Confessions of an Undiagnosed Dyslexic
In 1963, when I was in second grade, my teacher told my mother that she (the teacher), didn’t have “the key” to get me reading. Can you imagine any teacher today being courageous enough to tell a mother that? I just thank goodness she did. Looking at my report card for that time, she wrote on Dec 20: “Jeffrey does not read on his grade level”. And again for the second report on April 17, 1964: “Jeffrey still needs help in reading but he is eager to learn”. Back then the word “dyslexia” was not known; I was just a “slow learner”. My mother being the involved parent that she is, found a local reading program that I went to every Saturday morning. I remember the classes being small, about fifteen kids, with the instructor talking very quietly and slowly. We would go over short reading comprehension articles and vocabulary. I’m not sure if he did anything else but after about six months, my reading had jumped to grade level. However, for all my public school education, I always read slowly.
In middle school, I had to repeat classes in Spanish and Geometry. The key that helped me pass and eventually excel in these subjects was entirely due to the teacher. My elderly Spanish teacher made me feel comfortable participating in class and went over the material slowly and repeatedly before moving on. I became, I’m almost embarrassed to say, the “teacher’s pet”. By the time of the final, I was very confident of doing well. Sitting in our seats, she gave the exam papers to the person sitting in front of me and walked passed me and gave the papers to the kid in back of me. I pointed out to her that she had missed me. She replied, “It’s ok, you don’t need to take it.” So, I just sat there throughout the period being a little anxious, watching all my other classmates take the test. In geometry, it was the same thing. By explaining the material slowly and repeatedly, I not only learned, but came to like all the proofs we did. I found a virtuous learning cycle was created: my feeling comfortable in class lead to more participation which lead to more learning which lead to being more comfortable, which lead to more participation, etc.
In high school I was never able to finish a chemistry exam and kept getting 50s and 60s on them. Finally, I went to the teacher and said I knew the material but couldn’t read all the questions and select the answer in the 50 minute time limit. He replied that he would pass me if I passed the Regents. Well, since the Regents was three hours, I remember getting in the high 80s, so he passed me for the course.
College was easier for me since you generally take courses you’re good at or at least interested in. My majors were psychology and art and my GPA was about 3.8 in those subjects. After college I tried getting an MSW but after six months both the university and I agreed to part ways. That was the absolutely lowest point in my entire life. They basically give you a lot of theory and then drop you into a setting and expect you to perform; in my case, first in one senior center then in another. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After thirty-six years I realize that their mode of instruction didn’t fit the way I learn. If I had been able to follow a senior MSW around and model what they did, I would probably have picked up what was required.
After that catastrophe, I looked around for what to do next. A friend of mine worked for Brooklyn College as a computer programmer. I was over his house one day and noticed a big CRT screen sitting on his desk. At that time (1980), there were no other people that I knew of who had these in their home. I asked him what it was for and he told me what he did at the college. I was intrigued. I ended up going to this two-month intensive programming course at NYU where three hundred took the entrance test but I became only one of the thirty people who were accepted into the class. It was the best $1500 I ever spent. I had a twenty-three year career and worked at many of the brokerages on Wall Street as well as for other companies doing different applications.
Fast forward eighteen years later and my son was going through the same thing in his school. He came home crying one day from school and told us he was “stupid”. Apparently, the class had a “surprise” for the parents when they came to school for Parents/Teachers Day where they would read poems out loud they had written themselves. His distress was that there were words he wanted to write that he couldn’t spell. My wife, who is a reading specialist, went to see her and told her all this and asked if she could work with it at home. The teacher said it was supposed to be a surprise, so no child could work on it at home. My wife then offered to come the next day and help my son with the poem and any other child who might need it. The teacher hemmed and hawed saying she didn’t know when she was going to do this and said they really didn’t emphasize spelling since they do “reading process” and the assignment was about “white spaces”. White spaces? We eventually found out this meant how the poem looked on the page. She was more concerned about the aesthetics in a class of second graders than their ability to spell. Knowing that the teacher also taught Tae Kwan Do Karate, my wife asked her if it would be alright to show kids a particular kick and then let them practice it on each other. She replied, “Oh no, that would be dangerous”. Why is direct instruction such anathema to today’s teachers? Do they believe teaching destroys creativity? I can’t think of any skill that I didn’t learn from actually being taught it: tying your shoes, telling time, tying your tie, driving a car, playing a musical instrument. When you first learn to play the piano, do you just hear a Bach symphony and then told to go play it? No, you first learn the scales and then play short musical compositions. Once you know the rules, you can “break” them. Then you can play jazz and create your own music. After this disaster at his school, my wife and I decided to open a school for dyslexic children in 1999 called The Sterling School. She and my son were interviewed by Marsha Kramer from CBS News. It wasn’t long after it aired that our phone started ringing off the hook. The first class consisted of just my wife, son, and four other students. Today we have between twenty-four and twenty-six students with many of them continuing on to college. When we get visits from our graduates, we ask them to send us their college banners to put up on our school wall to help inspire our current students. They need this inspiration because so many of them have had so much failure. I remember one student saying I couldn’t expect much of him because of his dyslexia. I replied that I didn’t accept that and he shouldn’t either. Once they are taught using the Orton-Gillingham approach to read, their self-esteem soars.
Recently, my wife attended a gathering in Albany, NY, because our Assemblywoman, Jo Anne Simon, was sponsoring bill A04330. Currently, dyslexia is not recognized or permitted to be written on a child’s IEP. Only a general “learning disability” is used. This bill “would require school districts to diagnose students as having dyslexia, to acknowledge the diagnosis on their Individual Education Plans (IEP), and to provide dyslexic students with teachers trained to instruct such students.” Hopefully, the bill will pass and children won’t have to go through the heartache that I or my son went through.#