Authentic Eagles: John Bok On Learning Disabilities

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

John Bok, A&S ’14

Soon after I was born, I was not given any shot at a normal life.  At age ten days, I became violently ill.  My parents rushed me to Massachusetts General Hospital and found out that I bacterial meningitis, an often-fatal infection of the brain and spinal cord.  Although I became better due to antibiotics, a few months later I developed a second case of bacterial meningitis and became very ill again.  My parents were told at that time that the doctors knew of no person who had bacterial meningitis twice and went on to live a normal life.  Indeed, my parents were told that it was a miracle that I was even alive, and that they should assume that I would never be able to read, hear, or live a normal independent life.

Fast-forwarding about six normal boy years of playing with blocks and pretending to be a fire fighter, I began to struggle immensely in school especially when I tried to learn how to read and write.  I frequently tried to read backwards and often mixed up certain letters such as d and b.  By the fourth grade, I was failing almost all of my classes and was diagnosed with dyslexia.  Instead of recess and after-school sports, I had to go to speech, writing, and reading tutors.  However, despite all the extra help that I was lucky enough to have, my dyslexia was so severe that my only option was to enroll at the Carroll School—a special educational school for dyslexics.  At that time, my dream of going to college, let alone graduating from high school, seemed impossible to me. 
At Carroll, I learned skills to work around my dyslexia and gained confidence, since I was in a safe environment filled with other “special” students like me.  After four years of special education, I earned the shot to return to a “normal” high school but with conditions.  I had to enroll at a boarding school far away from home that provided a learning resources center full of tutors to help me survive a normal high school academic workload.  Without their help, I would not have received my acceptance to Boston College four years later.

While I was proud of my acceptance to Boston College, I was also terrified.  For many years, attending college, let alone a school like BC, was a dream that appeared to be beyond my abilities.  I learned a few days before the freshman year housing assignments were released that according to one test my reading skills were at roughly the eighth percentile compared to everyone my age, along with the brain processing speed of dialup internet.  I openly questioned whether my effort to try to succeed at BC was a waste of money. After all, even graduating from a normal high school was a significant accomplishment for someone as dyslexic as I am.

Move-in day at BC finally came and I realized right after I introduced myself to my roommates that I stopped talking and expressing myself.  It was as if I was back in the fourth grade, and I believed that I was inferior to everyone around me.  I was filled with self-doubt about myself in front of these intimidating people and therefore chose to stay silent.  Sometimes when I would get the courage to say something, I would mispronounce a word, like saying “soldier” instead of “shoulder” and have that made into a joke and source of laughter.  I understood why they thought it was funny and did not know better that these mistakes reminded me of my life struggling to get through school.  During classes, dinners with my floor mates, playing video games with my roommates and certainly any situation that might involve alcohol, I could not get past my fear that I would become a laughing stock when I, like all freshman, simply wanted to find acceptance, success and a sense of belonging.

Academics, much like free time, became an enemy of mine.  I struggled to keep up with the professors’ lectures, understand my core history class readings (but I know that I was far from the only one with that problem), and writing and proofreading college papers.  It was torture.  I was ashamed of the accommodations that I had received from BC, and thus, at first, often did not use these accommodations.  On one of the first papers that I received back from a professor, he said that my writing was among the worst that he had ever seen and that I needed to take his course more seriously.  I had gone to every class in that course, paid attention, and spent two weeks on that stupid three-page paper, a paper length that I was awed that my roommates could pound out a couple of hours before it was due.  I was furious but mostly devastated.  I was ready to drop out of BC for at least a semester and reevaluate whether I was, as that BC professor had implied, simply not good enough for BC.

Thankfully, I did not leave BC, because the only thing worse than telling my parents that I had poor grades would be if I had given up on college after all that they had sacrificed to give me that chance.  Through constant trial and error, I learned that I could succeed at BC if I worked very hard preparing for every paper and test.  This made me socially unusual among my classmates.  I frequently studied until two in the morning on a Friday night and then caught the drunk bus back to my apartment.  I began to accept that I was not the stereotypical BC student that I wished I could be, where we are pressured socially to give off a “study hard and party hard” mentality.  I needed to spend almost every hour on the weekend in Stokes or the library in order to keep up with the readings, papers, and studying in order to graduate.  As hard as I tried, my struggles with dyslexia and going against the “perfect” BC student mentality of winging it, were not going away and only through accepting my difference and past did I succeed here.  
While I learned to accept my disability in BC academics relatively quickly, only recently have I been able to express who I truly am to my peers.

I know there are other students similar to me at BC; maybe even some of them went to Special Ed as children too.  I doubt I will ever know—it took me until this past September at Kairos as a senior to stomach the possibility of telling people this, and I do not blame other dyslexic BC students if they do not want to tell anyone else either.  I hope that many more people like me with learning disabilities are given the opportunity to attend BC and that they are able to leave not only with a degree that they know that they fought hard to get, but also with their confidence in their personal differences and abilities intact.  While my dyslexia will remain a constant struggle in my life, I know that I am on the right track and that I am, for the first time in my life, excited to continue my education in a couple of years by going to law school.  Students similar to me might not be able to pull off being the stereotypical perfect BC student, even though we try; however, I am not prouder of any paper or test score that I have accomplished at BC than BC helping me to learn to accept who I truly am, surrounded by highly accomplished individuals.  I have become “authentic” to myself and through that put myself in the best position to succeed at the challenges I take on in life after BC.

I am John, I am very dyslexic, and I am (almost) a Boston College graduate.

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