Closet Dyslexic

Closet Dyslexic

by Kathleen Murphey

The teacher said, “We are going to read this story out loud. We will go around the room. Sam, you begin, please.”

My stomach flipped over. I hated reading aloud. I couldn’t do it. It made me nervous. Everyone was listening and then looking.

I knew I would mess up when it was my turn, and I did. I was so nervous. I tried to read the words on the page, but what I read obviously wasn’t what was on the page. I finished reading and looked up. The room was silent, and everyone was staring at me. I am not sure what I read, but I had obviously changed around the word order in my head and probably added in a couple of words that weren’t there for good measure. These were the kinds of mistakes people didn’t associate with sixth graders—but I was different from most sixth graders.

I looked normal: average build, long brown hair, fair skin, a twelve-year-old girl. But reading and writing were tricky for me. You could tell, if you knew what to look for, even when I was little. I turned letters and numbers and even entire words around: a five for an “s”; a three for an “e”; 89 for 98 and vice versa; “was” for “saw” and the same backwards. If it is true that children learn to spell phonetically, my own phonetic understanding didn’t correspond to anything that made sense to most people, especially adults. And get this, I couldn’t tell my left from my right—something most kids learned in kindergarten or first grade.

I didn’t tell anyone. I hoped people wouldn’t notice. But then there were incidents like reading aloud, and everyone could see—I was deficient, I was stupid.

I was a slow reader. When I got to words I didn’t know or couldn’t pronounce, I skipped right over them—and there were a lot of those. My father was sympathetic. He was patient with me. I would ask him what words meant and how to spell them, and he would tell me. It turns out, he was a slow reader. My mother had no patience; she was a fast reader and couldn’t relate to my difficulties. She would tell me to look a word up in the dictionary, but she didn’t understand. To top it off, I couldn’t process letters when they were fired off at me. I heard the first one or two, and then the letters fused together, and I wouldn’t grasp any of them. Dad learned to slow down for me. He would slowly spell the word out for me, so I could understand.

My special phonetics made using the dictionary a crapshoot. Letters and sounds that I heard in my head didn’t correspond to the words the dictionary authors understood. Was it “sighcology” or maybe “cyclology”? The dictionary was not my friend. An essential tool for most readers and writers—was indecipherable for me. Occasionally, I could guess right and find a word in the dictionary, but too often even glancing at a page was an exercise in frustration.

Most of the time, my struggles didn’t show. I was a slow reader, my spelling was horrible or “inventive” (a description that changed according to the temperaments of my teachers), and I skillfully avoided reading aloud. I was okay with math. I got by in school. Sometimes I even did well, but it was slow, plodding, and laborious work.

Packed on bookshelves in bedrooms, hallways, and my dad’s office, books were integral parts of my home. Dad, always supportive and patient, was a reader. I watched him read every day, doggedly reading through the books to stay current in his field, and he wrote too, but I didn’t understand that part very well. As much as I may have resisted reading, my constant exposure to books at home and in school made me realize, unconsciously at first, that I would need to make my peace with books and words. And I did. Slowly, gradually, I read and read and read, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Reading and writing were often struggles, but I improved.

When I was struggling with reading and writing as a child, I never realized that I was displaying symptoms of a known condition: dyslexia. There were other students who struggled with some combination of my symptoms to lesser or greater degrees, and teachers employed strategies to help kids like me. My dyslexia became apparent when my baby sister hit an academic wall in fifth grade. She had listened carefully and collected information so well that she hid her reading and writing problems—until fifth grade. In fifth grade, she couldn’t fake it any more. She was having trouble, and the extent of her reading and writing problems became apparent. It was devastating for her. My parents pulled her out of our school and sent her to a special school. The special school helped—but the emotional and psychological impact of needing an “intervention” to get her on track left invisible scars on her that took decades to heal.

My sister’s designation as a child who was dyslexic and learning disabled forced family members to consider patterns of reading and writing problems amongst our kin. It turns out that my grandfather had some struggles with reading and writing, and so did my father. Unusually, in our nuclear family, my sister and I had reading and writing difficulties; most of these patterns are associated with males. However, my brother seemed fine; my sister and I exhibited the symptoms. My family has theory about our cases of dyslexia. The theory is that we were all born left-hand dominant but switched and are right-handed. My grandfather, born just before the turn of the 20th century, was beaten until he used his right hand. As horrible as that might seem to us today, in the 1890s, your left hand was associated with the devil. It was common to force children to stop using their left hands for writing.

Although my father, sister, and I were never beaten into adopting right-handedness, we believe that we were born as lefties but were taught to do things and write by right-handed people. We then, consciously or unconsciously, suppressed our left-handed tendencies and became righties. One consequence of making this switch is the tendency toward dyslexia.

I don’t know whether this is a formal test or not—but you can test your predominant hand tendency in a simple way. Put your hands together and intertwine your fingers. One thumb will be on top. The thumb on top is your natural hand dominance tendency. My father, sister, and I put our left thumbs on top. Yet we all use our rights hands. In addition, if I try to intertwine my fingers the other way so that my right thumb is on top, it feels unnatural. Most people I know put a specific thumb on top and feel weird if they try to switch thumbs and positions. For most people, the thumb they put on top is the hand they write with. Not for all, though, and not for my sister, my dad, or me.

In the 1970s, girls were not expected to exhibit symptoms of dyslexia. Perhaps that’s why my sister and I weren’t diagnosed. I don’t know. However, I do know that the identification of dyslexia in my sister gave me a way to think about my own problems with reading and writing. It made me see myself as part of a group of people who struggled. I was not personally deficient. I was not as isolated and alone. It was also powerful to know my father had struggled and overcome reading and writing difficulties. If he could, perhaps I could. If I worked at it.

A transition happened in high school. I began to excel in English class, which meant literature, reading, and writing didn’t seem so enigmatic. Practice made the dictionary a little easier to use, although not always. My erratic spelling became less pronounced. I learned tricks for reading aloud in class. I would move my finger or pen under each word in the sentence so that I would focus on each word and read it in the order it was written on the page instead of allowing the sheer panic of the experience to scramble the words in front of my eyes. I still couldn’t tell my right from my left, but I started wearing a pearl ring on my left hand (the “l” in pearl for left) and a garnet ring on my right hand (the “r” in garnet for right). (I am a January baby, so I had a garnet ring, and I also liked pearls and had a pretty pearl ring.) So when people said left or right, I could glance at my hands and understand which way they meant; most of the time, I did this causally, and most didn’t notice.

I went to college and realized a whole range of things had shifted for me. I took college much more seriously than high school. The work was very challenging; so, I joined a study group—one of the best choices I ever made. We challenged each other and worked together. We pushed each other further than we would have traveled individually. I wish I had taken high school as seriously or at least thought of a study group back then.

When I was a child, the last thing I imagined I would do as an adult would be to spend more time in school. As the years passed, my childhood plans changed. I learned strategies to help me through school, strategies that worked for me and my special difficulties. I took lots of notes in class and reviewed my notes often. I heavily annotated my books so I knew where to find information later and which information was more important than other information. Perhaps if I had been identified as a “special needs” child, teachers might have given me special attention—instead of leaving me to sorting out what worked for me on my own. However, the children that I did know did not always receive positive special attention, including my sister.

Some teachers who work with special education kids really have high expectations for those students and help them. Other teachers are the inspirations for horror stories about low expectations and the self-perpetuating cycle of failure that some children are confined to. In addition to the teacher roulette of special education attention and labels, kids can be cruel. The stigma of being a student who requires special education is its own special burden. I don’t think my sister was teased, but being pulled out of one school and placed in a special school made her feel deficient in and of itself without the comments of her classmates and friends.

Along my educational journey, I went from just surviving in school to doing well in school. The coping mechanisms I employed—usually, getting help with spelling and writing from my father and allowing myself extra time to read anything—helped me through. And along the way, shifts in my learning occurred. Reading and reading and reading and writing and writing and writing made me a better reader and writer. I began to look forward to reading books and writing papers. I progressed from college to graduate school. I became a teacher of reading and writing. I have an undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees from an Ivy League university. My doctoral dissertation was 582 pages long.

I read and wrote through my reading and writing problems. At last the dictionary is my friend and an essential tool. I still am directionally challenged, but my rings tell me what I need to know. (I have replaced the pearl with a wedding ring on my left hand. The hand that doesn’t have my wedding ring is my right.) It wasn’t easy to overcome my reading and writing struggles—but most things worth having in life do not come easily. The important thing is to know what I did not when I began this journey: you are not alone, other people struggle with reading and writing, and they can move past those problems and be successful in life.

Do you know other people with reading and writing problems? What resources are available?

These are just a few sites that might be informational and inspirational. But there are a lot more out there.

Although, neither Adrienne Rich nor Malcolm X were dyslexic or learning disabled, both have written about the transformative power of reading and writing. Adrienne Rich wrote a poem about the importance of really learning to read and write, “As If Your Life Depended on It.” She begins the poem by saying,

You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job, grant, scholarship, professional advancement, fame; no questions asked as to further meanings. And, let’s face it, the lesson of the schools for a vast number of children—hence, of readers, is “This is not for you.”

Rich’s position is that children in school are taught the basics of reading and writing in school. However, children are not taught to be passionate about reading and writing and are not taught to understand that poor reading and writing skills will close off not only access to the great ideas of men and women all over the world but to professional and career advancement beyond a hidden glass ceiling of written articulateness. I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t internalized Rich’s message and began to read and write as if my life depended on it. Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” vividly comes to mind:

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

If I hadn’t improved my reading and writing, I would probably still be alive today. However, my life would have been vastly different and limited, just as my potential inarticulateness as a mother would have limited the futures of my children.

So read and write as if your life depended on it. Reading and writing may not come easily. They certainly didn’t for me, but I hope my story and the stories of others who have struggled will give you the inspiration you need to keep at it and at it and at it. When you are angry and frustrated in your attempts, you might think of Malcolm X who decided in prison to start with a dictionary and copy page after page to improve his vocabulary. He filled notebook after notebook, copying the dictionary from A to Z. With 1,000 to 1,500 pages or more in a standard college dictionary, imagine how long it took him to copy and to memorize the words he copied. Years? The struggle is often long and daunting, and it is all too easy to give up and just decide that reading and writing well are “not for you” or that you are “too cool for school.” Don’t give in. Don’t give up. Read and write as if your life depended on it. n

Kathleen Murphey is an English professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. Kathleen joined PhilWP as a teacher consultant the summer of 2008.

Kathleen started this piece in the journal she kept for the Summer Invitational Institute.