It was 1980. I was just turning 8 years old. I could not read, write or do any arithmetic. No, I was not an orphan or growing up in the developing world … It was the Upper West Side of NYC and my parents are creative entertainment professionals – we had a nice middle class life.
My Montessori school teachers, sweet as they were, missed all the cues and I was very creative in my answers. Fooling them was easy. I would even sit in the “Reading Area” for the free periods and mimic all the other kids reading. I was not reading. I was looking at the pictures and gleaning the stories from the adventurous illustrations of Dick and Jane. Lucky for me there weren’t any math quizzes.
Enter 3rd grade.
This meant a new school and books without pictures. I was screwed.
There was a test called the ERB which was the key to a shiny new school, but the test was opaque. There were no pictures, just a mess of black symbols and a pretty pink slip with lots of bubbles on it. We were instructed to fill in the bubbles with our new #2 pencils. The prompter read some of the questions aloud. “Ms. Chapman please stand up. How do you spell People?” I was stunned. Everyone was looking at me. My palms went clammy. What should I say? .. the truth.. “Miss, I don’t know enough people to be able to spell them for you” and I sat down quickly feeling proud of myself until I saw her frowning face. That was not the answer. She thought I was being obstreperous. What she did not know is, I genuinely did not understand her question, I thought she wanted me to explain people to her. It was such a fancy test after all.
The real truth is I could not have spelled out the letters P-E-O-P-L-E with a gun to my head. I had only just learned to spell “Friday” and was still pretty pumped about it. Why couldn’t she have asked me about that?
My new school was torture. I did not understand the other kids and they did not understand me. My classes were opaque, confusing and frustrating. I kept hearing about my potential, intelligence, verbal skills and precociousness .. but I was failing badly. The adults faces would always go grey and sour when talking about my school performance.. I knew something was wrong. I knew something was wrong with me.
What came next was a wash of testing. My memory of this is like a photo montage in a movie.. There were hearing tests, vision tests, physicals, neurological tests and IQ tests with blocks. My parents did not inform me what all the fuss was about, so I went through thinking that maybe all kids got to do this. You know what? I am not “retarded” or as we would say in today’s terms “On the spectrum”
A brand new diagnosis had emerged in mainstream called Dyslexia.
Here is the official definition:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
The short of it: trouble reading, writing and learning math. Other symptoms include having no sense of direction or time and trouble learning a foreign language. The upside? Creative out of the box thinking.
I often joke that English is not my first language, Dyslexia is, so learning a third like French, chemistry or math is really too much to ask.
Anyway, since it was so new, getting help was not easy or cheap. I was promptly asked to re-do third grade. A huge blow to my confidence and in my mind rendering anyone who ever commented on how smart I was as a liar and moron. What good was being smart? A cascade of tutors and therapists followed. I think at one time I had tutoring three times and therapy once a week. One of my tutors was in this really bad part of town (Chelsea in 1981 was not pretty) and her house smelled like cats.. Another would act books out with me using Smurfs, that if I completed my reading, I would get to keep. (Remind me to tell you the Othello story) I hated going to them, but without them and their infinite patience I would never had made it through school or found my way into Milan Kundera’s beautiful novels.
Eventually I got the hang of it and went on to Bennington College and The American University in Paris. Turns out doing school is building a series of habits, like everything else. Reading is still slow, math is for calculators and my fabulous book keeper.. writing requires drafts and thank god for Siri for everything else.
The biggest advantages Dyslexia gives you are profound coping mechanisms and solutions for everything in daily life. My son said to me the other day, “Mom, you are really good at this adult stuff.” I credit my Dyslexia, at least in part, for that and I am grateful.
#Dyslexia #DyslexiaAwarenessMonth #BenningtonCollege #Adulting #Education #LearningDisabled #Neurodiversity