Aspirando et perseverando – aspire and persevere.
That is not only the slogan that 127 Class of 2012 graduates recognize.
It is also a mantra that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has lived.
As the all-boys private high school’s commencement speaker Sunday, he told an audience of graduating seniors, students, families and faculty about the struggles he has gone through from childhood to the governorship while battling dyslexia and other disabilities. Avon Old Farms is the only high school graduation Malloy was scheduled to speak at this year, he told Patch.
As the youngest of eight children, Malloy, 56, said he was born with “severe physical disabilities and processing disorders.”
“As late as the fourth grade, I was thought to be mentally retarded. That term was used when I was growing up. People did not think I would be successful,” Malloy said. “In fact, they told my mother both orally and in writing that her aspirations for her son were too great, that he could not possibly meet those aspirations. After all he couldn’t be allowed on a playing field for fear that he would be hit by the ball as he lost sight of it. After all, he could not write and could not read at the stages that other children did. After all he was clumsy and couldn’t hold a pencil very well. Little hand-eye coordination, little gross motor control.”
But Bill and Agnes Malloy never lost faith in their son, encouraging him for the things he was good at, such as leadership and communication skills.
“And yet my mother and my father, they saw something else and they fed it,” Malloy said. “They knew that if I was to be successful in life not only did I have to overcome the disabilities with which I was born, I had to develop compensatory skills to get around those difficulties. As I stand before you, I don’t write and I don’t frequently work from written texts because they can become too confusing in the moment.”
The Malloys signed Dannel up to be a Boy Scout. As a fifth grader, he listened to talk radio at night until he fell asleep. His mother taught him to be compassionate by bringing him to nursing homes to spend time with the elderly. His parents encouraged him to give back to his church and community.
“It should sound familiar to all of you and the lessons that you learned here at Avon to be compassionate and care about others,” Malloy said.
He touted some of the volunteer spirit at Avon Old Farms, such as student group to benefit students at St. Pierre school in Jérémie, Haiti.
“It’s nice to know people outside of Avon are paying attention to it. It’s a great cause,” Class of 2012 graduate RJ Fiondella, who spearheaded the fundraising efforts, told Patch.
It wasn’t until his senior year in high school that he started to “achieve some level of academic success,” he said.
“The intellectual portion was slow in coming. I was not successful and would not have been successful at Avon Old Farms School,” Malloy said.
Yet he was accepted into Boston College, the first invited to attend despite having a “processing disorder,” or “learning disability.” Instead of reading textbooks his freshman and sophomore year there, he listened to audio recorded versions intended for the blind. He graduated magna cum laude, which, he said, “no one predicted was possible.”
He went on to law school there, the first with a learning disability to be accepted into the program. In 1980, Malloy was the first permitted to take the bar exam orally in New York and Massachusetts who was not blind, as well as in Connecticut a year later.
While working in the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, NY, determining the charges brought against people was a challenge, he said. Writing out affidavits in longhand for those cases was perhaps even more difficult for Malloy, who said it was a “daunting, scary and embarrassing task” for someone who does not specialize in “written language.”
“I did not aspire to that task, but I did in fact persevere through it, moving quickly into investigations and ultimately into trial work, where I tried 23 felony cases in the span of 18 months and had convictions in 22 of those cases,” he said, “All that by the young man, who, as late as the fourth grade, people thought was mentally retarded.“
When he returned to his hometown, Stamford, he said he dedicated himself to public service, running for political office and served on boards and commissions there. He was elected as mayor, serving from 1995 to 2009, according to his biography on the state of Connecticut website. He said he ran for governor “for the purpose of doing good.”
“I tell you those stories because it is in keeping with your motto: aspire and persevere,” Malloy said.
He applauded students for their accomplishments this year from multiple fundraising efforts to baseball championships and a strong hockey season.
“Don’t aspire to be good at simply the things you’re naturally good at,” he said. “Don’t aspire simply to play the talent or skill set that you currently have to the maximum. Aspire to move beyond, to grab hold of, to change. Aspire to do great things and persevere in the pursuit of that greatness even though some road blocks will be thrown in your way.”
Fiondella, who plans on studying psychology at Providence College in the fall, said this was his first time hearing Malloy’s story “so in depth” and he agreed with the message.
“He pretty much shows you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it,” Fiondella said. “I’ve been here four years. I’ve really grown and become a man here.”
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