Language, in Depth: Living with Dyslexia
At my school, all of the kids in the third grade were asked to read a children’s book to the first graders. This program instilled a very real sense of, I don’t know, superiority, I guess. The age difference between first and third grade isn’t great, but in third grade you can read; it was a differentiator. Reading was imbedded into that sense of identity as a third grader; we were the “big kids,” and we were going to demonstrate it by doing something the first graders couldn’t.
Up until this point, I don’t think I had a full understanding that I couldn’t read like my classmates. I just knew that it was hard, and that was the extent of it. I thought it was like that for everybody. But when it came time for us to choose our books, I remember kids choosing these chapter books, the Magic Tree House series, to show off their reading chops; or maybe they were picking more simple books they had been able to read for a while, books that the first-graders were just learning to read.
So I went that route, picking The Cat in the Hat—except I couldn’t read it. I knew what the story was about because my parents always read to me at bedtime, and I had a pretty good visual memory of the book. I knew how many words there were on a page. The pictures somewhat corresponded with the words, and I could remember the pictures. So up until “reading day” I would have my parents read me that book, and I would try and memorize the story. I would try to remember the words that they were saying.
And then it came time to read the book aloud to the first-graders. And it was right then, when I was sweating, my hands shaking, fumbling for words . . . that’s when I knew. These kids were correcting me. They could read it. And I couldn’t.
That’s when it dawned on me that there was this structure, this hierarchy in the educational world—third-graders should be able to do things that first-graders couldn’t—and I didn’t have a place in it.
I was given the diagnosis in the fourth grade, and it came with such a profound sense of relief. Up until that point, I just felt that I wasn’t smart enough; I couldn’t do what the teachers felt I could do. So getting the diagnosis—that was the ultimate clarification that I was different, but that was good. Suddenly, there was a category that I fit into; I wasn’t alone.
Being diagnosed as dyslexic immediately gave me a sense of what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were. To get these laid out for me was so important because it told me that, OK, there are things I’m going to struggle with, but there are also things that I won’t struggle with. Before, I had no confidence; I just assumed everything would be a struggle.
I was so lucky that my mom was a teacher, because she never had the belief that there were “normal” kids and there were kids who didn’t fit that definition. She sees each kid as an individual learner. The concept that there’s a standard student and there’s a student who needs accommodations is ridiculous because there is no “standard” student. She inherently understood that. Up until my diagnosis, I might have felt alone at school, but never at home.
In high school, I loved studio art, and I think it was expected that because I was dyslexic and because I was good at art, that I’d go to art school. But I saw this as a copout, I saw this as running away from my dyslexia, of conforming to others’ beliefs in what I could or couldn’t do. I had this deep drive to prove to people that I could do academics. I was going to go to a rigorous liberal arts school! And then I was going to be a history major!
When I got here, I felt like Middlebury had taken a risk with me; I was a risky investment. I mean, I knew what I could do, but how could they know for sure? I had bad SAT scores, and I probably spelled some stuff wrong on the application. So I put pressure on myself to prove that kids with learning disabilities, kids who don’t do well on the SATs, can contribute a lot to the community—they can be creators, innovators.
At first I thought that meant excelling in areas I wouldn’t normally excel in and limiting myself to one studio art course a semester—things like that. And I did well. But then I wondered, Why am I not doing what I really want to do? I remember being told that I was going to reach a point in my life when I’d be able to do the things that I wanted to do, that I wouldn’t always have to work so hard to overcome my learning difference.
But there’s no guy standing on the corner saying, “You know that point? It’s happening right now.” You have to come to that realization yourself, and I think this is especially difficult for people with learning differences. When do you shed off that stuff that you have to do?
I think I’ve spent a long time feeling not so great about myself; there are self-esteem issues deeply embedded in working within other people’s expectations. And if you are not doing what you really want to do, not playing to your strengths, then the validation you receive is completely external, and you never feel satisfied.
I’m still working through it. But I’m a studio art major now, though I might minor in history.
Living with dyslexia . . . it’s hard. But from my experience, you have to own it. It’s who I am. It’s always going to be me. Understanding this is essential in order to be happy as a human being.