I have a lot of advice for Past Me, but if we’re playing the time-travel game, I’m going to be practical: Invest in Zoom. Go to Notre Dame before the gargoyles are all gone. Don’t go so fast on your bike down that hill on Booth Avenue. Plan more zoo trips before March 2020.
So really these words of wisdom are not for Past Me, but for any kid who has learning disabilities, special needs, or anything that makes him or her feel different. I have my teachers at SINAI to thank for teaching me these lessons. I didn’t even realize they were teaching me this stuff at the time, but here I am today.
So here goes:
Don’t feel ashamed.
It turns out that everybody is different in some way. Some people need a wheelchair or crutches because their legs don’t work. Some people need medication to help them breathe or keep their blood pressure under control. And some people need material broken down for them and taught in a different way, so that they can understand it. It’s nothing to feel bad about. Acknowledge your challenge, embrace it, own it.
Ask for help when you need it, and ask questions when you don’t understand.
Recognize what you can and can’t do, and know when to ask for help. When I was younger, if something was too hard for me I just shut down and couldn’t move forward at all. My teachers at SINAI encouraged me to ask questions, and gave me the words I needed to ask for help. I still draw on that today. Don’t be ashamed to ask questions. Asking questions shows that you’re paying attention and being smart. If you have a question, you’re probably not the only one.
Try…and then try harder.
Things are not going to just come to you. Having a disability means you have to work even harder than other people around you who don’t have any challenges. You might put in a lot of effort and still not get the final result you were going for. But when you do, it’ll be worth it. You’ll have accomplished something that you thought you couldn’t do. And never underestimate yourself. Understand that you have limits, but you also have strengths.
Speak up and advocate for yourself.
Before I came to SINAI I was very self-conscious, and I would either shrink into myself or get angry if things were not going the way I wanted. Over time I learned how to speak up when I wanted something, whether it was more time to work on an assignment, or for a friend to give me some personal space. As it turns out, other people can’t read your mind and they don’t always know what you want, so your best strategy is to ask for it. Oh, and know in advance that you won’t always get your way, so don’t get upset if that happens.
Listen to what other people have to say, even if you don’t agree with them.
Other people know things that you don’t. Even if you disagree, you need to understand other points of view. And you really can learn something from everyone.
You can be a role model.
In high school, I became a youth leader in shul. I always hated traditional groups, so I established myself as the group leader for the Oddball Group. Instead of davening as loud as we could and playing Seven Up, in my group we davened quietly and at our own pace, and then talked about science fiction, “Lord of the Rings,” built with Legos or just read quietly in our own corners. I think I showed the kids in my group that it was OK to be different, and truthfully I really enjoyed spending time with them.
I am who I am today because of my experiences at SINAI. My teachers along the way all believed in me, and that helped me to believe in myself. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, and I know that I can turn to any of them today if I need advice.
Judah Lazar Gross grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. He joined SINAI at RYNJ in fifth grade, and graduated from SINAI’s Maor High School at RKYHS, class of 2019. He is a sophomore at Rutgers University studying evolutionary anthropology and animal sciences.