A student who defies labels
By JOHN FOUNTAIN December 12, 2012 3:52PM
Updated: January 14, 2013 7:19AM
Meet “Dan the Man.” That’s what I call him affectionately on school days as I enter my classroom at Roosevelt University.
Some know him as “Podmandan.” He is half man, half amazing. A podcaster. Blogger. Journalist. Student. Public speaker. Award-winning Special Olympian. Computer lab aid. Multimedia specialist. Radio show host and station manager. A swell guy. Any father would be proud to call him son.
I came to know him as student.
He is Daniel Smrokowski, personable and brown-haired with a schoolboy’s infectious smile. He’s 23. But he is mature beyond his years. He has spent the last 4-1/2 years as a student at Roosevelt immersed in the rigors of journalistic writing and reporting.
And come this Friday, he will walk across the stage to receive his diploma. There are sure to be a few tears.
Tears over Dan’s triumph.
Tears because we’ll certainly miss having him around here. Tears because you can’t spend time around Dan — feel his spirit, know his story, witness his hard-work ethic and quiet grace, his passion and advocacy for respect and the humane treatment of the “disabled” — without coming to understand that Dan is pretty special.
In his writing and podcasts, he carries the torch to end the “R” word (retarded). He is persistent in his stance that “disability” is just a word and represents a challenge. Dan contends that one does not “suffer” from a disability. That the “D” word is “more a label.”
In his eyes, that label doesn’t have to become the script for life. Not the beginning, middle and end of the story.
And who would know better than Dan?
He was 3-1/2 when he was diagnosed with a learning disability as well as a speech disorder. What that means essentially is it takes Dan longer to process information, he says. And that has meant working harder, studying longer, leaning on academic support services — always anchored by his Catholic faith.
His speech disorder — manifested as a stutter — also sometimes made him the object of bullying and ridicule, the effects lasting, leaving him shy and withdrawn as a child and teen.
“But over the years I’ve just not let that take away from accomplishing what I want to do,” Dan told me this week.
I am a believer.
In nearly 10 years as a professor — and well more than 1,200 college students — I have never met one who worked harder than Dan. I have never encountered one with more passion for journalism — not one more committed.
He never complained. Never showed up late. And he remained fervent in his pursuit of academic excellence, balancing the rigors and pressures of college life and even creating a pretty exceptional independent podcast that seeks to give voice to those with special needs (http://specialchronicles.com). Already he is impacting the world by his passion and gift.
This much is also clear: That whatever Dan’s challenges, his smile, countenance and attitude have not waned. And that he has come into his own.
And in the end, what will make my encounter with Dan as one of his professors most special aren’t the lessons I might have taught him, but the lessons he taught me — that perhaps he taught us all. None greater than this: That even a disability is no match for the human spirit.
I’ll be thinking of this as I stand for Dan at commencement, where I’m sure there will be cheers for his triumph and also tears because we’ll miss him around here. Even if we know that our loss is the world’s gain.