Stassinopoulos. As I walked to my table there were people that, not only congratulated me but told me they had learning disabilities that were not identified growing up and connected with me on many levels.

One very special lady approached me at the end of the evening. Her name is Phyllis Quinlan. As she spoke with me she had tears falling down her face. We embraced each other as if we knew one another for years. She stated she came to the gala for the sole purpose of meeting me. She said although the other nonprofits were worthy, they were not what she was interested in.  It was very important for her to meet me. She said that she had tremendous hardship growing up with dyslexia (a learning disability) and was told she would never graduate high school. She went on to tell me she is now a PhD, RN, NPD-BC. My son Jonathan (who has dyslexia) and I connected with Phyllis on a very deep level. I was taken by this amazing woman who had the strength and courage to come forward and tell me her story after silently suffering for years.

One of my Board Members, Seth Wiener, for The Jonathan Foundation also struggled with learning disabilities as well. I had asked him to provide me with a quote which is “If only my first elementary school teacher and administrators, who told my parents, that I would never have a career beyond flipping burgers or if I was lucky pounding nails for a living could only see me now. It just goes to show that learning disabilities are by no means a life sentence. For parents or kids who feel like giving up, don’t! When you get access to the right tools to help you learn; anything is possible.” Seth is the Founder and CEO of AmigoDATA and an extremely accomplished entrepreneur.

To all the educators out there please be cognitive of what you say to children because those words may determine their future if they are not strong enough to push through. For all of you adults with any form of unidentified learning disabilities and silently suffering; just know that you did the best you can with the support system provided to you, and you are a success in every way imaginable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Raja B. Marhaba is a recipient of the 2019 L’Oreal Women of Worth Award and the founder of The Jonathan Foundation

2019 L’Oreal Women of Worth Winners

Raja B. Marhaba
Founder of The Jonathan Foundation

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