Illinois Supreme Court Judge Anne Burke speaks at Hyde Park Day School

“Sister Henrietta saw my strengths and encouraged me to become a gym teacher,” says Judge Anne Burke as she recounts her story of evolving from a young woman with an undiagnosed learning disability, to a twenty-four-year-old City of Chicago Parks special needs recreation teacher in West Pullman Park who co-founded the Special Olympics in 1968, to a Illinois Supreme Court Justice, during a talk at Hyde Park Day School, 6254 S. Ellis Ave., last Wednesday. – Marc Monaghan

By GABRIELLA CRUZ-MARTÍNEZ
Herald Intern

Illinois Supreme Court Judge Anne M. Burke, a longtime advocate on behalf of children and the disabled, visited Hyde Park Day School’s Chicago Campus, 6254 S. Ellis Ave., on Wednesday, April 18 as part of the school’s Bellick Family Community Education Program.

The Bellick Family Community Education program was founded two years ago by the parents of an alumnus of the Hyde Park Day School, a school that specializes in helping students grades 1-8 with learning disabilities reach their full potential. The Bellick family was appreciative of how the school had helped their child, and decided to start this educational speaker series after recognizing the need for parents and the community to learn more about children with learning disabilities. Their aim by launching this speaker series was to have it as a resource for the community and parents to gain more insight through the experiences of experts in the field.

“There is a large number of students who are languishing in traditional classrooms and schools not getting the services that they need, not because of people that lack good intention, not because their not talented, not because the don’t have a certain degree of training –but because the body of knowledge just isn’t there,” said Dr. Casey Crnich, executive director of HPDS. “This is a key piece of our speaker series to expand the body of knowledge and to demonstrate that bright students with learning disabilities have fantastic outcomes.”

During the program titled “All the Places You Will Go,” Burke shared her personal story, which began many years ago in the Hyde Park neighborhood where she used to go to school as a child. “I grew up in the Park District program and did all kinds of things from baton lessons, to basketball, swimming and theatre, but I was never that good at academics,” said Burke, who self-described as a C student who struggled with grammar while growing up. “I was lucky because my parents were very supportive and I found mentors that helped me improve my reading skills, but they never asked too much from me.”

Burke didn’t know it at the time, but she had dyslexia: a disability that involves difficulty in reading or interpreting words, letters, and other symbols.

“It was 1960s and I was a student at George Williams College in Chicago, me and my classmates agreed to go under hypnosis for a research project my professor was doing. We were told to write our names on the board, and when I woke up I realized I had written my name backwards. Then I remembered all the things that would happened to me in school like I would read from right to left. I never knew.” said Burke with a chuckle.

“At the time (1950s-1960s) the term ‘dyslexia’ didn’t exist, they just called it ‘word blindness’,” added Burke. “I never let it set me back though, you must never let challenges discourage you because you may miss out on life.”

Burke emphasized the importance of early screening and early identification for children with dyslexia or disabilities is key to helping them deal with this disability and helping them succeed. But more so, is the importance that children who have disabilities receive a solid support system from they family, friends, and mentors.

“All of us, at one point or another will face setbacks and disappointments in our lives,” said Burke. Things don’t always go according to plan. That happens. That is what life is about. The really important thing however is to never let these challenges discourage you or keep you from moving forward. If you simply give up you might really miss out the really terrific things in life. I know this to be true because in my own life I’ve had challenges.”

Burke is a former gym teacher, attorney and founder of the Chicago Special Olympics, now the International Special Olympics. She began her judicial career in 1987, as the first woman appointed to the Illinois Court of Claims, and in 2006 was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court’s First District. “Anything is possible with the right support,” said Burke.

Burke added that parents should be understanding of their children and encourage them to “experiment” and participate in creative outlets like dancing, sports, and the arts. “We shouldn’t focus so much on grades,” said Burke. “We should focus on what makes your child happy and really listen to what they have to say.”

On reflecting about her experiences with dyslexia, Burke said that despite her difficulties in school while growing up she wouldn’t change anything about herself. “We just have to encourage our children to do what they love, because if they don’t then their story will be ‘All the things you could have done’, and we don’t want that.”

hpherald@hpherald.com