Six years ago Gary Gershowitz and his classmates were learning to spell "notebook" and "cemetery" and working simple arithmetic problems in their special education classes in Rockville.
Yesterday, Gershowitz shared experiences with a different set of classmates in very different circumstances.
A 24-year-old cerebral palsy victim Gershowitz the son of Iris and Sylvan Gershowitz of 10308 Rouen Drive, Potomac, took his turn walking across the stage of Constitution Hall as one of more than 1,200 students graduating from American University.
Gary Gershowitz, onced grouped with youngsters with severe learning or emotional problems, became Gary Gershowitz, bachelor of arts in literature.
It wasn't easy for him, Gershowitz's friends and family recalled after yesterday's ceremony, the 69th in the school's history.
When he first came to college, he was "afraid even to hear the classroom bells ring. He was like a frightened little animal," said one friend.
His parents said he would sweat and sake as examination booklets were given out, despite having studied as much as 16 hours a day for his courses.
There was always the image in his mind, Gershowitz said, of his teachers "pointing a finger at me, saying, "I told you you couldn't do it."
He did it.
Onced advised to seek a job as a clerk or janitor as the realistic limit of his capabilities, Gershowitz earned high marks in college with papers on such topics "The Outsider in Contemporary German Cinema." He produced a short movie, which American University purchased for use in future film courses.
His physical handicap is evident today only in a slight limp, his contorted hands and his slow, careful way of speaking, but Gershowitz remembers of the years before he had overcome his disability.
Enrolled in regular classes until fifth grade at Harmony Hills Elementary School in Wheaton, he moved painfully behind the rest of the students.
"I remember in about the third grade, this teacher was teaching cursive writing," Gershowitz said yesterday. "She'd come over to all the students and sort of guide their hands as they wrote. Well, when she came to me, the muscles in my hand were stiff because of my disease. So she just said, 'I can't work with you.'"
On the advice of school officials, Gershowitz's parents enrolled him in special education classes in 1966 at Parkstreet Elementary School in Silver Spring.
"It was like for the first time I was going to get on the right track. [Special education] was going to be Utopia," Gershowitz said.
That period turned out to be "frustrating," as were later school years at Charles Woodward High school where he shared classes with children who were emotionally disturbed or had learning disabilities.
His life changed, finally, when the Gershowitz family moved from Wheaton to Potomac and a new neighbor, Dr. Albert Leas, a supervisor in the Montgomery County School System, took an interest in him.
"The more I talked with the boy, the more it impressed me that this kid had the [intellectual] equipment needed to be in regular education classes," Leas said yesterday at Gershowitz's graduation. "Gary Gershowitz was a bright boy, a creative thinker."
With help from Dr. Raphael Minsky, director of phychological services in the Montgomery County schools, Gershowitz entered three "regular" classes before he graduated from Woodward.
Later, leas went to America University Dean Herbert Stuts and found Stuts willing to take a chance on the young student. After remedial courses in the school's English Language Institute and successful completion of seven college-level courses, Gershowitz became a full-fledged candidate for a degree.
Yesterday afternoon, he grasped that degree in his hand.