College Board President Gaston Caperton Speaks Out on Living with a Learning Disability
“If a learning disability doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” revealed College Board President Gaston Caperton at the NYU Child Study Center’s fourth annual Jeffrey Katz Memorial Lecture organized by Founder & Director, Dr. Harold Koplewicz. Speaking to a packed auditorium of parents, many of whose children have learning disabilities, Caperton talked about his own battle with dyslexia, diagnosed while he was attending fourth grade in West Virginia. “It’s pretty hard on your self-esteem when you’re getting a 50 on a spelling test and your friends are getting 100,” he confessed. Caperton later rose to become a two-term governor of West Virginia and was appointed eighth president of the College Board in 1999, overseeing dramatic changes to the nation’s premier college admissions test, the SAT.
Explaining how he became so successful with what might have been deemed a severe setback, Caperton was quick to praise his parents’ support. “My mother always told me, ‘You’re as smart as your sister but in a different way.’ My sister never got a grade lower than an ‘A’ and got Phi Beta Kappa in college, but I still believed my mother!” Caperton’s father taught him to memorize words out of a dictionary—“I grew to hate that dictionary”—but he ultimately became a prolific reader. “I always have a book with me now,” added Caperton. In high school, he flunked three courses and his teacher recommended that he not re-enroll. Yet his father advocated for him, and Caperton not only retook and passed the three exams, but he made the “high list,” or honor roll, surprising both himself and his teachers. “My favorite teacher said to me, ‘If you can make the high list, anyone can.’ I laughed, but it wasn’t really funny,” recalled Caperton.
It’s a long way from almost flunking out of high school to the Governor’s Mansion, and Caperton was quick to admit that “school is the hardest part of life” for someone with dyslexia. “I haven’t had to take a spelling test [since school.] I don’t have to read out loud. I can dial a telephone and nobody knows if I miss three out of the ten digits,” he laughed. Noting that he has a much easier time ad-libbing his speeches —“it takes me four times longer than anyone else to read a speech out loud”—Caperton added that the hardest challenge he deals with today are the self-doubting voices in his head “that always show up when I don’t want them to.” But he’s learned to overcome those nagging fears, like the time he went for a job interview and “halfway through the interview, I got a voice in my head saying, ‘Do you think they’re going to check my SAT scores?’ Fortunately, they didn’t, and I got the job!”
In his engaging down-home style, with just the slightest hint of a Southern drawl that belies his West Virginia roots, Caperton offered up advice for parents with children who have a learning disability. His five step plan? Appreciate life. Have a good sense of humor. Allow your family to become closer as a result. Realize the power of grace, of love without earning it. And lastly, be inspired by leaders who have had dyslexia, including Thomas Edison, Harry Bellafonte, and Nelson Rockefeller.
Caperton has put his money where his mouth is, leading the College Board in its creation of five lab schools currently enrolling 1000 underserved middle and high school students in low-income New York City neighborhoods, with 1000 more students scheduled for enrollment next year.
The schools, which receive additional support from the Gates and Dell Foundations, each embody four key underlying principles: high expectations, people who believe in the students, hard work, and no excuses.
And if there’s anyone who can lead the charge on behalf of struggling students, it’s Gaston Caperton, who knows all too well how hard it is to stay in school.#