Assets School K-8 Principal Blog

A Boy Named Tommy


This upcoming Tuesday, many of us across the nation will gather in front of our TV, or online, and watch President Obama deliver his sixth State of the Union Address.  When I watch, I will be thinking of Assets School. Before I explain why, let me share a quick story about a young boy named Tommy.

Tommy as a Boy

Our story starts in Virginia where Tommy was born but quickly moves to Georgia and South Carolina where he was raised with his two older sisters and younger brother. His father was a Presbyterian minister who also occasionally taught at university, and his loving mother was herself the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.  Tommy’s father was demanding, and scholarship and piety defined his household. Unfortunately for Tommy, he was a poor student who did not learn the alphabet until age 9 and wasn’t able to read until almost age 12. These struggles led his teachers to think of him as slow and his parents to describe him as a “dolt” and “lost cause.”  Tommy enjoyed learning though and from a young age, aspired to greatness. His parents offered him academic support and his father, being the prominent pastor that he was, would instruct Tommy for hours, each night, in the art of oratory and debate.

Who is Tommy?

When Tommy finished college, he stopped going by his first name and started using his middle name. We know Tommy better as the United States’ 28th president – Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Though undiagnosed, it is very likely that Woodrow Wilson had some learning difference. Many historians believe he had dyslexia, and that’s the part of the story that makes me think of Assets School.


Wilson as an Academic and Politician


President Wilson speaking at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA., 1919

One of the beautiful ironies of Wilson’s story is that the young boy who was thought of as slow and stupid, grew up to become, by far, our most educated President. Wilson struggled in school as a child but would eventually earn the nickname, the “Schoolmaster in Politics.”  Wilson graduated from Princeton and then earned a law degree from the University of Virginia.  Bored by the law, Wilson went back to school, earning a doctorate in political science from John Hopkins University; hence, becoming both the first and still only U.S. president to earn a Ph.D.  From there, Wilson’s journey in academia took him to become a well-known political scientist who wrote several books and would assume the presidency of Princeton University.

When Wilson left academia, he embarked on the political career we are more familiar with. He became the Governor of New Jersey, won two U.S. Presidential elections, led the U.S. during World War I, and provided leadership for the creation of the League of Nations, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

That’s an impressive career for a struggling young reader!

What does this story have to do with the State of the Union Address?

The U.S. Constitution states that, “the President shall from time to time give Congress information of the State of the Union…”  It does not mandate that the President has to deliver the message as a speech. In fact, both George Washington and John Adams gave speeches but then Thomas Jefferson decided to give a written report. After that, each president followed Jefferson and offered Congress only a handwritten address until guess who, that’s right, Woodrow Wilson, decided to buck the trend, think differently, and deliver a speech once again. Why? Surely, there were political and philosophical reasons for the decision but I believe it was also because Wilson struggled so much with reading that he learned, from his father, to become an expert orator. He was famous on Princeton’s campus for his ability to deliver a lecture.  When we think about our children and students at Assets, this makes much sense. For Wilson to best articulate his message, he needed to speak to Congress.

President Wilson Addresses Congress, 1917

President Wilson Addresses Congress, 1917

Our Kids Have Gifts

By most accounts, Woodrow Wilson was one of our children.  He was a struggling reader who was likely dyslexic and surely gifted. He’s an example of a learning profile we now refer to as twice-exceptional (2e). Anyone who stares at a 113-year old tradition of delivering the “Annual Message” in writing and ultimately decides, Hey, I’ve got a better idea, and chooses instead to deliver his message in a manner that leverages his strengths, is someone who embodies Assets’ educational program. We are always proud when any of our students examine a situation and find a creative, accommodating way to demonstrate their knowledge and thoughts. And we should give Wilson’s parents credit for not just focusing on his area of deficit but for helping him find his island of competence and develop his strengths.

I like to think about what if Tommy hadn’t been born in 1856 in the American South and instead was born in 2006 in Honolulu. It is easy to imagine Reverend Joseph and Janet Wilson sitting with their son, meeting with the venerable Ms. Sandi to discuss the Assets program. This presumption brings a smile to my face. It serves as yet another affirmation of what we already hold true, the students of Assets School have strong, bright futures.  Our children, as much as any other child, can go and become whoever they want to be.  Their vision for themselves should be boundless – even to the White House.       

With aloha,


6 thoughts on “A Boy Named Tommy

  1. Thank you for making this brilliant connection. I envision this kind of story playing out often while working with our students and listening to what they have to say. You could not have put it better.


  2. Thanks Ryan for the terrific post! …A very interesting piece of history and a great inspirational story for the young minds at Assets. Will be sharing it with our son to assure him that he, as well as all of his friends at Assets, are capable of achieving great things!


  3. WOW!! That is the key to success in life …… anyone’s life ….. and yes our kids our no different in this way …… finding one’s strength is always a lifelong search and even a struggle …… we know assets help kids on their way to discovering their strength’s …. Thanks asset’s …. Aloha


  4. Thanks Ryan, Love the story, shared it with my husband too. Great research. Did not know this about our 28th president. Gives us hope and a sense of peace that our daughter will be successful in her future after graduating this year from Assets.


  5. Great story! Thanks for taking the time to share such inspirational stories.


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