Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Being Dyslexic

Preface: I teach Freshman Composition at Finger Lakes Community College. The first term paper the students do is a reflection on an issue. In the course of our discussion on Tuesday, I mentioned my dyslexia and the resulting coping strategies I've developed over the years. One of my students asked if I had ever written about my experiences and I realized, I never had. Not sure why I haven't, but she got me to thinking and I decided to do the assignment right along with them. 

I wrote the below as a blog post, since that's the form most of my essays take these days. I then did a "Save As" and made a formal term paper out of it to show the differences in formatting. It was a fun exercise. :)

So here is my essay, On Being Dyslexic. Enjoy!

I’ve always had trouble with phone numbers. People would tell me their number, I’d write it down, and invariably, get it wrong. Repeating the number back to them until I’d memorized it seemed a safer venture, but mostly, all I got out of this was a fear of dialing numbers.

Seriously. I hate making phone calls. Even in this age of digital everything, if I have to key in a number, I have tremendous anxiety issues. Will I get the person I actually meant to dial? Have I keyed the number correctly? What if it’s a wrong number? I have to psych myself up just to dial the phone.

Today we’d call it a “learning disability” but back then (the 60’s and 70’s), you were just quirky. And no one caught on. Why? Because spelling was easy – I had no trouble with letters except for words that contained both a “b” and a “p”. If I had to write the words “but put” in the same sentence, invariably I got them wrong the first time and had to erase or cross out and rewrite them. Which I did, so no one noticed a problem. In math, it was only 9’s and 6’s that gave my any trouble and again, I could usually spot the mistake quickly and fix it before it got to being graded by the teacher.

There was one trait, however, that often frustrated me: I’d say “spring” when I meant “fall” or “winter” when I meant “summer.” For some odd reason, I’d say “purple” when it was clearly “orange”. “Hot/cold”, “up/down” and “right/left” were other mix-ups that made no sense to me. I clearly could see that fruit was orange, so why would the word “purple” come out of my mouth? My parents would always just look at me funny and correct me. It seemed to be a problem to no one but me, so I just accepted it as part of my nature and moved on.

Until I saw a TV program about a boy who told the cops he was 81, when he was 18. He often got opposites mixed up and couldn’t read or write well. The actor who played the role was Kurt Russell and I was madly in love with him (still am!), which is probably why we were watching the show in the first place. The Storefront Lawyers ran only a single season and played opposite The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which we watched all the time.

(NOTE: It took me a LOT of web-searching to find that information out. All I could remember was Kurt Russell playing the part of a dyslexic teenager. Two hours later, I found the obscure show listings that match my memory. You can find the TV listing for Wednesday, November 18, 1970 here, and a longer description of the series here.)

Anyway, in that episode, Russell plays Jerry, a kid the cops think is being disrespectful. The lawyers realize he’s dyslexic. I’d never heard the word before. But the character of Jerry and the resultant description of dyslexia fit me perfectly. I wasn’t quirky – I was dyslexic!

And I wasn’t alone.

It wasn’t just me, this switching of words and having troubles with certain letters.

Not that it changed much. Special Education at that time didn’t exist in the way it does now. No one diagnosed me and life continued much as it had. The only difference was my own attitude about myself. I wasn’t alone. There were others like me. There was no “cure” but I could adapt. That last part I figured out on my own.

By the time I got to college in the late 70’s, a great deal of work had been done on learning disabilities, dyslexia among them. Since my degree included certification in English (Theatre Major, Education minor), several of these disabilities were discussed in class – from the viewpoint of a teacher trying to teach material to students who have them. Listening and learning, I applied the coping strategies we were given to teach our students to my own situation.

Later, as a teacher, I recognized my own dyslexia was mild. I mix up a few words and hate phone numbers. When typing, I have a few words that will always come out wrong (“studnets” instead of “students” is my particular burden to bear), but I have had kids in my classroom who cannot read at all because the letters dance about on the page for them. They look once and the letters are in one order, they look again, the letters are now arranged differently in the word.

Those are the kids I feel the most for and it puts my own quirkiness into perspective. I never felt I had a disability, only a difficulty. While I was thrilled beyond measure to discover I wasn’t alone, I obviously didn’t need resource time or any test modifications. I used my coping strategies (a term I picked up in my first years of teaching, by the way) and got on with life.

And it was that attitude I tried to impart to my students. Just accept it and move on. Having a learning problem doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you have to find the way around or through it. For me, that meant going public. I mixed up letters on the board on occasion and rather than get flustered by it, I confessed my slight dyslexia to my students (all of whom knew what that meant by the 80’s). I told them they were my coping strategy. I counted on them to point out a mistake like that so I could correct it. I also tried to impart to them that a learning disability shouldn’t hold them back.

I have dyslexia. I’m also a writer. I’m an English teacher, a blogger and a writer of essays. I like words. My vocabulary is extensive because I read as much as I can as often as I can. I drive my husband and kids crazy because I still grab the opposite word from the one I want but it’s okay. They’ve learned to just translate in their heads. My future daughters-in-law are learning the same thing.

Several years ago, a counselor confronted me and told me to stop telling my students I was dyslexic when I clearly wasn’t. I was a teacher, for crying out loud. Teachers didn’t have learning disabilities. She asked me who made my diagnosis. I couldn’t very well say, “A TV series”, so I brushed off her question. I wish I could remember the rest of the conversation so I could tell you I took her to task for her biased statements, but I probably didn’t. I was still a young teacher then and a little afraid of those in power. The incident, however, made me realize all the more how important it was for kids to see a person who had become successful despite having a learning disability. In her attempt to get me to stop, that counselor did all my students a favor – I became even more of a champion of their successes.

So don’t ask me to make phone calls, and if you hear me grab the opposite word from the one that makes sense, don’t panic. Correct me in your head or correct me out loud, it doesn’t matter. I know my dyslexia and I’m fine with it.


Steve said...

What a beautiful story!

Steve said...
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Diana Hunter said...

Thank you! :)