Jesse Tohl played the Persian peddler Ali Hakim in his school’s production of “Oklahoma!” this spring. What makes that fact remarkable is that Tohl was born with oral apraxia and dysarthria, conditions in which facial muscles that control speech do not function properly.
Tohl didn’t speak at all until he was 5, and he was mostly unintelligible until around fourth grade. Now, after years of speech therapy, he speaks slowly but articulately.
“I was watching the video of our play, and I was really shocked to discover that I was one of the few cast members who spoke loud enough and clear enough that I was able to be understood,” Tohl said.
He owes a lot of that to the speech pathologist at Summit View, where he has been since fifth grade. Summit View, a part of The Help Group, is a school for kids with learning differences.
While Tohl’s condition also made word retrieval, reading and written expression a challenge, he worked hard, spending countless hours on his schoolwork. He was on the Director’s List every year at school and made it into the National Society of High School Scholars.
But it hasn’t been all academics for Tohl. He has been on student council every year since seventh grade. As vice president this year, he saw to the students’ desire for more dances and celebration.
Tohl is also on the youth board at Temple Beth Hillel, where he went to day school through fourth grade, and is on the board of the Reform movement’s youth organization, NFTY. He is a teacher’s assistant at Temple Beth Hillel’s religious school.
But his greatest love is reserved for music. “Before I was able to speak, the way I kind of broke through the barrier of speaking was through music,” he said. He plays guitar and drums and still uses music to calm himself. At his bar mitzvah, he accompanied his prayers with guitar.
Tohl got into eight of the 10 colleges to which he applied. He had just about settled on Dean College in Massachusetts when he found out his father had had a recurrence of cancer. Tohl has opted to stay home and go to CSUN, and Dean deferred both his admission and scholarship.
He plans to study psychology and music and become a music therapist.