This is an excerpt from a talk I gave on my experience with Dyslexia in the American Public Health System in the 1960’s for a Learning Disabilities Podcast
When I recall the most memorable events of my childhood education, one in particular, comes immediately to mind. It was the late-1960’s in small-town Maine at our local public school, and I was standing at the chalkboard (we had chalkboards back then, with real chalk). I became acutely aware of the laughter behind me. I stood there at the teacher’s demand, trying to figure out how to correctly punctuate and spell a short sentence, although today I cannot recall what. I remember only the laughter and the look on my teacher’s face.
As if a reprieve the bell rang, and I could hear the rest of the 5th-grade class shuffling out to the waiting buses. I had been standing at that same board for nearly an hour, in fact, since the beginning of English class. I had been called to the board (despite being one of the few students who had not his hand) to correct the spelling and punctuation of a sentence that the teacher had written on the board. I could not amend the words or the punctuation because, at that time, I could barely read. I was not sure of the spelling of any word, save my name (My mother had taught me to spell it when I was five, and I had practiced it over, and over again out loud, much to her dismay I am sure). Apart from my name, I just could not spell anything. I would often reverse letters and numbers; my math skills were far below my grade level. Had I not possessed an incredible memory, I would not have gotten as far as I had.
My friend Roy, whose last name began with the letter G, was always seated next to me in the small classes of the time. Roy was brilliant, or at least more intelligent than I was. We walked partway home from school together, as he lived one street over from me. As I mention, it was a tiny town. Roy knew of my limits and allowed me to peek at his work, enough to get by with a “D-” or perhaps, with some concentration, a “D.”
On that rainy afternoon, standing at the chalkboard, Roy could not help me. No one could. Instead, they laughed. The teacher, whose name is not essential to this story, quietly sat at her desk and glared at me. After the rest of the class had exited the room, she explained to me how disgusted she was with me. She informed me that I was a stupid child; stubborn and willful.
As she explained it, she had hoped the embarrassment I felt at the chalkboard would have snapped me out of it. It was for my good. It always seemed to be for my good. Why was it that it only created hatred of education and educators in me? How could that torment and terror be for my good? It made no sense to me, but as it had been said, more than once, I was slow, and perhaps as my 3rd-grade teacher had told my mother, retarded.
My experience, at least this particular one, took place many years before the term learning disability had entered the vernacular, at least in rural Maine. Today, I very much doubt that any teacher would behave in that manner, at that time at least, she was hardly the first or only person to explain to me in plain and simple terms that I was not a normal person. By junior high, it seemed apparent to my teachers that I was not deliberately trying to fail. Fail I did. I failed in spelling, English, maths; you name it. I flunked it. I remember in seventh grade receiving four “F’s” on my report card my first term.
My father explained that I was expected to bring my grades up, and I was grounded for the ranking period. To be honest, This was pale compared to the usual abuse we received at the hands of my father, yet it would be impossible for me to accurately describe the way I felt being blamed for my poor performance. I tried to explain to anyone I thought might listen that I had tried as hard as I could but just could not understand what they asked of me. There was more than one discussion of holding me back to repeat the grade. And then again the next year. Nothing came of it apart from causing my mother anxiety. I struggled and cheated enough to bring my classes up to a D-. My math teacher felt sorry for me, which is evident in her grading for the next two semesters. She gave me every break she could. My spelling had still not improved, and how I managed to spell any word correctly was a complete enigma.
I continued to squeak by until tenth grade. After attempting to comprehend algebra and having yet to understand basic math, and being ridiculed by my math teacher and having a book thrown in my face, I walked out of class, out of the school, and never went back. I very much doubt that anyone in the administration was sorry to see me go, as I had begun by the middle of the ninth grade to be as big a nuisance as possible. I smoked cigarettes (often in school) I drank beer in the parking lot daily, I flooded bathrooms by stuffing toilets with paper towels, I pulled fire alarms.
I had found a group of students, most were 2-3 years older, who were both willing and able accomplices in mayhem. I attended school only to meet up with friends. By now, my parents had pretty much given up on me, as had my teachers. I knew education was not for me, and at age 16 I was free to get a job and enter the workforce. Of course, without a high school education, the roles were narrowed down a bit, and work as a laborer for a construction company was about all that I could find. A year or so later, I managed, barely, to complete a General Equivalency Diploma, or GED
The GED was supposed to be equal to a high school diploma, but I can tell you without hesitation, at least back in the mid-1970’s it was not even close. And, it seems this was common knowledge because even with my G.E.D the job market did not change. I managed to become a dedicated construction worker. Still, I changed jobs every 2-3 years out of boredom. While I managed to stay employed through most of the 1970’s and 1980’s, I did not enjoy the work, and always hoped that somehow I could do more with my life.
Just three months before my twenty-eighth birthday, a scaffolding I had been working on collapsed, and a fall of some 20 feet or so landed me in the hospital. I have fractured my neck in two places, cracked several ribs, and lost much of the sensation in my left side. After two surgeries to replace vertebrae and a plate and screws to hold it all in place, my doctor told me that it would be unrealistic to consider going back to work in the construction field.
I was a slow-witted 30-year-old with no job and no future. Because the injury had occurred at work, my company insurance policy had paid or the surgeries and my salary for the past two years. I was told I qualified for vocational rehabilitation, and I went to visit a professional rehabilitation counselor named Dianne. She was very friendly and seemed genuinely concerned for me. This compassionate and concern were primarily alien to me. The effort she spent on my behalf would never be forgotten. She mentioned to me that I might make a good counselor, and I mentioned this to the vocational psychologist she had ranged for me to visit. However. Dr. S. explained to me somewhat matter-of-factly that someone with my education and background was unrealistic in my wishes to attend a college of any kind.
I recounted the discussion I had had with Dianne about becoming a counselor. She thought that, with help, I might be able to earn an associates degree in some field of social services or counseling. He explained that the desire to go to college must match ability and I simply lacked that ability. He was the expert. I left the final meeting with Dr. S. angry, mostly at myself, at how unfair it was that I had such big thoughts but no intelligence. True, I had a steady income from disability as Dr. S. had pointed out, but at just 30 years of age, my future looked bleak, at least in my opinion. But unlike my childhood, I had someone who believed in me.
I had met and married Cathy just a year before my injutry, and when I returned home from my last meeting with the vocational psychologist and explained what he had advised, she suggested I ignore the advice of the experts.
I began by applying to an associate degree program at my local college in human services. It was a struggle to be sure, but with nearly eidetic memory, and the aid of tutors, I finished the first semester with an average GPA. During the spring break while I studied for the upcoming term in the school library, I had the chance to chat with some students who were in the Special Education Program. It was then that I learned about learning disabilities, and one or two of the students suggested that I look into it. I arranged for testing through the school, and within a month or so I heard the word for the fist time: Dyslexia. They taught me a few tricks, such as speed reading (where you read only every other word), and computer programs such as dictating software that assist in writing. Math remained a problem until in my forties I stopped looking at it as “Math” but a symbolic language. Then it made perfect sense.
After my first year in the associate degree program, I transferred to the four-year bachelor’s program at the University of Maine at Farmington, graduating in just two years with a BA in Psychology. I went go on to graduate school, earning a MSHS in Community Health Psychology, a M.Div, with a concentration in history and ancient language, and a Graduate Degree in Family Therapy.
After working in the fields of Community Health Psychology, and Behavioral Psychology, I returned to graduate school, this time pursuing public health. I earned an MPH, before entering the Ph.D. in Public Health, where I concentrated in Epidemiology (graduating at the top of my classes). Since completing my Ph.D., I have concluded post two graduate programs, in Clinical Research Administration and Applied Risk Management, and I am currently enrolled in a MHA program where I am at the top of my class.
In the time since Dr. S. made his pronouncement, I have graduated at or near the top of my class nine times, written and published five books on topics as diverse as evolutionary biology, religious history, and natural science. I have authored and coauthored dozens of journal articles on issues from healthcare to neurology and psychology and learning disabilities, and spoken at national and international conferences and symposiums on a host of topics.
I guess the moral of my story if there indeed is one, must be that when a person allows others, even the experts to define them, they are already handicapped. From the age of five until the age of thirty, I knew I was different. What that difference was, I had to find out for myself. I can only imagine what my life would be like today, had I followed the expert’s advice.