“God, why didn’t you make me smart?” That’s one of the notes Jordan Toma wrote to himself back in grade school. A severe learning disability, exacerbated by high anxiety, frustration and hopelessness soaked his childhood in failure. Until he learned to overcome his deficiencies with hard work.
Mr. Toma brought his success story to the Delaware Valley High School library on the evening of Thursday, May 3, to share it with students who need to hear it, along with their parents. Although he has his own insurance agency in Westfield, Mr. Toma’s sideline business is called I’m Just a Kid With an IEP, LLC. Its slogan is: “I needed who I am now to walk into my school when I was younger. Now I will be that person for someone else.”
Smiling, humorous, warm, and constantly in motion, Mr. Toma said, “In sixth grade, when I’d see the school bus coming, my heart would start pounding and I’d be crying.” He was getting special help, but on through high school he continued failing academically, although he had some success as a wrestler.
His mother believed in him, but his father was no more than grimly hopeful about his son’s future. His 1.7 GPA in high school and low SAT scores could not get him into college. But with just a few weeks left of high school, a counselor put him in touch with the Centenary University wrestling coach, and at graduation time, the longed-for fat acceptance envelope arrived.
“My mom fell on her knees like I got into Harvard,” recalled Mr. Toma. But there was a catch. He had to start with remedial summer school, which made him furious. While his friends were going to the beach, his parents drove him to the Hackettstown campus. Alone in his dorm room, he wept tears of frustration and anger.
Then he went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and vowed to change. And he did. When classes began, he sat in the front row instead of the back row. He took advantage of the tutoring and other supports. He was the first one up in the morning and last to leave the library at night. He found that he could learn, but he’d have to work much, much harder than most people.
He finished summer school with a 4.0 and recognition as Most Improved. When regular classes began in the fall, he was still “the new Jordan.” He would go right from classes to tutoring sessions that were enhanced by notes taken by a third party. He leveraged this special help with a work ethic that amazed his friends, for whom learning came more easily.
He graduated in 2012 with a 3.3 GPA and a degree in psychology. His first job was selling windows door-to-door and he was “the number one window salesman in the country every time.” Why? “Everyone else was walking; I was running.” Although it about killed him to memorize the necessary sales pitch, he found that “if the people like you, they’ll buy whatever you’re selling.”
He moved on to Prudential to sell insurance. But he had to pass a rigorous test for each kind of insurance, such as life, health, etc. Some insurance “products are pretty complicated,” he said, and even quick learners fail the tests. Given that written material is incomprehensible to him on the first pass, he spent months doing nothing but study for the tests, failing thousands of practice tests before passing one. Each real test he passed was a hard-won triumph.
At work “I sold the second most life insurance in the nation,” he said. Now he has his own insurance company, affiliated with Prudential, and his college friends who wondered why he worked so hard are now working for him. He announces this with a big smile.
In closing, he told his young listeners, “You can’t let other people bring you down. You write your own story. Go out there and give it everything you’ve got. Believe in yourself and you’re pretty much unstoppable. Don’t give up.”
School social worker Melanie Kiely, who had arranged the program, said afterward, “The ultimate goal of special education is for each student to value themselves for their own unique qualities, and Jordan is the ideal messenger to make that point. No one wants to try if failure is inevitable. The takeaway from Jordan is: If you’re willing to work hard, you can do anything.”