Marc Hoberman: Don’t Let Your Struggles Define You

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“The enemy arrives without warning.” So begins Adversity Defeated: Turn Your Struggles Into Strengths, the latest book by speaker, educator, and author Marc Hoberman. 

Hoberman is describing epilepsy, the seizure disorder which afflicts about 50 million people worldwide. One of the world’s most common neurological diseases, it’s also one of its cruelest, causing stigma and shame to people and their families whether they live in Uganda or Florida. 

Hollywood, Florida, is where Hoberman and his family suddenly moved when he was 16. The popular teen was crushed when his family left their happy life in New York. But he had no idea what bigger adversity was coming down the pike. 

One day when he was driving his cool new Mustang, Hoberman had a seizure. Fortunately, he survived the accident. But now he was condemned to a life of slavery to this new, strange disease. The move and the diagnosis were a double whammy that threw the teenager into a two-year tailspin of depression. For the next 35 years, Hoberman kept his diagnosis a secret from all the world except 10 very trusted people. 

Depression, shame, and the looming unpredictability of grand mal seizures are debilitating, but Hoberman pressed on. While earning his BA in Liberal Arts at SUNY Albany, Hoberman got certified in New York State and started teaching. He also started The One Minute Educator in 1985, a groundbreaking series of education video shorts covered topics including bullying, grammar, and SAT preparation (now available on Udemy). 

About the time Hoberman earned his Master’s degree in Education at SUNY at New Paltz, he also started a tutoring business, Grade Success Education Inc. Grade Success Education has now evolved into an online platform offering one on one tutoring for students K-12 in any subject, plus college advisement, admissions counseling, and test preparation from the NYS Regents to the LSAT. 

Since 2003 Hoberman has been advising schools, camps, and corporations on team-building, peer mediation and conflict resolution, leadership training, staff training, performance evaluations, and more. He’s a dynamic speaker who educates his audiences on topics ranging from peer pressure, drug use, bullying, depression, overcoming adversity, study skills, and memory improvements. He’s been featured on television, radio, and podcasts. 

Some may see Hoberman’s epilepsy as a weakness. He views it as a strength – and an opportunity to educate himself and others. With Adversity Defeated, Hoberman helps teens and their parents navigate the many issues facing them daily. But he also intends to seize each and every opportunity not in spite of his illness, but because of it.   

Monica:  What was life like growing up in the Hoberman family?

Marc:  It was a very nice childhood in Yonkers, New York. A lot of fun, a lot of good friends, and very good schools. Unfortunately, we moved when I was 16. My father wanted to temporarily retire to Florida for the summer. That was a rough age to move. That’s also when some other things happened that inspired the memoir that I wrote.

Monica:  You were diagnosed with epilepsy at age 16. How did that affect you when you learned about it?

Marc:  It was a longer learning process than it should have been. It was difficult having just moved from my childhood home with only three weeks’ notice. Only a couple of months after that, I was in a car accident while having my first known seizure. 

I was clinically depressed. I know this now after 33 years in education. We never went to a psychiatrist, but my mother gave me some great advice: “This is not going to define who you are. We’re going to learn from this. It’s going to keep you grounded.” 

I didn’t follow that advice for at least two years. I was having a self-pity parade. I really was depressed not to be able drive my 1997 Mustang because I was not seizure-free for six months, as was the law in Florida. It was difficult until I went to the library and learned more about my illness. Then I became determined not to let the struggle define me. I was going to define me.

Monica:  You experienced several other problems along the way as well. Why do you believe you were able to rise above them all to become the person that you are today?

Marc:   That’s the mantra of the book: “Don’t let your struggles define you. You define you.”

I am not the person I am today in spite of my illness. I’m the person I am today because of it. Rather than have it belittle me, I embraced it and learned more about it. Unfortunately, this took me a long time. 

I was diagnosed around 17 but only about nine people knew until I was 54, when my memoir came out. When I was 26, I was a teacher in a very tough neighborhood in the Bronx. Gang activity and things of that nature. We were experimenting taking me off the medication, and I had a seizure in school. 

Even so, very close family members had no idea I was an epileptic when the memoir came out. Two family members read the book and said, “What a great fiction writer!” I had to convince them that it wasn’t fiction. People were shocked. 

Monica:  How did your friends and family perceive you once they learned that it was truth and not fiction?

Marc:  They had no choice but to perceive me as the person I was, not the illness I had. The memoir is called Adversity Defeated: Turn Your Struggles Into Strengths. It’s not about epilepsy. It’s about overcoming adversity. My adversity just happened from epilepsy. So, they viewed me in a positive way. 

I don’t know if it would have been as positive if I had told people at a younger age. I lost some friendships with people who were too scared to let me drive even after I was cleared to drive. They felt uncomfortable that I might have a seizure in front of them. I learned that quality friendship is more important than the quantity of friendships. 

Monica:  How has dealing with your condition enabled you to see life from a positive perspective? 

Marc:  I could’ve turned it into something positive by age 19 or 20. I didn’t have to wait until I was 54. But I’m a big believer in a support system. As an educator, I had the honor of coauthoring a book by a former student. I was his SAT tutor. He’s a recovering opioid addict. Helping him write his book, I told him that a support system is not enough except: “You must be at the center of that support system.” He agreed with me. He had gone through rehab seven times but was not successful until he became the person with buy-in. 

Monica:  When did you decide that you wanted to become a teacher?

Marc:  At age 12, I would always play-act westerns and fight scenes from movies in my room. I would often pretend that I was a teacher. I always said to my parents, “If I ever won a million dollars, I would become a teacher, a lawyer, or a doctor.” 

My father always said that if you love what you do, then you’re not really working. That’s how I felt about teaching even when I had those tough years in the Bronx. It was just a phenomenal career for me. 

Monica:  Today you work with parents to help their teens to overcome issues such as bullying, depression, suicide, and drug use. What is the common denominator that causes a teen to become a bully, for example, or to use drugs? 

Marc:   Peer pressure is tremendous. A lack of self-confidence is tremendous. I’ve learned that through my tutoring business, Grade Success Education. I help parents and students academically, but also with peer meditation and conflict resolution. In all the school districts and all kinds of people, I see that it’s a lack of confidence. 

Unfortunately, many bullies have been bullied. And there’s more than just student-on-student bullying. I’ve seen teachers get bullied by students. I’m talking about sixth grade students and 45-year-old teachers. Zero tolerance has to be the methodology implemented from the very beginning. 

Monica:  How can parents help their teens deal with that type of negativity?

Marc:  It’s a double-edged sword. It has to have a proper balance. For example, if somebody bullied someone in my class, even in the slightest way, such as saying, “That was a stupid answer,” or they disrespected someone’s culture, I reacted very quickly, harshly, and consistently. Never ignore any negative behavior, and certainly never ignore any bullying type of behavior.

However, I’m a bigger believer in rewarding anti-bullying activity. Parents, with their busy lives, sometimes only react when people do something bad or if their child bullies somebody. But you have to reward them for good behavior too. How about giving them attention when they do something good? 

In my classroom, when someone helped another person with a problem, I would make a big deal out of that and say it to the class. Some kids must never get complimented because I’d give a slight compliment and they’d smile for an hour. Positive reinforcement is an important method.

Monica:  You currently tutor students. How can you detect if a student has a problem that needs to be addressed? What are some of the “markers” that you can identify and determine if something is not right?

Marc:  There’s nothing more powerful than questioning. You have to develop a rapport and trust. You have to meet teens at their reality. Their reality doesn’t have to be good; it doesn’t have to be what you agree with, but if it’s their reality, that’s where you have to meet them. 

I hear certain things. Sometimes people seem sluggish. A lot of my tutoring now is online. Even without seeing them, just talking to them and listening is very important. Listening is very different than simply hearing. 

Monica:  What keeps you motivated every day?

Marc:  I absolutely thrive on helping others. I love to see the light bulb go off when I say something that I know resonates with what they’re feeling. I’ve been blessed to have people tell me, “Mr. Hoberman, you changed my life. You’re my favorite teacher.”

Helping people not do the wasted two-year pity party that I did really helps me pay it forward. It enables me to teach even though I retired from teaching to expand my tutoring business and my speaking business. That’s what motivates me every minute of every waking hour. 

Monica:  You also work with companies, team-building and teaching effective employee performance evaluation as a communication tool. How do your experiences help teach them about that specifically?

Marc:  That happened by accident. After teaching, I became a camp director of a team travel program, and then a camp administrator. I realized that a huge part of what I did in school and camp was team-building and communication skills. What better place to do that than in the corporate sector? I can meet these workers at their reality because I worked with this generation in my classroom just a few short years ago. 

Monica:  What message do you want people to receive from your book, Adversity Defeated?

Marc:  The message is: “Don’t let your struggles define you. You define you.” 

Everybody has struggles. It’s not about the struggle. It’s about your attitude in relation to the struggle. My mother had a stroke when she was 39 years old. She was a very strong woman. She gained back at least 95 percent of everything she lost. Two or three years after her stroke, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. She said, “Listen, you’re a good-looking boy. You’re funny. You have a lot of friends. You also have epilepsy and you’re going to deal with it. I’m going to get you the help you need and we’re going to help you to deal with this.” 

Here’s the reality: You want to sit and cry all day? You can do that too. My parents were very supportive even though they were not great at getting the medical care I should have had. The book’s message is not only how to overcome, but how to meet your struggle at its reality and deal with it. How can you become your own support system? 

Monica:  Would you say that writing this book has helped you to stay grounded?

Marc:  There’s no doubt, Monica. It’s been an emotional ride. I went to visit all the places from my childhood — Yonkers, back to the same swings that I was on as a child, Florida, back to the school where I had the seizure. That made me more effective in writing and visualizing. 

Monica:  Who is the audience for Adversity Defeated?

Marc:  It’s a very quick read with some humor. People like that. Sixth graders up to adults read it. Both parents and their children. It’s rare to find a book that teens and parents can relate to and discuss.  

In 2017, I donated 30 books to a school in Uganda and I had a Skype session with them. During the call a 13-year-old girl said, “Mr. Hoberman, I loved your book but something was strange. You wrote that when you had a seizure, people ran towards you to help you.” 

She continued, “Here in Uganda, if somebody has a seizure, people run away because it’s a sign of the devil.”

That threw me for a loop. How could anybody think that something like that is the sign of the devil? Lo and behold, in that area of the world, that’s what they thought.

Monica:  Through all your years teaching, what have you learned from your students? 

Marc:  I have learned so much about inner strength and perseverance. All of my 33 years teaching were at schools in economically depressed areas. Most of the schools have 70 to 85 percent students on free and reduced lunch. The school I retired from must’ve had a very high number of students who were immigrants. After the earthquake in Haiti, the largest number of people who came to the United States came to Spring Valley, New York, in Rockland County.  

So, although I speak about how depressed I was to be displaced from the Yonkers to Florida, there are people who have been displaced from one country to another. That was all too familiar in that school. Academically some of them aren’t as far along, but the inner strength, love, wants, needs, desires, and hopes for the future are so powerful in these young people. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Monica:   Where can people go to learn about your tutoring service?

Marc:  They can go to www.gradesuccess.com. My author site is www.marchoberman.com. I’ve also partnered with Susan Brender whose career spans 40 years in radio and podcasting. We’re helping schools create podcasts to inform parents and the community about what’s going on. Information about that can be found at www.educationalflame.com. 

Monica:  What are the top five lessons you’ve learned that enable you to thrive?

Marc:  One is listening, for sure. What I’m meeting people at their reality, listening is very important. When I do peer mediation and conflict resolution, it’s not about what people want. It’s about what people need. Meeting people at their reality and finding out what they need makes a big difference, especially working with teenagers. 

Becoming your own support system, building your own self-confidence, and research. Research helped me. We didn’t have the internet when I was diagnosed. I can find out more about epilepsy in 45 minutes today than I could in two months when I was diagnosed at age 17. 

There’s a famous line from Julius Caesar by Shakespeare: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Epilepsy was my struggle. It was my enemy. I made it my friend. I learned more about it. I didn’t take just any old doctor’s word for it. You have to be an advocate for yourself. 

Those five things are pretty much what have shaped me and helped me overcome many obstacles in life. I’ve had parents pass away, relatives and friends get sick, business struggles, teaching struggles. Every day is not rosy. To be able to keep your eye on the ball and know that a bad day doesn’t define who you are. It’s how you react to it that will define who you are. 

Monica:  I would love for you to close with your last word.

Marc:  I’ll go with my mantra for my book and life, and it’s easier said than done: Don’t let your struggles define you. You define you.

*Originally published by Exceptional People Magazine.