When I started this blog, I wanted to share my struggle as a writer to get published. But I haven’t been completely honest… or rather I haven’t told you my whole story. I started out by telling you about the first novel I wrote, but that’s not where my writing journey truly began.
Please forgive me if this sounds self indulgent - believe me IT"S NOT. It is my only intention to tell this very private story in the hopes it might help someone else by doing so.
I was always different from other people in my family. I didn’t speak until I was two years old. My parents were worried that something was wrong, as the youngest of seven, they found it very strange that I didn’t use the typical baby-babble of mamma, dada, baba etc. though doctors reassured them that I could speak and I would, in my own time.
Finally, something bothered me enough to verbalize my feelings out loud. I was watching Mr. Rogers on TV and the rabbit ears (yes, I’m that old) were directed improperly and the picture was rolling up and up and up until finally I marched into the other room where my parents were playing spoons with a large group of friends, I put my hands on my hips and said, “What is wrong with the horizontal lines on the television?”
I remember this well, because a dozen or so spoons fell to the table with a crash and startled me, I thought I was in trouble. Of course for a two year old who’d never said so much as boo, this must have been a shock. I was deemed the baby genius.
A year after that I was kicked out of my Montessori School… for not being socially ready to attend. I managed to survive kindergarten and first grade. Frustrated that I wasn’t learning anything in the public education system, my parents enrolled me in a private school where I was promptly held back to repeat first grade.
After a year of [very expensive] private school my parents decided it [I] wasn’t worth it and tossed me back into public school where my friends had moved onto third grade and I was headed to second. This was the year my struggle really began.
My teacher, Mr. Webber, was kind and patient with me as I tried to learn to spell and read, though I could barely read the word the. And then came IQ testing. I remember the tests, I devoured the puzzles and questions – because I didn’t have to read them, they were given verbally – I was actually able to answer the questions. I felt smart. A few weeks later my parents got a phone call from the school, telling them I’d won a national award for my “above genius IQ” and Mensa wanted to meet me and test me again.
My parent’s response, “She’s not that smart, she’s been held back and kicked out of schools. She can’t even read.”
I was in the hall when they told the principal they weren’t interested in Mensa testing me, “but thank you for the award…” they said. I was not allowed to know my score; they thought it would go to my head. They didn’t want me to think I was smart, when clearly… I wasn’t.
And so it went. Third grade, couldn’t read, couldn’t write [well I could, it was just mirror image backwards] while the rest of the class was learning cursive. I also couldn’t do math, couldn’t remember my multiplication tables, and I couldn’t follow the steps to do long division. But somewhere along the line the teacher realized if she asked me a math question, I could answer. And still I failed every test. Conference after conference for the next two years, teacher’s told my parents I was lazy and dumb even though I clearly wasn’t because I could intelligently communicate verbally. I was labeled obstinate and disobedient, difficult and unfocused. My fourth grade teacher took me in the supply room to slap me after a spelling test because I misspelled my own last name, an offense she saw as a sign of me being deliberately stupid.
During this time in my life, I lived in an imaginary world. I retreated inside myself and made up characters that played with me in the woods behind my house. I was tomboyish and I broke almost every bone in my body… I didn’t understand why a tree house thirty feet above ground wasn’t a good idea; my imaginary friends thought it sounded great.
Sometime during my fifth grade year, my mother found some Winnie the Pooh record/book combos and thought I might enjoy listening to the stories since I couldn’t read them. I don’t know how she figured it out, but after I listened to those records a gazillion times while following along in the book, I could not only read the books, but I knew the words. My mother rushed to tell my teacher and through their collaborative efforts the school had me tested for dyslexia.
“Ah ha! She’s not dumb, she’s handicapped.”
The term “learning disability” didn’t come along until way later.
Seriously, people just didn’t know enough about dyslexia to help. But at least now I had a label, which unfortunately only gave my teachers an excuse for no longer bothering to teach me. But in their ignorance, came my literary salvation and the keys to freedom from dyslexia. While the rest of my class was learning as a group, I sat in the corner of the room – alone – on a beanbag chair with my head phones and a book. I must’ve listened to a thousand books that year.
Side note: People still ask me how I learned to read with dyslexia on my own. I have to answer the best way I can, I tell them words are like a puzzle to me. I don’t see the picture as individual pieces, but rather as a collective whole. If you ask me how to spell something for you, I will have to write it down first because only my hands know what letters go in each word. My brain doesn’t have a clue. The unexpected bonus to this is that I can read from long distances because I don’t need to see the letters to recognize a word. I see it as a series of high and low shapes, each word has its own look.
And viola! I could read.
Albeit, very slowly.
It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to read, anything! The first book I read completely on my own, was Are You There God? It’s Me Margret by Judy Bloom. It took me about five months. Then I read Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey, it didn’t get any easier or faster, I had to fight for every story, but it didn’t matter, reading was worth it. Inside each word I learned something… something about the world, something about me and something about other people who didn’t grow up like me.
Although school was a little a better after that, it certainly didn’t fix everything. Math and I still didn’t get along and I still couldn’t spell. Teachers in junior high saw that obnoxious award in my file and wondered why I didn’t have incredible grades and why my paper’s looked like a two year old had written them. I did excel in music though, my first A! I played multiple instruments, despite not being able to read a single note, I never told anyone.
And then somewhere along the line, a teacher told me I was good at creative writing and that I had a “big imagination.” Then another told me that my vocabulary and comprehension were very high for my age, that if I could just work on my grammar, punctuation and spelling I would have a good paper.
That seed laid and festered for years before sprouting up in college seventeen years later.
Three weeks into High School, I realized I was in way over my head. I dropped out my freshman year.
I do not recommend this.
I don’t blame my parents or teachers for their lack of support or understanding. There just weren’t enough resources for anyone to help me.
This is why I’m sharing my sad, shameful secret now. I say shameful, because that’s how I’ve treated it.
I have carried this around with me my whole life, even though I’ve been to college and hold two degrees and I’m working on a third. I’ve made the Dean’s list, the President’s list and my GPA is 3.78.
Still, in the back of my mind, I am still the Dumb, Lazy Genius.
Today, that changes!
I have decided I’m not going to wear those labels anymore.
I’m done hiding. I’m done being too afraid someone will find out that I have dyslexia, that no one will want to publish me or read my books because of it.
If all of these brilliant people can achieve what they’ve achieved, then so can I.
If you know someone that struggles with learning, please help them break free from the labels. Dyslexia doesn’t have to be a prison.
If you think you’re a Dumb, Lazy Genius too, check out Mensa.
Thanks for reading this nobody’s fight to overcome the walls of dyslexia.