Man With Many Talents Learns About Those Not So Lucky

February 17, 1991|By Sherri Kimmel Diegel | Sherri Kimmel Diegel,Special to The Carroll County Sun

WESTMINSTER — Raised in a New England prep school (his father was assistant headmaster at Taft), he fulfills his "destiny" by becoming a "Princeton man."

Henry Reiff plays Ivy League rugby, slight as he is, grabs his summa sheepskin and heads for New Orleans -- where he plays bass withthe Bush Hogs.

He goes from rock musician to assistant professor and coordinatorof the graduate program in special education at Western Maryland College.

Wait. Back up.

Reiff got his English degree, and through Princeton's old-boy network, a job teaching literature at a private middle school in the "Big Easy." He played in rock 'n' roll bands on the side.

After two years of teaching and a part-time music career,he decided to pursue a master's degree.

"I figured an M.A. in English and 60 cents would get me a ride on the bus," he said.

At thetime, the University of New Orleans was offering stipends in the special-education department. He snatched the opportunity.

"I wanted to stay in education like my father," Reiff said.

After earning his master's, he took a job teaching learning-disabled elementary students at a New Orleans academy. (Mind you, he was still playing in bands.)

"There, I really fell in love with teaching," he said. "Working with learning-disabled kids tapped into my inherent strength, allowed me to design a very individualized and very creative teaching experience.

"It was clear I was dealing with kids who had a lot of ability and potential that was being masked or impaired by specific learning problems."

People with learning disabilities are "individualswith average or higher intelligence who have difficulty in one or more areas of educational functioning," Reiff said. Learning disabilities can include deficiencies in oral and written language, math and other academic content areas, or in learning skills such as attention span, organization and sequential logic.

"This is after you rule out other causes -- such as (impaired) vision or hearing, a deprived background or bad teaching.

"In the best scenario," said Reiff, "youcan turn them around 180 degrees and help them find themselves for the first time. Their learning disability doesn't go away, but they learn to compensate, to find a way to achieve so that nothing holds them back.

"My experience of seeing kids achieving planted the seeds for my work with learning-disabled adults."

After four years at the academy, Reiff left to work on a doctorate in special education at the University of New Orleans. By this time he'd become a full-fledged (but part-time) Bush Hog, hammering on upright bass and singing down and dirty at beery fraternity parties throughout the South with therockabilly band.

At the university, he met his mentor, Paul Gerber (now at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.). In 1987, Gerber and his associates (including Reiff) qualified for $80,000 in U.S. Department of Education money to conduct a groundbreaking study on 71 learning-disabled adults who have excelled.

Before leavingthe Bush Hogs and file gumbo to come to Western Maryland College infall 1989, Reiff traversed the United States to do interviews with the likes of a millionaire builder, a best-selling popular psychologist-author and a renowned special-education theoretician -- all of whomcouldn't read or had great difficulty doing so until recent years.

The builder, who didn't learn the alphabet until he was 12, managedto disguise his illiteracy and, in fact, taught high-school civics and physical education for 18 years. At age 47 he learned to read and decided to reveal his former problem.

The writer, whose book on men's issues drew 40 million readers, writes for popular magazines, hosts a television show and only reveals his lack of reading skills to his closest friends.

The theorist is a foremost authority and author on language disorders and learning disabilities. In the last decadeor so she has been upfront personally and professionally about her problems with depth perception, spelling and slowness at reading.

But, she admitted, "I had nightmares till I was 36 that they would take my Ph.D. away from me if they found out that I had never really gotten a high school diploma with all the subjects on it."

Despite being accused while growing up of being retarded, stupid and even psychotic, these learning-disabled adults have fared well. Reiff, Gerber and Rick Ginsberg of the University of South Carolina have developed aplan to explain how they managed.

"Succeeding was largely an attempt by them to regain control of their lives," Reiff explained. "Theyhad a sense that control had been wrested from them.

"One person told me, 'My motto is if there's a brick wall, I won't go over or go around it, I'll go through it.' They became successful because they were angry.

"One guy said, 'It's easy. I get knocked down a milliontimes, and get back up a million and one times.'

"The question was, 'Why were they able to turn anger into something so positive?' "

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