Winter 1997

Reversal of Fortune
by Margie Shetterly

"I was voted the least likely to succeed," P. Buckley Moss recalls about her youth. That vote of no-confidence didn't stem from a lack of natural talent. Nor did it stem from a lack of intelligence - although to some with a less discerning eye, Moss's reading skills might have indicated so.
Moss is one of millions of people who has a learning disability. For Moss, who has dyslexia, reading, writing, grammar and those related subjects were a frustrating ordeal at best. But in circumstances where she could tell teachers what she knew instead of writing it, or in her passion, the arts, she excelled. Today, Moss is an internationally known artist whose work is sought both by galleries and private collectors.

Her often painful experiences growing up with dyslexia and coping with a world that revolves around reading and writing have motivated Moss to reach out to others who have learning disabilities. Moss has contributed an original painting of Wilson Hall to JMU to start an endowed scholarship for students with learning disabilities who are studying in the School of Art and Art History. The target amount for the scholarship fund is $30,000, and the first award of the annual scholarship is expected to be made in the fall of 1998.

The Wilson Hall original watercolor, valued at $20,000-$25,000, will be auctioned at JMU's benefit Art Auction this April. Moss has been a regular contributor to the Art Auction over the years, and her paintings have been among the highest selling items. The proceeds of the Wilson Hall painting, plus a portion of proceeds from the sale of limited edition prints, will provide the basis for the scholarship, says Debra Wachter, JMU's director of major gifts.

Moss's new endowed scholarship at JMU is the latest in a number of similar programs she has established at colleges and universities throughout the country. These scholarship programs and her association with the P. Buckley Moss Society, a philanthropic group based in Waynesboro that focuses on learning and other disabilities, have provided Moss a way to reach out to young people she readily identifies with.

Working through the society, Moss often speaks with student groups about learning disabilities. "When you speak to kids and let them know you're just another person who has the same problems they have, it's very heartwarming."

Her own story provides the proof that people with learning disabilities can succeed and often opens new doors for the students she meets. "For them to know that you were able to go to school and be accepted as an intelligent person in college that you can reason, think that you have something else to offer," she says, can give students the encouragement that many find lacking in mainstream education.

"Not everyone thinks in the same way," Moss notes. The important thing to realize, she said, is that just because people with learning disabilities may view information and learn differently than the majority of people doesn't mean they are dumb.

During her own educational experience, Moss found people who realized just that and who recognized her potential. One such person was Mary Meade, sister of the famed anthropologist, who was head of Washington Irving High School in New York City when Moss attended.

Another such person was an art history professor at the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. That professor understood Moss's difficulty with reading, and recognized that although Moss knew the information covered in class, she had a tough time putting that knowledge down on paper in a traditional written exam format. So, he allowed her to take an oral exam instead.

Moss has never allowed her learning disabilities to become an excuse for taking the easy road. She endured a three-hour-a-day commute to Washington Irving High School in New York City because it offered her the flexibility she needed to get the most out of school. There, she still had to take the regular subjects, but she could immerse herself in four periods of art a day. And there's where she found her niche. "I was told I was all right." There she also established a good work ethic that remains with her today.

But even with the positives her high school offered, Moss still recalls the painful side of those years. Reading was a struggle, and her learning disability took its toll on her self-esteem. "I felt like I wasn't very popular or good looking," she says. "I felt dumb. I felt like everyone knew I was dumb."

Looking back on her educational experience and her work as an artist, she now sees her learning disability in a light she could never have imagined as a teenager and young adult. "I think my learning disability is an asset because I was able to concentrate on what I can do."

Likewise, Moss views students who are coping with learning disabilities as an often untapped source of creativity, energy and ideas. "They will set the world on fire one way or the other," she says. "They're intelligent people who need to be steered in the right way." And if they are, there's no limit to what they may accomplish, Moss believes.

She hopes the new endowed scholarship at JMU will be one way to help provide that direction.

Return to Winter 1997 Table of Contents

Return to Montpelier Home Page