When I was in preschool, my teacher (who also happened to be my grandma) put a bunch of shapes on the rug and asked us to find the circle. My reply?
Dyslexia is one of the most mysterious “disabilities” of modern times. It is unusual mainly for three reasons:
- Many people have it.
- We know little about it.
- It has a grand spectrum.
Dyslexia seems to be less of an official diagnosis and more of a word used to describe a specific collection of symptoms. Thus, most people are usually self-diagnosed. As someone who is dyslexic (by current standards), I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and experiences on how dyslexia plays itself out in my life. This will be based on my personal experience, so it will not be entirely scientific, but I believe anecdotal evidence can guide scientific analysis in the right direction.
The first thing people should know about dyslexia is the fact that it is more extreme in the developmental years. Much of the downsides of dyslexia are brought to the surface generally because of the learning structure of most public schools. Simply put, schools are not designed for people who think outside of the box.
Much of my experience in school can be likened to an artist being told how to correctly hold a paint brush, what color is to be used, how long each stroke must be, and what is to be painted. To an artist, this scenario is a nightmare. This rigid notion of how children ought to learn is why someone like me, who loves to learn, ended up hating school.
When most people hear that a child has dyslexia, they think the kid reads letters backwards or something. That is probably due to past misunderstandings of dyslexia that began to circulate in the 90s when all of this was very new. Now, there is an understanding that dyslexia manifests itself differently in different people, but with a few broad similarities that warrants one category.
I felt inspired to write about some of my past experiences with dyslexia, how it affected my performance in school, and why I ultimately consider it to be a gift.
I used to stutter as a kid, and struggled to get the words out of my mouth. I saw all the same words. They were not all jumbled together, or rearranged, or whatever crazy illustrations people come up with to discern the phenomenon, they were there for me just like for anyone else. The problem was vocalizing the words.
I would say stuttering occurred more commonly in extemporaneous speech than it did while reading out loud, but in either situation stuttering was a really frustrating and bizarre experience. When trying to say any sentence, there is first an internal/mental reading of the sentence, and then there is an external/verbal reading. The internal speech was never an issue, but translating the internal into the external (mostly in the presence of two-or-more-syllable words) was where stuttering took place. I could see the word in my mind as clear as day, but for some reason that first or second syllable does not want to be formed.
The second of my two reading issues was (and still is to a degree) reading comprehension. This is what I have to emphasize the most when I talk about my experience, because I think this might be one of the things that unites dyslexic people.
When I was in 2nd grade my reading comprehension was way below average. By this time my main issue was not stuttering, it was comprehending what I was reading. I could verbally read the words faster than even my normal peers. However, I had to turn off my brain in order to accomplish such a feat. If I wanted to remember what I just read, I had to go back and re-read it four or five times. This made reading comprehension tests one big anxiety attack, because it inevitably became a race against time. I had three options:
- Finish the test before or at the same time as everyone else and do poorly because I rushed through it.
- Not finish the test and do poorly because I did not complete all the answers.
- Finish the test late, obtain anxiety from being socially aware of my situation, and do poorly for not being able to focus.
I’d be willing to bet every dyslexic person can relate to this particular losing scenario when it comes to taking tests.
As a result of this, I was placed in a remedial reading class that remains to be one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I still remember it vividly. It was before school, and I quite literally rode the short bus. When I got there I met the nice lady teacher and I sat between two other students. On my left was someone who I do not remember too much, but was probably also dyslexic. I can not remember the person on my left because they were in my periphery being my head was focused to my right. On my right was a student with Down Syndrome.
As one would imagine, my past experiences of Elementary and Middle School made me withdrawn. In most cases, I sat quietly in class, never did my homework (I saw it as simply extended school), and passed with a B or a C. There were, however, three classes that I loved: 10th grade Biology, 11th grade English, and 12th grade Philosophy.
Biology (10th Grade)
In my school, there were two paths you could have taken with Science. Most kids took Earth Science in 9th grade and Biology in 10th grade. However, there was a kind of remedial path to split the Biology class into two years, so I took Biology for both 9th and 10th grade. I picked up on it extremely quickly. Because I did so well in 9th grade and remembered all the content, I never took any notes and still got A’s on the tests. It was the first time a class felt natural to me. I also became the class clown with my partner in crime, Curt. I used to write the most ridiculous notes to Curt about Captain Planet, and I would make it seem like I wanted it passed to him secretly, when in reality I wanted to get caught and have the teacher read what I wrote. My plan worked flawlessly. My teacher saw a student pass the note to Curt and then confiscated it. She then proceeded to read how I couldn’t wait to tell Curt about my Captain Planet DVD collection. What I didn’t plan for was what happened next.
She made me read it to the class.
The joke is on her though, they all laughed.
I liked my teacher too, she was like a grandma. She was the first teacher that really noticed my potential. I still remember that one day after class when she scolded me for my lack of motivation, telling me that I could get into any college I wanted. I think this was the turning point in my intellectual life at school.
English (11th Grade)
I still smile when I think about Mrs. Perera’s English class. She was someone I respected almost immediately. She had short brown hair with blonde highlights and glasses. She was sharp, and had a sarcastic sense of humor that I really appreciated. If I recall correctly, she was married to a Buddhist and had a Christian sister. She liked Family Guy, and often made references during class. She was generally reserved like an introvert, but at the same time was not intimidated by us. She was cool. Mrs. Perera was a phenomenal teacher, not just because she really connected with her students, but because she knew precisely how to teach.
She didn’t just give us a book to read at home. We read chapters in class and talked about the content. We were given a chance to practice thinking, and she would help guide our thoughts (which is something that doesn’t happen at home). Simply put, she found a way to make English fun. Doing this allowed me the room to focus on the content without having to be anxious about the serious things that normally come with a standard classroom. I was at ease.
This was the year we read Of Mice And Men and Catcher In The Rye. Those are the only two school books I remember well, and Mrs. Perera is the reason for that. It would have been difficult for me if I was given a book and simply told to read it at home. Because of dyslexia, it takes a much longer time to read because of how easily my mind goes into ‘meditation mode.’ It takes a lot of energy to read, not just because of how much I have to re-read things, but because of how much detail I notice along the way. I always have to stop and think about every little thing in order to paint a mental picture. More on that later.
Oh, and I got an A on my final.
Philosophy (12th Grade)
I still remember the first day of Philosophy class with Mrs. Pentola. I had heard about how she was such an amazing English teacher, but I didn’t know what to expect. Then, as we sat there waiting for her, she came in the room.
She was a very eccentric woman. Almost theatrical, really. Very animated and extroverted. She was also very bright, and she had a cheerful sense of optimism about her. Personality-wise, she was the antithesis of Mrs. Perera. As an introvert myself, being much more naturally drawn to someone like Mrs. Perera, you’d think I would be uncomfortable around Mrs. Pentola. However, she quickly grew on me because of her depth.
The day in class, we were told to write our thoughts on the nature of happiness. Right then and there I knew this was the type of class for me. Mrs. Pentola made teaching into an art form because the class basically ran itself. The content was so intriguing that everyone in the class was engaged. I remember one day she asked the class about the famous paradox: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If you say yes, you go on one side of the room. If you say no, you go on the other side of the room. If you don’t know, you go in the middle. Then you had to defend your position against your classmates. It was loads of fun.
I didn’t participate too much, as I enjoyed observing everything unfold. However, I believe Mrs. Pentola connected with me through my assignments. She saw the thought I put into my essays, because she randomly started calling on me asking for my input. And it wasn’t like a “You’re not talking, so I’m calling on you” kind of selecting. It was a “I know you have thoughts about this, I’ve read your essays” kind of selecting. There was one assignment that we had to share in front of the class, and we had topics from which to choose. I remember that I chose dualism. I forget exactly what I wrote or the details of the assignment, but I remember after I made my presentation, she said with astonishment that she has never heard such a perspective in all her time as a teacher.
Dyslexia the Gift
All of this leads to why, despite my struggles, I now see dyslexia as a gift.
Due to the fact that I need to read things multiple times and meditate on everything, I have a very good memory. This became useful when I began to read the Bible multiple times in my late teen years. I was able to retain even the most minor of details because I found them interesting when I read them. Like I mentioned before, I had to re-read things multiple times and meditate. This is why as a 19 year old, I knew things like Solomon was supposed to be named Jedidiah (2 Samuel 12:25), or that left-handed people were gifted with slingshots (Judges 20:16). It sounds odd, but dyslexia makes my memory better than it would be without it.
Dyslexia also brings a very artistic perspective of life, connecting things that do not seem to be connected. Since I am first and foremost a man who is theologically-minded, I have a theological example. When I first read Genesis 22, I didn’t immediately see Isaac as the type of Christ (which is the classical understanding), I saw the “ram caught in the thicket by its horns” as representative of Christ. Why? Because I immediately saw what links the two figures: a crown of thorns. Such an understanding I believe adds another layer of depth to the story. It is this kind of thing that comes naturally to me, and I think that is because of my dyslexia (being right-brained).
I do still struggle with the negative sides of dyslexia, but there are workarounds now. Audiobooks and Podcasts are perfect for dyslexic people. With the growing research around this mysterious abnormality, hopefully schools will adapt accordingly and understand that dyslexia is something that requires a different teaching method.
Perhaps there are other left-handed right-brained dyslexic people out there that would read this and be encouraged. Overall, I am thankful for the way God made me, even though I exist in a world that is structured in a way that is contrary to my nature.