Kids can be callous, and they can be cruel. Unfortunately, so can teachers, as Tommy Gibson well knows.
Tommy Gibson graduated from Comanche High School in 1973, and last week I found him in Brookeshire’s, working quietly as is Tommy’s gentle unassuming way. It took a bit, but I finally coaxed him into setting a time to visit with me about the years between his growing up and 2016. Here’s what I learned…
First of all Tommy and his family moved to Comanche from Richardson in 1968, when he was in the eighth grade. The family consisted of his parents and siblings Debbie, Mary, Jacquline, and Kenny.
As you might expect, it is often very difficult for young people to move into a new school district, but Tommy says that the move was actually a blessing for him. Why, you might ask?
The answer might surprise you; I know it did me because of something I never even knew was a problem for him. You see, unknown to all of us, Tommy was and is dyslexic, and in Richardson, the other kids made fun of him because of it.
If you are past the half-century mark, you might remember the spelling bees that often went hand in hand with public education. Can you just imagine what torture these were for a kid with dyslexia? Well, Tommy Gibson doesn’t have to imagine; he well remembers!
Because he could not learn to spell, Tommy was actually removed from his regular class and put into a “special ed” class, which was nothing like a class you might visit today. No, back when Tommy and I were in school, there was no real help for those students who just needed a little extra help. In our day, “special” classes were designed for mentally retarded children, and they were kept very separate from the rest of the school population.
Even though Tommy was only in this class for two weeks (because the teacher told the school system that there was nothing “wrong” with him), these two weeks had a profound influence on his life.
He felt dumb; the others made fun of him; no one wanted him on any type of academic team (such as a spelling bee) and he couldn’t wait to get out of Richardson! However, even in the worst of times, something good often comes along as well, doesn’t it?
“Because I had such a struggle in the classroom, I spent as much time as possible working on my athletic skills. I was a natural athlete, and the extra work I put into that paid off for me. In fact, I probably still hold a lot of the junior high records in Richardson.”
But, even on the athletic field, it wasn’t all roses. Between the sixth and seventh grades, Tommy grew from 4’8” to over 5’10” This was way too fast too soon. Because of this extreme amount of growth, his back did not develop properly and he was actually paralyzed for three days from a seventh grade football injury, ending forever his football career.
This just made him even more determined to excel in other sports.
“You have to remember that I was two years ahead of my classmates. I was retained in the first grade because I missed fifty-six days of school due to mumps, measles, and chicken pox.”
With a smile Tommy admitted that he doesn’t know anyone who had to repeat the first grade. He was also retained in the fifth grade because he could not learn to read.
When football was taken from him, Tommy focused on track and swimming in Richardson. Of course, Comanche did not offer swimming, so he focused solely on track after moving here. He excelled and excelled in that area of his life, and he credits his hard work and success to the fact that he was dyslexic.
High school was a struggle for Tommy as he tried to stay on top of his grades, but then, his junior year, something happened in the form of teachers, Pallie Palmer and Maxine Martin.
“I can’t say enough about Pallie Palmer and Maxine Martin because they realized that something was wrong since I could answer questions in class but couldn’t pass a test. My junior and senior years they let me stay after class and take my tests orally, and what a relief that was! I actually made the A Honor Roll my senior year. That was a huge achievement!!!”
After graduating from CHS, Tommy married high school sweetheart, Cindy Hicks, and he went to work for Texas Power and Light. The couple was in Comanche for five years before being transferred to Brownwood, Round Rock, and finally Waxahachie, where Tommy worked in the corporate headquarters until he retired after seventeen years with the company.
During this time, Tommy also served as a youth minister, believing that his talents included working with young people. According to him, he taught young people how to be Christ-like; he did not, however, teach them “religion.”
It was also during these years, when he was twenty-nine to be exact, that Tommy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The thyroid was removed, and today Tommy Gibson joins the ranks of cancer survivor, a cancer he developed from second-hand smoke.
After retiring from the electric company, Tommy and Cindy made the decision to return to Comanche. Tommy was anxious to work with the local youth and this was what they both considered home.
Now, if you are one who believes that things happen for a reason and that we learn from our hardships, then obviously, Tommy Gibson is the perfect example. According to him, he worked extremely hard and eventually developed a photographic memory, something he felt he had to have in order to compensate for the dyslexia.
Today Tommy is a voracious reader. When I asked him how in the world this is possible, he told me that he just memorized the words and how they should look on a page. For instance the word two or to or too, etc., he memorized exactly how they should look and where they would be placed on a page and in what context. Obviously, this took a lot of brain power and a ton of determination, but apparently it worked.
A name that most of us only barely understand, dyslexia, has defined who Tommy Gibson is today, but as a strength, not a weakness. He also gives the community of Comanche and the people who live here tremendous credit for him becoming the self-confident person he is today.
“Moving here was one of the most positive things that happened in my life. The kids in Richardson laughed at me; those here did not. The friendships I forged in Comanche in the 1970’s are still as strong today as they were then. The people who were my friends then are still my friends today, and that is very important to me.
“I went from being a freak of sorts to being the FHA Beau and student body president. That was quite a change.”
Tommy said he at first felt unworthy of the honors and friendships he won here in Comanche but that he gradually came to realize that here in Comanche he was accepted and loved and that he finally belonged.
Now I have to tell you that this is all new territory for me. I grew up with Tommy Gibson, and thought him a great guy and a lot of fun. I had no idea that he struggled with dyslexia or that he had ever been in a school where he was made the butt of cruel jokes, but I’ve learned that was exactly what happened to him in Richardson.
It’s also hard to imagine that someone could be thankful for what many view as a disability, but Tommy believes that his problem has made him the grateful, humble, friendly person that he is today. It has also helped him to understand the problems of others more easily and to truly care about their needs.
Today, if you want to visit the Gibson’s, you can simply drive up to the old boyhood home on Barnes Street. There you will find Tommy and Cindy, who were lucky enough to be able to purchase the home in which he was raised.
“We moved back into the house, and that was a really cool experience. People still come by and ask to view the house because they remember the times we got together here to sign annuals or just hang out. They have such fond memories and just want to walk through the house once again.”
All in all, when you see Tommy Gibson you see a happy man, a man who knows himself and is comfortable in his own skin…how unusual and wonderful at the same time is that?
As for us here at United, all we can say is…WOW! What an unbelievable attitude for someone to have! We hope you enjoyed Tommy’s story, and we would love to be able to share yours. A message of hope from one of us so often is just what someone else needs to hear!