Over the holidays I have been reading, between wrapping packages, decorating the tree and visiting with friends and neighbors, the book, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain," by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide. While reading this book I have yelled in enthusiasm, cried real tears, wondered what might have been, and have been sad and positive in the same moment. It is a very positive book about dyslexia. It's about hope and opportunities for those that have this type of brain. I'll write more about this book in a future blog. What i plan to write today is an individual's background being a dyslexic--me. Problems, hopes, techniques, the sadness of it all...
The earliest I remember being in school was in second grade in Harrison, New York. I knew early on I was different--I had troubles with spelling words, with reading and in doing "my numbers." That's all I remember of the class except that the female teacher was big. Not fat, but a large grandmotherly type who was not friendly. That's what I remember. I also remember wanting to do well.
One of the subjects was spelling where we would get a number of new words on Monday. I forgot what we did during the week but there would be a test on the words on Friday with special paper, a thin strip with lines big enough for each word. We would write our name on the top and then print the words as the teacher spoke them. I guess most kids did well--I didn't and I would get "D's" and "F's". I remember asking my Dad to help me learn the words. He helped me each night for a week to write my words and he would make games of how to spell each word. I think there were twenty words.
On Friday I was ready. During that week I probably wrote those words at least a hundred times each! So when the teacher passed out those slips of paper for our spelling words, I was ready. She would say the word and I would write it down. When the test was over the teacher who had been walking around the class reciting the spelling words, looked at my paper and said that I had cheated. Then she had me clean out my desk looking for how I had cheated. There was nothing of course, but she was sure I had cheated. I don't know if Mom or Dad ever came to the school about this -- I doubt it. But at that point spelling became the bane of my existence.
It may have been in that same grade that I began to know I was different. Everyday some lady came for me, took me out of class and we went to some small room where she worked with me to learn how to read. I don't remember what she did with me but I did learn to read but differently from the rest of the class. I could not "sound out a word" but I could skim it and get the meaning from its relationship in the sentence. I will always be grateful for whatever that person did with me to get me to read.
But life did not get better even though I began to read a lot. With the help of my dad I did learn my multiplication tables up to the 9's. He made a Ferris wheel which he spun and I would have to give the answer of eight times ??? whatever the wheel would select. But the effort that we put into memorizing the numbers was astronomical as to what other kids did. I could see that. Maybe I was born without a complete brain!
On the other hand there were times when I could shine. Other kids had troubles with maps, I didn't. I loved maps and made up stories about the places on the maps. And I could draw better then most kids. I would illustrate my papers with drawings.
I was already a member of the boys choir at church and could sing in tune. And I could read music so that in the public school I did well in music--better then my peers. I figured I just had more practice then the other kids but I did like music and art.
So a quick summary at this point in my school career--I could read reasonably well except when the teacher asked me to sound out a word. Phonetic reading was beyond me...I couldn't see the letters by themselves. I was terrible at numbers except for the times tables. I had troubles adding large sums but if I took my time I could do them. But a time test was my undoing. Spelling was also terrible but I learned to use a dictionary fairly well. But well into my early college days I could not spell. Papers I had written for my music professors would come back with rather nasty comments.
However, it was World War II and my family moved many times to adjust to war work. I had eight different schools by the eighth grade. So I suspect some things got over looked during my grade school days (up to the eighth grade--no middle school)
I ended up in the sixth grade in Richland, Washington, a war town. I would impress the teachers by my reading abilities and I would escape by being quiet and not causing problems.....just read about far away places. But I had problems with left and right. We learned to march but I was always turning the wrong way. One day we had physical education outdoors by playing softball. As usual I would be one of the last to be chosen, a horrible fate for a sixth grader. My side was up to bat and it was my turn. I remembering almost begging in my mind, "let me hit the ball well..please!" AND I DID! I was thrilled and ran to third base, then on to second--when the teacher stopped the game and took me by my hand and in front of the entire class, walked me to the first base, then the second and finally the third and then home...saying something to me about not paying attention or not being serious about playing the game. I don't remember playing before this time and first and third looked the same to me. It probably was the reversal feature that dyslexics have that caused me to "go wrong." To this day, this is probably the most humiliating and embarrassing moment in my life. In front of the whole class. I still remember it with great detail even though it was sixty eight years ago. Sad.
I got through high school by taking mostly music and art courses. I don't know how I got through two years of Spanish--it was a memory course. And I stayed away from courses that I realized would take much memory like chemistry. Algebra was difficult for two reasons, left and right and my eyes were going bad. At the end of algebra I got glasses which pretty much have not been off me since. One thing I did in high school was to take courses in which memory was not crucial. So I took typing I and II and machine equipment. It was for girls wanting to become secretaries. Because there was no rule I got registered in those classes. Strange because those skills have become my most important muscular skills that i have. Who would have know that keyboarding would be important.
Strangely enough I graduated near the top of my class but it was a large class. Other kids made me look good. Sometime during my junior year I remember "talking" to myself. Taking stock so to speak. I knew I was good but in what I didn't know. I knew I could think but then again, why couldn't I do math? I knew memory was a big fault of mine. I could remember strange things in my past but I couldn't remember a phone number. I could write down the first three numbers but then I would have go back and look at the final four before I could write them down. I could memorize a complete musical phrase on my trumpet but I couldn't memorize the capitals of the states. I could tell the story of Lewis and Clark, the problems and help they got but I couldn't remember the years they did it. I was sure my brain was defective in some manner.
But I liked people and thought for a while about becoming an Episcopal priest. But I was not sure about religion. I then turned to becoming a music teacher. I felt that I could have done just as well as the teachers that I had in high school. My goal then was to become a high school music teacher.
College had it's ups and downs. I had a lot more required courses such as geology, biology, psychology, history, and.....math. But I also had band, jazz band, marching band, choir, music composition, directing....and individual music lessons on different instruments. My favorite courses were in education. I was home! I know now it was not the greatest education but it fitted me well. Of those earlier courses I learned much on how to study.
In one Education course an assignment during the Thanksgiving break was to visit a school and write a report about it. I visited a brand new school and took black and white pictures of all the new ideas the district and the architect had designed into the school building to improve learning. Back at college I pasted the pictures on sheets of paper and then wrote about what each picture was about. An intro and ending and I was done. Lot less words then were required for the assignment but I took a chance. It paid off. The prof was delighted with my report and spent an entire class presentation talking about the importance of the building to learning. I "A" that assignment and learned that I could report without words all the time. I continued with that trend.
This was in 1951 to 1955. Dyslexia was not know at that time and universities and colleges really didn't care if you were a handicapped person. You were on your own. So I learn to cope. One of the things I did was to type all my papers. Most everyone else at the time were hand writing their papers.
Let's jump ahead here to the early 1960s. I had gone to war (Korean) and had returned. The district was going to fire the music teacher who replace me but I negotiated with them to keep me as a fifth grade teacher as we would need two elementary music teachers in the near future. They were happy with this arrangement and so I began my elementary classroom career.
During the spring of that first year I elected to go to a workshop for several weeks in the late afternoons after school in the Renton School District. In those days teachers had to acquire some many "credits" within five years to gain their fifth year certification. I was trying to pick up a credit by going to a workshop on Dyslexia. All I knew about this new word was that it had to do with a learning disability that some students had. In the workshop we would learn to recognize the symptoms and develop some strategies on helping students overcome their deficiencies.
I don't remember much of the workshop however, I do remember the speaker listing the characteristics of children with dyslexia: poor readers, terrible spellers, bad in math, poor memory, appear to be lazy workers, talk a lot, do not write well. Shoot, that speaker was almost talking about me. Later on she passed out a test to identify dyslexics which we all took. Except I scored high on the test.
I went home that night quite upset. Although what I had learned that day at the workshop confirmed that I did learn differently they made it sound like I had a major problem. I wondered if they would allow me to continue to teach if I were a dyslexic? As research reports slowly were published on dyslexia I read everything that came my way. Most school districts really didn't know much about the learning problem so my job was safe. And we really didn't do anything for those students who like had dyslexia. It took several years to establish a policy of just recognizing the learning style and then scare the hell out of parents by telling them their child was dyslexic.
My personal feelings is that the elementary teachers tried different teaching/learning styles to see what they could do with a dyslexic child and passed that on their colleagues. I'm not sure if the high school contingent of teachers make any changes in their teaching behavior. If they did I didn't hear of those changes.
Part 2 will deal with my coming to terms with dyslexia, admitting that I had the learning style and being surprised at the result from others around me.