Freedom on the court

Lesley College’s Newton overcomes disability to shine

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 30, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Each morning, David Newton, his light brown eyes raised to the ceiling, ponders the same question before he’s able to get out of bed.

“How difficult will today be for me?’’

The question has been with the 21-year-old since he realized in second grade that he was different — that he had severe learning disabilities, including an inability to read at more than an elementary-school level.

He asks himself another question, too: “Will I get in tennis today?’’

The tennis court is, in many ways, his safe place. Newton is the best player at Lesley College, where he is enrolled in a non-degree program for college-aged students unable to complete mainstream academic work.

“It’s been like a freedom,’’ he said. “When I’m on the court, nothing really can bother me either way, the stress of the world or just the stress of a learning disability.’’

That stress is a constant presence, a part of a life nurtured by athletics, which can erase the difficulties with reading and language comprehension and the written word. When he arrived in Cambridge — admitted as one of 24 students in the school’s Threshold program — Newton thought his athletic career was over.

He was wrong.

It took one match with Lesley’s president, Joe Moore, to start the conversation. After Newton beat Moore, 6-0, 6-1, the president started a process that ended with a letter to the NCAA requesting a waiver for Newton, since he was not a full-time, credit-earning student. As Moore wrote in February 2009, “When he is on the court, he is not disabled: He is a tennis player.’’

On the first day of practice for the 2009 season, Newton received his waiver.

“I thought when I arrived here that all sports were done, that all athletics, tennis was done, everything was just done,’’ said Newton, a New Haven native nicknamed “Det’’ for Detwiler, his middle name. “I didn’t think I would have another opportunity to step on a court with a team or anything. I just believed that everything was complete and finished.

“Now it’s changed. I still sometimes wake up and I still can’t believe what happened. I still think it’s a dream sometimes.’’

When Newton received the phone call from Threshold program director Jim Wilbur telling him that the waiver had come through, he started crying. He called his mother.

“It was very overwhelming because we realized that something that he was so good at — and he’s good in many areas — could continue in college,’’ said his father, David. “So it was just absolutely terrific. It was just a wonderful feeling to know that the school advocated for him in that way.

“It was a really emotional moment.’’

He started practice the same day, his nerves eclipsing his excitement. He was in a van full of athletes, kids without learning disabilities, kids who might not understand. He didn’t know how to react. Wilbur told him to “serve a ball right down each and every one of their throats.’’ He did, just to get the respect thing out of the way.

And the interaction was never an issue. His teammates embraced him immediately. Few opponents knew the truth. In his three years on the team — Threshold is a two-year program, with a final “transition’’ year — Newton has been a cocaptain for two, doing so much of the work cocaptain Tyler Reeves said there’s little left for him.

But even tennis isn’t without challenges. He has trouble with the line calls, his visual perception sometimes leaving him unable to determine whether a ball is in or out. That’s difficult in a sport that is self-officiated at the NCAA Division 3 level.

Still, he is by all accounts the most popular player on his team. He’s also played No. 1 singles for all but the first few weeks.

“I’ll be honest, it’s one of those things where you don’t know if you want to — it sounds wrong — but open a whole can of worms, where now every kid across the country who is enrolled in some type of similar program now thinks they can just walk onto an NCAA program,’’ said assistant coach Paul Vasconcelos, who helped start the men’s program four years ago. “Det is not there out of compassion or some type of pity. He’s there because, without a doubt, he’s been our No. 1 for three years.’’

Tennis also might give him a future. Part of the mission of the Threshold program is to get the students into situations where they can live on their own, hold jobs and lead independent lives. Newton, who studied early childhood education, wants to become a tennis instructor, perhaps at a country club, an extension of the seasonal work he has done.

Newton sometimes gets lost in his answers to questions. His reading aloud is halting He stumbles over words, and is sometimes unable to hold sequences in his head or comprehend abstract concepts.

“The last time I’ve read a book has been in a year and a half,’’ said Newton, who is taking two Threshold classes and one mainstream class this semester. “I hate to read. Reading two pages for me feels like I’ve read for four hours, where somebody could read a book and read maybe 10 chapters in four hours. I have to put the book down and do something else. It’s tiring and stressful.’’

Talking is different. A conversation, even for an hour, betrays little of the difficulties of his everyday life.

“That’s the enigma about Det,’’ said his mother, Molly LeVan. “Most people who meet him in a social situation would never guess that he has a disability.

“Because Det is very smart, he has tremendous social skills and perceptions of situations. He goes to great lengths, and has done this throughout his childhood, not to place himself in a situation where his disability will be revealed.’’

Those moments still come. There is, perhaps, a fresh wound when he talks about the difficulties. He mentions dating, when the time comes to let a girl in on his disability. “You’ll never hear from them again,’’ he said.

That is what he forgets on the court. He has a close group of friends, inside the program and out, and is sensitive enough to the divide that he’ll sometimes sit alone in the cafeteria rather than choose a table of one set of friends over another.

“They all have self-esteem issues because they’re painfully aware of their difficulties in school,’’ said Wilbur about the program’s students. “They’re not in La-La Land. They know they’ve got the short end of the deal.

“We spend a lot of time working on self-esteem issues, making these guys feel good about themselves. And even when they come in with an appearance of having a huge, healthy ego’’ — he nods at Det — “sometimes there’s a lot of angst inside there.’’

Some of that has softened he last three years. Much of the easing of that angst, the increase in confidence, the self-assuredness when he walks between classes or sits with friends, has come from the court, a place where he has excelled.

“I don’t know what it is, but something about tennis, it just gets me through the day,’’ Newton said. “It just makes life so much more simple.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.