Confessions of a closet dyslexic
I've been faking it for 69 years, always aware that I could be exposed at any time as a fraud. I spent 30 years as an educator in Maryland's Montgomery County School System, but no one ever recognized me for what I am. Now I can say it without shame: I am a dyslexic.
Most people probably don't realize how bruised and battered a dyslexic can feel in a world where almost everyone else knows how to spell and read. Many of us learn to get by quite well, but we feel the pain inside and keep the secret to ourselves.
Of course, I had a lot of trouble when I was in school. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the hang of spelling and reading. When I'd ask teachers how to spell a word, they would always say, “Look it up in the dictionary.” They didn't realize that I didn't have the foggiest idea where to begin. If you don't know how a word starts or how to sound it out, how can you look it up in the damn dictionary?
When I was asked to read aloud in class, other kids laughed. I solved that problem by developing a great left hook to use on the playground. If I read and spelled as well as I fought, I would have been an A student.
I didn't enjoy reading as I trudged through elementary school, but I could do it. I read very slowly and remembered everything I read. When I read, I focused on every word, no scanning, no jumping over groups of words. Taking tests, I not only answered the question but also remembered the page and the paragraph where I had read the information. My recall was good, but I had trouble keeping up with my work.
After struggling through 11 years of school, I dropped out and joined the Navy. I was 17, and World War II was in full swing. After the war, I finished high school at Veteran's High School in Washington, D.C., which was staffed with outstanding teachers who cared. They seemed to be proud of us and addressed each student as “Mister.” Being treated with respect and dignity by my teachers was new to me, and it opened my mind to learning. I got excellent grades. That was a memorable year.
In college, I found new ways of covering for my dyslexia, and I never told a soul. I got through with trickery and skullduggery; I became a great con man. I tried to take only courses with multiple-choice exams. In classes with papers, I asked my girlfriends for help with spelling and proofreading. I graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in education; no one knew I couldn't spell.
As a teacher, I continued to find ways to hide my poor spelling. I always got to school early and copied my notes onto the chalkboard before students arrived. That was the only way I could be sure I spelled all of the words correctly. I became a master of abbreviations. When the principal asked me to fill out a report or do some paperwork, I always had an excuse why I couldn't do it right then. I did the work at home, then my wife checked it for spelling mistakes.
My sense of humor got me out of a lot of tight spots, and I could change the subject of conversations in the wink of an eye. I was never “caught” at my game, but I constantly feared that a parent would find out and say, “No wonder my son can't spell, his teacher can't spell either.”
While I was teaching, I recognized the kids who knew the material but didn't test well. They were just like I was in high school. I would frequently ask those kids to stop by after class for a talk: “I know that you're a good student and that you know the answers,” I'd tell them. “Would you like to come by after school and take the test orally?”
This was against the rules, but I knew these kids understood biology. They had been penalized enough for their spelling and writing; they just needed a little more help. I know those kids learned more about biology—and felt better about themselves—because they could relax and give me the answers they knew. It was an opportunity for them to experience a well-deserved success rather than another failure. They passed my tests and eventually passed my course.
After several years as a biology teacher, the board of education offered me a job in pupil services, helping kids with problems. To get the job, I needed to finish my master's degree in education. My con-artist ways served me well in graduate school. Every time I walked into a seminar, I sat at the back of the classroom. When the professor asked, “Please write the class comments on the board,” I wanted to be as far away from that chalkboard as possible. By then I had severe arthritis, so if I was asked to write on the board, I used the excuse that my hands were stiff. I was terrified that I would write something and that someone would say, “Aha! We always knew you were a dummy. You can't even spell. Get out of this class and go back to 3rd grade.” Everyone has his or her own demons.
I finished graduate school without anyone's discovering my secret, just as I had made it through teaching high school biology and working in pupil services. Looking back, I believe that my dyslexia helped me treat my own students with compassion. But it also took a toll on me. I felt that there was something wrong with me, that the teachers who put me in the dummy class in elementary school were right all along. I was the teacher who couldn't spell, and sooner or later I would be found out. When I was a kid, people assumed that if you couldn't spell, you were stupid or lazy—or both. It's impossible to hear that message again and again and not begin to believe it.
Dyslexia isn't the source of shame it was some years ago, but teachers still need to be alert to the special needs of all their students. My goal as a teacher was to make each child feel that something worthwhile had happened to him or her each day; sometimes just a wink or a smile would do. Dyslexic children may not want teachers to uncover their secret, but that doesn't mean teachers shouldn't be sensitive to their unique needs. There are a lot of students out there who, like me, are still faking it after all these years.
Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 50-51