What Amanda Gorman can Teach Everyone About Passing the Mic
Two weeks ago, when I watched Amanda Gorman read her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” I felt inspired and excited. Like many Americans, I saw a young woman who had somehow found the words to comfort, uplift, and inspirit Americans during a time of great political division and in the aftermath of an insurrection.
The final lines of her poem (“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”) sounded like a call to action. Gorman essentially urged Americans to carry the torch that will lead us out of darkness, to stand for justice and compassion. After hearing such a powerful poem, I wanted to know more about Gorman. I went to the Internet expecting to learn that Gorman is an activist who wants a kinder, more equitable world. What I didn’t expect to discover is that she was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder in kindergarten.
Gorman is so young and polished that many who witnessed her reading may never know that she has struggled with a learning disability. Those who do find out may be very surprised that she made it to the inaugural stage simply because they’ve been taught not to expect greatness from people with learning disabilities. My hope is that more people will learn about Gorman’s background and realize that those of us with disabilities have the potential to do spectacular things. Moreover, Gorman should not be thought of as a rare treat, or a unicorn, but rather as a remarkably gifted poet who had the support she needed to shine even as she dealt with a great challenge.
Gorman’s path to superstardom deserves some attention because statistics tell a very different story about African American children struggling with learning differences. Consider the fact that 35 percent of African American, Hispanic, and Native American students with disabilities leave high school without a regular diploma. Young adults with learning disabilities enroll in four-year colleges at half the rate of their peers without disabilities largely due to low self-esteem and stigma. And the rate of employment for African Americans with disabilities is about 29 percent, far lower than other racial or ethnic groups. Gorman has been able to shatter expectations and unleash her powers as a poet against the odds. She seems to have been born to do this, but we need to recognize that her success was by no means preordained.
Here are some things we know about Gorman. She was raised with two siblings by a single mother in Los Angeles. She may have been at a disadvantage without the resources of a two-parent home, but her mother, a sixth-grade teacher with a doctorate in education, managed to place her in a private school in Santa Monica, where she received a rigorous education in a program that valued diversity. When she was at home, her mother maintained high expectations and encouraged her to write. She came to view her auditory processing disorder not as a weakness but as what “made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be.
When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.” After distinguishing herself as a poet in high school, she won a scholarship and went to Harvard to study sociology.
"I hear this strong, self-assured voice when I am reading this simple text, and what that told me is the power of your inner voice over that which people might hear with their ears. The only thing that can impede me is myself."
I don’t want to downplay Gorman’s talent and accomplishments for even one second. What I want to do is create an America where more bright lights like Gorman have the opportunity to shine. If we really think Gorman is a superstar, then we should be reevaluating and changing how we nurture people like her so that they succeed in our education system and beyond.
Research shows that students with disabilities are more likely to pursue college and persist there if they’ve benefited from rigorous high school coursework, high parental expectations, and membership in a learning disability community. As an African American with a disability in a single-parent household, the cards were stacked against Gorman, but she had a spectacularly supportive mother as well as teachers and organizations that promoted her intellectual and artistic development. The people on Gorman’s team and many in her community made her feel seen, heard, and valued. If more young people with disabilities were brought up this way, the world would look very different. We’d have many more extraordinary inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders, and artists, and that’s just to get started.
We all have a role to play in creating a world where people with disabilities are empowered and prepared for greatness. President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden made a difference by simply trusting Gorman and giving her a stage. We have opportunities to give the stage to people who think and learn differently all the time. So please don’t ever feel like there’s nothing you can do. You can support people with learning disabilities just by passing the mic and listening to them. When you give us the stage, you’re helping us counter stigma and build a community that is crucial to our success.
We have many political issues dividing us right now, but most Americans can agree that nurturing young people is worth the time and resources it requires. As we enter a new political era, we can surely come together to make education more equitable for all learners and to change how society thinks about those who are differently-abled. Gorman’s rise reflects our hunger and the need for such a revolution. Let’s get to work so that more students can achieve their potential.