I distinctly remember how it felt in high school, sitting in my guidance counselor’s office, asking to sign up for physics. I had seen the lab, and wanted to learn how this stuff works. For, like many dyslexics, I love engineering and inventive thinking.
She told me I had the “aptitude but not the attitude” to handle the class. My I.Q. tests well, but I hovered as a mediocre C+ to B– student. She shook the I.Q test and pointed at the paper. I can still remember her frustrated silhouette against the window as I focused on the rattling paper. “What is wrong here? Why don’t you apply yourself?” The paper felt separate from me. Like it had been written about somebody else.
Instead of physics, I was placed in Basic Math – Intro to Algebra and Trigonometry for two years in a row. I sat in the same classroom with the same teacher explaining FOIL (first, outer, inner, last) to a group of marginal students. There we sat, five rows deep, (think: Bueller? Bueller?) wishing we were anywhere but in that room.
I could get the answers in a flash. I just felt the answer: it would arrive spontaneously in my head. I still can do that. But, no: you must show your work! Why should I go back and describe the steps when I already know the answer? I was reduced to a level of “inconsistent performance” when faced with the text – page after page of numbers that would glow white and blur together the harder I focused. I loved the stuff. I loved math. I wanted to consume the knowledge in the text immediately. But, I simply could not arrive on the page, and did not know why.
Bored and frustrated, I became distracted by the troublemakers and eventually joined them. They had room for someone like me. I embraced my new persona. Sharp kid with a bad attitude? Fine! Why not cut class and climb on the roof of the school? Why not sneak out to the nature trails behind the school during lunch? At least I felt good out there on the edge. Like I mattered. I could plan and dream – far away from the droning and obvious instruction of lower-level classwork.
And, obviously, I was not going to fit in with the smart kids. My smart friends had already moved on. They would be sweet to me in the hallways, and wave a warm hello, then return to their excited talk of attending open house weekend at Dartmouth.
Things Turn Around
This struggle actually ended up leading me somewhere really good. My parents* (who were mystified by my lack of academic progress as I had shown promise in my early grades ) did not give up on my ability to succeed. They sent me to art school in Brooklyn, NY. There, for the first time, I was able to push my inquiry into inventive thinking. The school encouraged escaping to the roof! Strangely, I am not that into art. I know people who live and breathe art, who cannot wait to start their next painting. But I threw myself into the creative aspect of the work, as it was the only path on which I could find success.
All the while, however, I lurked around the Industrial Design students, checking out their projects. I gazed upon the austere Engineering Building with the brick facade. I was impressed. But the message had been drilled in early and deep: those realms are not for you. You are not a math person. You do not have the right attitude for physics.
As I entered adulthood, I allowed these messages to hold me back from my potential. I excelled on the job, but kept myself in positions where there was not too much at stake. I did not really trust myself, and politely turned down promotions. But my desire to be inventive never left.
An interesting turn of events came when I entered the world of educational publishing. Now that’s an oxymoron: a dyslexic in educational publishing. Mind you, I still did not realize I was dyslexic at this point. It’s a good thing or I never would have entered the field.
I began in my usual way: hiding in a bank of cubicles, nose to the grindstone. I was a production artist. It took me two times as long** to complete work as others, but I also knew that my work was close to perfect. My lack of belief in my abilities had become a strength: I would check the work, then check it again… and then go back and check it again. I would hold pages up to a window as a makeshift light-box, one on top of the other, proofing down to the fraction of a millimeter. If one mistake was caught by the brilliant, eagle-eyed editors, I would blush and correct it immediately.
Then I started to move up. I was asked to illustrate, then rework a few page designs for clarity. Finally, someone suggested I design a new workbook series for a client. Fighting the inner voice yelling, “NOT ME! I COULD NEVER… ” I got to work. Goodness, did the new design take me forever. I would literally stare at the page until my field of vision faded to white.
But something clicked. To hear editors and clients say, “Yes, this really works.” Or, “This is readable,” finally made perfect sense to me. Something was working deep within my mind. My love for inventive thinking was at work.
I was engineering information onto a page in perfect order. Creating a simple machine for learning. Little did I know that I was designing, in essence, for myself. For believe me, if I can read and understand a specific page… ANYONE can.
I am now on a mission. I am on a mission to distill information into its simplest form so that it can be understood by all. Whether it be learning to write the letter A, or tackling coordinate geometry, I want these pages to be easy to enter, easy to embrace. I want the student to hold up a worksheet and say, “Oh yeah, I can do this.”
It has been a journey. Sometimes fun, sometimes disheartening, often confusing. But in the end there was a purpose to it all. And I get it. And I’m ready to take on more. Most importantly: there could be no greater reward than knowing that students may benefit from the work. Thanks and have an interesting day!
* My parents would have been devastated to hear how I was struggling. My struggles are not their fault in any way. As with many students with hidden learning challenges, I did my best to carry on as if nothing was wrong. I was too ashamed to speak up, and too discouraged to care. So I “faked it ’till I make-d it” and carried on as if there was nothing wrong.
**To my former clients: the extra work did not get billed. I worked as a freelancer, so I would hide the extra time it took me to put in by working after hours, and only bill for a reasonable number of hours.
Article focus: The journey from undiagnosed dyslexic to worksheet designer.