I couldn’t read until I was 8 years old.
Over the years, the number of people I admitted that to has been very low and it wasn’t until recently that I realized I was hiding it because it was an intense such a source of shame.
My decision to start talking about it came in October when I listened to an podcast of Radio Times where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz talked about his own struggle with dyslexia (mp3 available for download on this page). I was on a plane when I listened to it and remember it very vividly, it made me cry. It’s taken me this long to actually write about it in public.
See, I didn’t really believe I was dyslexic. Both my parents were dyslexic, I was diagnosed when I was in 1st grade, but I convinced myself that I had been misdiagnosed. In spite of my slow start, I didn’t really fit the typical symptoms of random-dyslexia-website-I-found-in-2003 (which, in spite of seeming dubious now, I was happy to accept, who wants to admit to having a reading disorder?). By 8th grade I shocked myself (and my parents!) by scoring in the 97% percentile on reading comprehension in the state of Maine and receiving an award. Today I love books, enjoy reading and have a successful career where being able to quickly read, absorb and apply information is critical. This doesn’t sound like someone who is dyslexic to me! By accepting the diagnosis I thought I was doing a disservice to people who struggle in their adult life with the disorder. I wrote off all my problems to some nebulous “late bloomer” excuse and never talked about it again.
Listening to the interview with Schultz made me realize I was wrong. Here was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet talking about his struggle with dyslexia. While his symptoms didn’t strictly match mine, it made me realize that there was much more to dyslexia than a few generic symptoms I once found on a website. I bought his book, My Dyslexia.
I began to understand that successful dyslexics don’t necessarily “overcome” the disorder, but instead develop ways to cope. Some obviously cope by selecting career paths which require limited reading skills, but some (particularly fortunate ones like me who were diagnosed early and benefited from early Special Education) learned or were taught tricks which allowed us to function on par with our peers, and even excel. Looking back to my childhood, it was my dyslexic father who inspired my love of books, he was a journalism major and spent the most successful years of his career as a writer at an insurance company. I have the fiction book he began writing in my office. I didn’t actually need to look any further than dyslexics in my own family to find the success and coping mechanisms I found in the interview with Schultz!
Back to my own academic career, I realized that in my eagerness to dismiss dyslexia I did myself a great disservice. I now understand that many of the struggles I had in high school were due to my dyslexia, and not because I was particularly lacking in intelligence. I could pull general academic success if I was given more time for tests (which my teachers were often able to grant, but my SATs were a disaster) and with a significant amount of studying time via repetition through mixed media (if all reading, I would read multiple views of the same thing), creation and copying of detailed notes and studying alone. This is all still true for me today.
Self-confidence wise there is this meme in US geek culture about public high school being “boring” or “too easy” or otherwise a waste of time. It’s a painful one for me because that was never my experience, I found my, admittedly very highly rated, public high school to be very challenging and I had to study a lot to do well. I even enjoyed many of my classes and took additional history electives when I was a senior rather than taking free periods. I’ll sometimes say that life circumstances and money are the reason I didn’t go to college, which is all true, but people overcome those every day. The actual reason I didn’t go to college boils down to sheer terror of having to struggle through classes like I did in high school and the vast amounts of time I’d need to put in to do well.
I’ve since read dozens of stories similar to those of Schultz, my father and myself. It’s opened a whole world for me that I didn’t bother to explore previously. I’ve grown infinitely more interested in the research into alternative learning styles so kids like me wouldn’t necessarily have to learn coping mechanisms to keep up with the other kids, instead instruction could be altered to cater to a broader range of learning style — and ones that make sense for our information age world.
Most importantly for me, I want be more open about it, stop being ashamed of it and want to gain back the self-confidence I’ve lost along the way because of it.